I realize that even the phrase “old people” sounds derogatory. Perhaps because calling one young (whether in looks or spirit) is a culturally-cemented compliment. It’s as if being old signifies the loss of a great gift rather than the acceptance of a new one.
Ageism is particularly pesky in the church. Just last week, I ventured into a new member’s class at the church I’ve been attending for eight months. Only a hop, skip, and a Whole Foods away from a college campus, there seems to be a disproportional number of younger folks in the congregation. Sure enough, a quick look around the crossed-legs and folded-hands in the parlor confirmed that most of us couldn’t have been over 30. The exception was one elderly couple seated on the couch beside me.
Incredulous, the old woman leaned forward and asked, “Did I just walk in to the nursery?”
I stared at her, stone-faced, and thought better than to respond, “And did you just walk out of the home?” (It wasn’t one of my finer moments, granted, nor was it conducive to trying to be the body of Christ and all.)
The rest of the room responded in muffled laughter. If my filter weren’t so trained, I assume my little retort wouldn’t have been received with such grace. I assume someone would have at least uncrossed their legs.
Is it because the Church is already versed in hierarchy that the the elder and junior one is naturally enforced? Is it because of passages like 1 Peter 5:5 that admonish “you who are younger: accept the authority of the elders”? In a recent sermon on this passage, I heard advice given to the youth in the congregation to look to their elders for wisdom; I didn’t hear that their elders could expect a different sort of wisdom from them.
I’m coming off a weekend spent in the desert of Arizona where I’m being trained as a program facilitator for the Center for Courage & Renewal. Foundational to our work is the idea that we all have an inner teacher. If that sounds suspicious to the more evangelical crowd, consider it like the Holy Spirit. The point is, even though I’m the youngest in the cohort, my colleagues treat me with dignity because they know I have wisdom that comes not from my exegetical skills or my ministry experience or my theological expertise. Instead it comes from who I am, how I see the world, and how God speaks to me in it. They treat me not as if I am the future of the organization but like I am a part of the living organism right now (a topic I’ve written on in relation to youth ministry elsewhere.)
In contrast, I recently heard about a divinity school professor who scolded his students: “You don’t know even know the right questions to ask until I give them to you.”
True to biblical form, there’s more to the story in 1 Peter. Later in v. 5, it reads, “Everyone, clothe yourselves with humility toward each other. God stands against the proud, but he gives favor to the humble.”
To be sure, I can imagine my humility will grow as I age and sink into my own skin. But I also take heart in knowing we all are humus or “of the earth.” I’d rather share something in common with you old folks rather than be pitted against you.
Because you know I can win a mean handy of Rummy.