Growing Old Graciously

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Teach us to number our days carefully so that we may develop wisdom in our hearts.
— Psalm 90:12

I have officially entered that season of life where we talk about life having “seasons.” I’m getting old, y’all. I am daily, officially, unceremoniously getting old. I’m in that wonderful honorific limbo between youth and senior citizenship called “middle age,” named of course after the time in history where everybody lived behind moats and tried not to get poisoned. By high-sodium foods, I assume.

In all seriousness, though, I’ve thought a lot about my journey into and through middle-agedness, precipitated mainly by my transition out of the pastorate and into the pew and having pastored quite a few elderly saints before that transition. I’ve seen men and women grow old well. And I’ve seen some men and women grow old not so well. I do not want to be in the latter camp, and I’ve determined to begin thinking about it now, at the relatively young-old age of 42. I don’t want age to sneak up on me, because that’s how one grows grouchy, I suspect. I may not be able to grow old gracefully—seriously, every morning something new creaks and I am in danger of injury just from yawning—but I can certainly, by God’s grace, grow old graciously. Here’s how:

1. I can commend the younger generation.

Did you know the millennials have ruined everything? All you have to do is go to Google, type in “millennials killed,” and the auto-fill will give you a complete rundown of all the ruination these whippersnappers have managed to craft in their few short years of cultural dominance. What these search results won’t tell you is that a lot of the stuff they killed probably should be dead. In any event, I’m not a huge fan of dogging on the younger generation, if only because it’s such an old man thing to do. Let people without the Spirit of God in their souls shake their fists and yell about which feet touch their lawn; let’s the rest of us encourage, exhort, and edify our little brothers and sisters.

Paul commands Timothy not to let anyone look down on his youthfulness; I don’t want to be the kind of man who puts Timothy in the position of having to obey that command. What can I do? I can be appropriately and constructively critical, yes, but I can be abundantly moreso cheerful. I can look at the younger generation (of believers, especially) and commend all the good I see in them, all the ways they are an improvement on my generation, all the advantages they have to spread the kingdom in fresh, exciting, and Jesus-magnifying ways. I want my younger siblings in Christ to know that I am for them.

2. I can pour into the younger generation.

It is not enough, for me, to be a cheerleader. Often appreciation for youth without engagement leads us simply to idolize youthfulness or even inappropriately desire to remain young. I don’t want to be Uncle Rico, reliving my glory days vicariously through young people who increasingly find my reminiscing creepy or lame. I want to actually equip, to the best of my ability, the younger generation. I don’t know everything, but what I do know, I can share.

This is one reason why I’ve enjoyed this season of service at Midwestern Seminary and directing the Pastoral Training Center at Liberty Baptist Church—from these vantage points I don’t have to be a passive observer of the younger generation’s ministry journey. I can actually assist. I don’t want to get crusty holding on to the ministry reins longer than I ought. I want, as I get older, to increasingly loosen my hold on those reins. Or, to use another metaphor, my leg of the race is winding up—I may not be done running yet, but it’s time to start passing the baton. We’ve all seen the older saints who refuse to give up control; it’s not a good look. So I don’t want to just clap my hands for the younger generation of ministers; I want to lend a hand.

3. I can pick my critical shots.

I watch the evangelical landscape with dismay as older saint after older saint seemingly tarnishes their legacy with curmudgeonly criticism on the daily. Getting wrapped up in intramural theological controversies, getting bogged down in never-ending culture wars, getting caught up in gross political idolatry. I don’t want to go that route. I want to be biblically critical, yes—to call out sins and false teaching in appropriate and prophetic ways. But I do not want to get so scared of change and transition that I make my last laps around this track about denominational in-fighting, vain social media disputations, soapbox fearmongering, and so on. I realize that any good I’ve accomplished, any commendable legacy I’ve created thus far, can easily be overshadowed by a graceless last season. I don’t want to go out like that, so I want to be more circumspect about the criticisms I make. The situation must be really dire—a real corruption to the church or a real obfuscation of the gospel—for me to weigh in with much energy. And I want to trust wise counselors who may help me see when I’ve misjudged even those situations.

4. I can refrain from trying to reinvent myself.

When I was a young church planter in Nashville, I frequently shared a coffee shop workspace with a 50-something pastor who wore embroidered skinny jeans, Affliction tees, and had the spiky tips of his carefully crafted bedhead frosted. I thought to myself: Don’t be that guy. I don’t want to treat aging like something awful, nor youth like something all-precious. That’s a surefire way to get old gracelessly. As I get older, I hope that I am growing more in my security in Christ and thus becoming more free to be myself. I don’t have to hide behind a persona or a platform. I don’t have to pretend to be something I’m not. The truth is, people see through it anyway, especially the older I get, because the more awkward I get about it. One of the blessings of getting older is coming to care less what others think. I want to embrace that (in the right ways). It’s much less stressful.

5. I can keep learning and growing.

As you get older, change appears to happen more quickly. And as you get older, you adjust to change more poorly. One dynamic I’ve seen take place in churches in transition—intentional revitalizations or just the youth that comes with growth—is that older saints watch their churches grow so quickly and thus change so quickly. And they already feel increasingly uncomfortable with a rapidly changing outside world. They’re getting slower, the world is getting faster. It makes emotional sense, then, that the one place where they’ve felt at home (and more in control) is church. And it makes sense that changes in church can strike them as quick, unnecessary, or even wrong.

I want to commit now, even as I’m beginning to feel the angst of cultural and technological changes, as I am beginning to experience daily the reality that I’ve effectively aged out of the world’s target demographic, not to turn off my heart and brain. Too many older saints have effectively retired from the Christian life. I may not be able to keep up with the young, but I’d rather lag behind than drop out of the race. So I keep reading, keep watching, keep discussing. These young punks got a lot to learn from me. And I’ve got a lot to learn from them.

I want the second half of my life to find me still moving. Life is not a sprint; it’s a marathon, and I prefer to finish strong.

The righteous thrive like a palm tree and grow like a cedar tree in Lebanon. Planted in the house of the Lord, they thrive in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age,
healthy and green.

— Psalm 92:12-14

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