Aging Energetically -- in the Church

by Ralph Milton

The following is a portion of Ralph Milton's presentation to the June Central Regional Gathering in Wainwright.

Most of those around my age have retired. Our children are middle-aged, and many of us have been promoted to the exalted rank of grandparent.

I need one of those lapel buttons that says, "I don't remember your name either." One of the gifts of aging is that you can always invoke a senior's moment. "Hi...ah...I'm having a senior's moment and your name is on the tip of my tongue but I can't seem to get it out."

I tell my grandkids I have a bionic heart. I also have two bionic eyes. Remember Steve something-or-other, the bionic man. He had an eye so powerful he could zoom in and count your nose hairs at a hundred paces.

I'm deeply grateful for the medical technology that's given me the gift of sight. The world becomes bright and new when suddenly you can see again. The trees have leaves - they are not just a large green blob. You can see the sparkle in your grandchild's eye. You can see the life-lines - some people call them wrinkles - on your own face, and most importantly, on the face of the ones you love. And you discover, all over again, that there is far more beauty in God's world than you ever imagined.

Moving into old age and retirement is a little like getting a cataract operation - which by the way is really easy and completely painless - because from this somewhat detached perspective we can see things about our church, our Christian community, things we've never seen before.

A Vision

The vision I see, now that I am retired, is that we tend to be so focused on the problems we don't see the blessings. We are so caught up by what is not happening that we don't see what is happening.

For instance, we are focused on the problem that there are so many gray heads in the congregation and so few younger adults. We don't see the blessing and the power of these gray heads.

We often hear it said that the future of our church is in the young people. That is true. But the future of those young people in the church is dependent on the gray heads who are in the church right now.

Bev and I attend First United Church in Kelowna. Quite often we've been asked to take the service on the Sunday after Christmas. The minister needs a break after the hectic Christmas rush and besides, the Sunday after Christmas is called "low Sunday" because not many folks come to church. The pews are mostly empty so it's safe to ask Ralph to preach because only a few of the old crocks are going to be there anyway.

A few years ago, Bev and I woke up that Sunday to see a foot or more of new snow on the ground. Being Sunday morning, the snowplow people didn't see any reason to get busy because nobody was going anywhere anyway.

So as Bev and I slowly plowed through the snow, we decided that we'd simply take the half-dozen or so folks that might show up into the lounge and just hear the scripture readings, have a discussion on them, a prayer or two, and send the folks home.

But we were astonished. About 50 people showed up. This out of a normal congregation of 200. Except for one grandchild, all the folks were seniors. Not only were they seniors, they were the pillars of the church. These were the folk that probably did 80 percent of the work around the church. These were the folk who probably put 80 percent of the money on the plates. Without these old people, these folks who pushed through the snow on that winter Sunday, our congregation at First United would collapse.

Recognizing Possibility

The gospel reading for that Sunday was the presentation of Jesus at the temple and how he was welcomed by Anna and Simeon. Here were these two oldsters - they didn't have a full set of teeth between them. They were gray. They were wrinkled. They were bent over. They had arthritis. This was before cataract operations so their eyes didn't work all that well. But they could see what nobody else could see - they could see the face of God in the face of a perfectly ordinary child. Their eyes were pretty dim but their spiritual sight was 20-20.

Simeon decided that now he could die with a sense of being fulfilled, but Anna became the first Christian evangelist, running around the temple and cornering anyone she could find to tell them that God's chosen one was in their midst.

So there we were, Bev and I, on that snowy December morning with a congregation of Annas and Simeons. And what a bunch of folk they were. We knew almost everyone of them by name. When we looked at the abilities, the enthusiasm, the experience of all those gray heads, we saw the fundamental strength of our congregation. They are our most valuable asset.

I'm talking about us older folks - the people sometimes called the young-old, people mostly in the 55-85 age bracket. I'm not talking about a ministry to these people. I'm talking about the ministry of these people.

There were at least a dozen graduate degrees among those 50 people that Sunday after Christmas. They had at least 2,500 years of adult life experience. They were mostly strong and healthy, and they have the time, money and ability to do almost anything they choose to do.

This is something that has never happened before in human history. I am part of a group of seniors who are the first ones to have had relatively modern health care throughout their lives. My mother, for example, made us kids have a bath every Saturday night. Don't laugh. That is one of the main reasons I am a healthy 72 year old. We are the largest, the most highly educated, the wealthiest, the healthiest seniors in history. We are the church's most valuable asset.

Death by Retirement

Barry lived across the street from us until he died two years ago. That was a year after he retired. In our little community, the houses and yards are small, but Barry cut his lawn twice a week, in two directions, and then he would wash the lawn mower. He washed his car at least once a week.

When he wasn't doing that, he watched TV. "It's pretty boring," he said, "but there's nothing else to do." And so he died. He had nothing else to do.

We have a huge number of retired persons living in Kelowna. They sell a farm or a business or start collecting their pension cheques. They move form Alberta to BC so they can take it easy. They hire someone to cut the lawn. They bring in TV dinners instead of cooking. They don't get involved in any organization and they don't volunteer for anything. "I worked hard for 50 years," they tell you. "So now I just want to take it easy."

The MacArthur study, an in-depth, longitudinal study of aging undertaken in the United States, had some interesting findings. Seniors who were like my friend Barry, who just wanted to take life easy, who wanted nothing challenging, who didn't want to be bothered with any decisions - these folks tended to have their health start to deteriorate almost as soon as they retired. And their health would go steadily downward. They tended to have major, life-threatening health issues from the moment they retired. They were most likely to spend significant time in a nursing home.

Those seniors who retired well, who welcomed new challenges and opportunities, who had a sense of community and a sense of vocation - these seniors enjoyed vigorous health usually into their mid-eighties, until cancer or heart would take them to their death fairly quickly. They were unlikely to see the inside of a nursing home. And they would live five to ten years longer than the seniors who retired into couch-potato hell.

So what we have with seniors in the church is a symbiotic relationship. The church needs us seniors to survive. We seniors need the church because through the church we can live active, challenging lives, in a community where we can find people we care about and that care about us.

The church can provide the challenge and the community that is so essential to the well being of us seniors. The church is a major health-care provider for these young-old people. And these young-old people are a major health-care provider for the church. That is happening already but it needs to happen a whole lot more. To do that, we need to open a few spaces in our thinking - open our hearts to new possibilities.

Open to New Ways

It is true, some seniors can be pretty intransigent. There's the story of a young minister who is new to the community. She goes to visit one of the old guys in the nursing home."So you are 90 years old," she says. "You must remember many changes in our church."

"Yep," says the old guy. "And I've been against every one of them."

One of the ideas we need to set aside is that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Recent research on the human brain shows that our brains don't lose their plasticity, their ability to learn new things except when some form of dementia sets in. That doesn't usually happen till people are well into their eighties.

Another idea is that us old people are against everything new. Sure there are some of us like that 90 year-old codger in the nursing home. They are more the exception rather than the rule, but we tend to focus on those kinds of people - we focus on the problems.

We've got a few study groups in our church in Kelowna. They are studying resources such as Marcus Borg's Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, and looking at the United Church's initiative to be more welcoming to younger folks. The participants in those forward looking study groups are, for the most part, seniors.

We are in the process of installing a high-tech video projection system in our church. It will involve two screens and two high-powered projectors suspended from the ceiling. The only person under 65 who was involved in this was the video technician we hired to do an estimate.

You see, Old Age is not a disease. Our wrinkles are the record of our lives. They are our curriculum vitae.

I have an amazing program called Photoshop on my computer at home. I took a photo of myself and removed all the wrinkles. I didn't look younger. I looked embalmed. I had been baptized in Botox.

Here's the kicker. The United Church is absolutely on the money in its initiative to make congregations more welcome, more friendly to younger people. It's absolutely crucial that we do that.

If this is going to happen, if our congregations are going to be more welcoming to younger adults, the key to making his happen are the seniors. We can either make that change happen, or we can stop it dead in its tracks.

It's not a choice. It's not a question of whether we minister with the seniors or with the younger people. It's either both or nothing.

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Congregational News September 2007 Vol. 14 No. 1

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