“When 900 years old you reach, look as good you will not!”
-Yoda, “The Empire Strikes Back”
For followers of Jesus Christ, aging comes as a season of compelling and vital new purpose.
Just what if there is extraordinary promise hidden in the age of doctors’ appointments, retirement, loss of loved ones and colleagues as well as physical challenges? What if aging doesn’t make you disposable, but rather indispensible? What if you ask Father, Son and Holy Spirit to sweep away the voices that call into question your relevance, your purpose and your gifts? What if you asked for grace to believe that God has a purpose for you, here, now?
There is great power in aging. The body may feel feeble; the soul may feel sapped of strength; but the accumulation of years is an extraordinary gift that can produce unimaginable impact – if wielded well. People often miss the power of their own age.
Sometimes we do not prepare ourselves for aging; we are uncomfortable, perhaps, thinking about the unknown, or fearing it. We fear a picture of aging that we paint for ourselves in which we look unrecognizable in the mirror, face an obsolete existence and are marginalized from the “real action” of living. But that great inspirer of John Wesley, Bishop Jeremy Taylor, counsels us: “let us prepare our minds against changes, always expecting them, that we be not surprised when they come.” Curiously, this excellent advice comes in the middle of his discussion on contentedness.
Let’s look at some lives that found profound purpose when they had reached profound age. These simple people found keeping covenant as an indispensable aspect of aging with purpose, on purpose. What priceless value there is in keeping covenant!
If you have a moment, read Genesis 17. Have you ever noticed that other than a general sketch of his extended family, where they settled, and whom he married, we do not get any stories of Abraham’s childhood or young adult years? Of all the great stories and colorful experiences that the book of Genesis tells us about Abraham, all that action picks up when he moves away in response to God’s promise at the age of 75.
God invites Abram into covenant by promising descendents – descendents that would outnumber the stars. This nation would inherit land; they would be blessed, and be a blessing, if they, too, chose to keep covenant with God; and from this nation would sprout the Messiah.
But for now, Abram is old, and he and Sarai have no children or grandchildren.
God establishes a covenant, full to the brim with promises, marks it by giving Abram and Sarai new names to reflect the coming reality of these promises, and commands Abraham to keep the covenant. Keeping the covenant, of course, doesn’t mean to avoid losing it, as you keep a receipt in your wallet. Keeping covenant is illustrated by the newly-reformed Ebenezer Scrooge’s promise to “keep Christmas” – to preserve, to maintain, to fulfill, to be faithful to.
Happily, we can skim ahead and see that Sarah gives birth to Isaac. Abraham did not get to skim ahead. Abraham kept covenant by acting on faith in a reality that was not yet: painfully so! He circumcised all the men of his household; he himself was circumcised before Sarah ever felt the fluttering of a baby in her womb; before he held his newborn son in his arms. He believed God’s promise that there was yet purpose in his age, and he acted on faith in God before he ever witnessed the screaming infant-proof.
This covenant between God and Abraham was vital, not just for Abraham’s self-interest in his desire to have a child, to have grandkids; this covenant was for the redemption of the world. And every generation had to decide for itself whether it would keep covenant with God, and we read those stories over and over again in the Old Testament.
How are you like Abraham? How are you like Sarah?
Keeping covenant may sometimes look a lot like Richard Foster’s A Celebration of Discipline: fulfilling and maintaining the practices of our faith in life together. But keeping covenant has a richer dimension when it’s in the context of seasoned age, in the same way that marriage has a richer dimension at a 50th wedding anniversary. By the time you are “aged,” your faith has weathered many years; and because of the accumulated experiences of a lifetime, or the challenging experiences associated with aging itself, you may find your faith tired, or tested, or perhaps a bit brittle and cynical.
That is why, above and beyond the practice of personal faith, keeping covenant matters so much as you age: because there is the temptation not to. And your faithful keeping of the covenant, even through years of struggle, or deep loss, or physical pain, does not go unnoticed.
And now let’s look at a lesser-known pair of aged covenant-keepers: Lois and Eunice, found in 2 Timothy 1:3-7.
Paul’s words at the beginning of his letter to the young pastor Timothy are fascinating: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.” While the writer of Hebrews reminds us that “we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses,” Paul reminds Timothy of the covenant keepers in his own immediate family tree – Grandma Lois and Mama Eunice. Keeping faith – the kind that was “accounted” to Abraham for righteousness; the kind that inspired the hall of faith in Hebrews 11; keeping this covenant with God by faith made a difference in Timothy’s life. Because of those women Paul called out by name, Timothy witnessed the faith of covenant-keepers. And when Timothy decided also to keep faith, he ministered to bodies of believers in the early church. And to encourage him in ministry, Paul wrote to him, and we have these letters to inspire, guide and encourage our own faith today. That’s right: Grandma Lois’ faithfulness in keeping covenant got a shout-out in the Bible.
Your children, your children’s children, or your nieces and nephews – they witness the ways you keep covenant with God and with the church.
There is a kind woman named Eleanor who lives in the Midwest. She quietly keeps covenant – living a life infused with prayer and a gentle love of Scripture. And when she was in her 70’s, she decided to become a youth group sponsor. That’s right! She stayed up with the youth at all-night lock-ins. She went spelunking in caves with them on their camping trip. Instead of being with the adults during Wednesday night services, she sat and met with the youth group, occasionally offering comment or reflection. Her life uncovered one of the secrets of aging with purpose: keeping covenant. And in a time in which technology moves at lightning pace, the church is called to practice counter-cultural values of celebrating the value of ordinary, everyday covenant keepers, especially those seasoned with age.
So how can you renew your vision of yourself as a valued, valuable covenant-keeper?
Let’s consider engaging in what may seem a rather surprising suggestion. In order to refresh and renew your sense of purpose in aging; in order to reflect on your own role as a covenant keeper, and the value of simply not giving up; in order to embrace God’s covenant with you; in order to remind yourself regularly of God’s promises – what if you celebrated Holy Communion weekly?
It is in the ritual of the Lord’s Supper, after all, that God’s offer of covenant through Jesus Christ is acted out, regularly receiving the promise of the new covenant: “In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you’” (Luke 22:20). As Bishop Jeremy Taylor described long ago: “it is sufficient to thee that Christ shall be present to thy soul as an instrument of grace, as a pledge of the resurrection, as the earnest [guarantee] of glory and immortality, and a means of many blessings, even all such as are necessary for thee, and are in order to thy salvation.”
And remember this wisdom that Taylor wrote and Wesley read: “for that life is not best which is longest: and when they are descended into the grave it shall not be inquired how long they have lived, but how well.”
May you keep the covenant well.