By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
Today I’d like to talk with you about growing old, and the opportunity it brings us. In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
What are the signs of growing old in our society? Retirement from the job. Relocating to a smaller home. Moving to a climate without snow. Having grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Getting a senior discount in certain stores. Noticing how young are the nurses and doctors, the police officers, and even the priests.
Old age can also have its shadow side. Struggling along on a fixed income. Experiencing a decline in health. Attending the funerals of your friends. As the average age in America increases, and as each of us grows older, all these signs take on greater significance.
Not all these features of growing older apply to everyone, of course. One person experiences one combination. Another person experiences a different combination. And this list is far from complete.
Among the missing is one feature of growing older that especially deserves our attention. It does not happen automatically, but comes as a gift to crown an entire lifetime. What I refer to us is spiritual experience, the rebirth that can happen in old age, what the writer Emerson meant when he said that “As we grow old, the beauty steals inward.” [Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journals (1845).]
Have you known such a person? I hope you have. Someone who matches John Donne’s description: “No spring nor summer beauty hath such grace as I have seen in one autumnal face.” [John Donne, Elegy 9, “The Autumnal” (1635).]
This someone may have been a beloved grandparent, a life-long friend, an elderly neighbor. You may still be in touch with that person, and thankful for it. Perhaps you are such a person yourself, or in the years ahead will become one! Someone who gives courage to the next generation by showing that it need not be terrible to grow old. Someone who has an autumnal face, with a beauty all its own.
A larger proportion of the population than ever before now live into their seventies, eighties, and beyond, and many remain quite active. It is a sad paradox, therefore, that we have so little awareness of later life as a time when the spiritual becomes paramount. What those of us of every age need are good models, people whose increasing years have brought them increasing insight and wisdom.
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I think, for example, of Susan Coupland, an Englishwoman. She states that she was seventy before she came to know God as a close friend with whom she could have plain speech and to whom she could open her heart. The first step toward this new love took place very quietly in a school auditorium during a mission sponsored by a local Anglican parish.
Five years later, she wrote a book with the title Beginning to Pray in Old Age. Susan Coupland sees penitence as central to her prayers, but this penitence is not gloomy. It is joyful! Her penitence, she says, allows her to look with compassion on the brash, insensitive youngster that she was half a century ago. [See Susan Coupland, Beginning to Pray in Old Age (Cowley, 1985), especially chap. 1.]
What other models do we have of older people experiencing a rebirth? One of them is Abraham.
He’s seventy-five when he puts aside a comfortable life in Haran, and packs up to go where God will lead him. He takes along his wife, his nephew, a bunch of hangers-on, and all the stuff they can cram in their suitcases. Yet theirs is not a mobile society as ours is. People simply do not pack up and leave their homes like that. Especially at age seventy-five. I wonder what Abraham’s wife Sarah says when he announces his plans!
It must be hard for him to explain what motivates him. Abraham travels on faith, and words cannot capture faith. This journey begins a new chapter in his life. It is unexpected, something no one’s prepared for.
And like every venture in faith, it has some drawbacks. Horrible ones. Abraham’s brother-in-law ends up with the best land, while he’s left with the scrub country. Abraham’s wife can’t conceive, which does not fit in with God’s extravagant promise of descendants past counting. When this couple finally have their son born and raised, God directs Abraham to offer him in sacrifice, and does not call it off until Abraham already has his sharp knife raised inches above the pounding chest of his heir.
At times Abraham must find his spiritual experience about as helpful as a hole in the head! At times he must feel foolish. After all, as the Letter to the Hebrews so bluntly puts it, he “went out, not knowing where he went.” A good formula for ending up lost, unless it’s God’s lead that you follow. Abraham’s destination is not just geographical, it is spiritual as well: “the city which has the foundations, whose builder and maker is God.” [Hebrews 11:8, 10.]
And the promise of progeny is fulfilled for him in a way past imagining. Now every Muslim, Christian, and Jew on earth claims Abraham as father in the faith! Were it not for that rebirth he experienced at seventy-five, we would not be gathered here this morning.
What about Nicodemus? Does he experience rebirth through his encounter with Jesus?
It’s clear that something has been making him uneasy. Otherwise, this respected member of the council, this scholar and senior statesman would not go off secretly at night to meet with a controversial young rabbi fresh from the country.
The story of Nicodemus and the talk he has with Jesus contains at least the pangs of birth. Nicodemus, a man distinguished in the ways of the world, has discovered emptiness, and feels a hunger for a new life. Accustomed to control, he now lacks power., He cannot summon the Spirit any more than he could hold the wind in his fist. All he can do, and all he needs to do, is to become receptive to the gift, allow the beauty to steal inward.
Nothing more and nothing less is asked of each of us, whatever our age. If the years are piling up for us, as they were for Susan Coupland and Abraham and Nicodemus, then we can find comfort in that susceptibility to the Spirit that often accompanies age. And if we are younger, then we can recognize with relief that our closing years need not be futile, but a time when we become increasingly translucent to the light of God.
I have spoken these words to you in the name of the One whose beauty steals inward and shines in the faces of all the saints: the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.