Respect Your Youngins

Senior Woman Blowing KissesI’m having a “junior moment:” one of those fits born not from years of experience but instead from the entitled belief that I (already) have something worth saying. To you. Old people.

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.

4 responses to “Respect Your Youngins

  1. Hi Erin,
    I have struggled with the idea of honoring elders but at the same time wanting to step on their toes a bit and express my thoughts. There’s a tension between respect for their experience and learned wisdom, but at the same time, a knowledge that we’re all sinners and no one should be put on a pedestal, especially because of age. I know I have kept quiet about things i’ve disagreed with out of difference to supposed physical age(without thought to spiritual age), even if I felt the spirit trying to speak. It is so ingrained in me to both honor my elders and deeply critique them at the same time, that i am often conflicted on how to interact with them (besides deeper issues of authority and mistrust and reverence). Because even if they don’t know it, I see their ‘sins,’ weaknesses, faults, possibly neglect, and i am trying to extend them grace, while I hope they are doing the same to me, and taking seriously their responsibility to counsel and mentor us “young’uns.”I blame my parents who instilled this dogged reverent attitude to authority, but were burned so much by spiritual authorities in their lives, that they made me wary and careful to “see through” people to their faults, so I am this almost disgruntled Christian who wants to be pastor pleaser and their pain in the a**at the same time! Ahh, confrontations! how do you speak up and question, and yet honor your elders at the same time??

    • Sarah,

      I share the feeling of tension you name between exercising your voice and listening to your elders. Somehow I have to believe that we can cultivate both; and that there are better elders to practice with than others. My best mentors have been ones that thought they could learn something from me, too, even if it wasn’t a skill or a strategy. It’s those who think wisdom only goes one way that I find do more to dampen my spirit than bring it round to humility.


  2. I usually enjoy your blog. It is full of wisdom and fun. However, I feel sad right now. It is not fun being old. There are many losses. Our parents, our friends, our jobs, and the list grows as we age. There is pain every day, yet the health clubs are filled with grey hair in spin class, Zumba, the weight room and on those days when the pain & stiffness is overwhelming, the pool. Most of us have little pride left. As we age we become more and more dependant until our children take our car keys and change our diapers. You tell us not to compete with you because you can beat us; at rummy yes and the unspoken message is at everything, so be humble and submissive…and what? Our feminist spirits beat strong. We feel pride in the leg up we’ve given you. We want to partner with you in the work yet to come. But in the church as in the culture we feel the “not welcome” sign and sometimes we respond inappropriately as you did in this post. Don’t give up on us. I assure you, we won’t give up on you. You have much to say we want to hear, and most of the time you’re a hell of a lot of fun.

    • Wanda,

      Thanks for you deep honesty here. You’re right, I don’t yet know the sadness that comes with aging. What I do know is the sadness that comes any time two groups of folks are pitted against one another in a strict dichotomy. (Sarah’s comment helps nuance the concept of age further as both a physical and spiritual reality). It was never my intent to imply we shouldn’t compete with one another because us youngin’s would always win! (The Rummy comment was in jest.) But rather that I hope we can focus more on the wisdom that wells up from each of us and share it (and receive it) abundantly. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with me.


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