It may seem obvious that growth, in general, involves discipline and I want to raise the awareness that growing older is a spiritual discipline, no matter what decade of life one is passing through. Sometimes, we want to race through a decade (see teenagers) or push back from the next (see 50-year-olds), yet each can be a marvelous time for growth if we keep God at the center of it.
It is modernity’s health and technology advancements that make this discussion possible. In 1900, the life expectancy for men was age 47, for women it was 50. Infant mortality was around 10% (today it is 6.89%), with adult roles and expectations applying to a young person by age 14-15. As a result, the “seasons” of life was not a well-developed concept in a world where either you were a child or an adult, neither very far from death.
Contributing to a changed view of the seasons of life was the stabilization of health practices such that children and adults didn’t die enmasse of disease or injury and life expectancies expanded greatly. Adolescence was incubated in the 1920s, but didn’t manifest as an age phenomenon until the ready-mobility created by the automobile and the development of radio and TV where a teen culture could be explored outside of the family culture. Also, the possibility of living past 60 created a retirement class, a whole group of people who also have mobility and new roles.
A new set of expectations about life and even life-with-God became possible. All that to challenge your view of faith practices, which in previous calamitous and confining eras was more of a matter of dealing with death and staying alive. The basic assumptions change when the safety of your environment and the opportunities of a long life exist. What attitudes prevail when childhood is extended? What changes occur when life is less precarious? How do we incorporate a role for spiritual growth and eldership for a healthy older population?
While the decades of the 1900s were spent developing a youth-oriented culture, have we failed to see the value and possibilities of a full-functioning eldership in the population? Since eldership is underdeveloped and less venerated, most people push back from it instead of embracing, growing and celebrating it, instead of joining God in it and desiring His measure of maturity for it.
I find the things people say about their age expectations to be both interesting and telling. My eight-old granddaughter marks the days until she can be nine. Teenagers clamor to be 18, when they can finally “do whatever they want.” Then out of post 40-year-olds I hear, “Oh, to be 20 again” or “I can’t wait to retire.” Any reflection of “some day…” or “if only I had …” about another time of life causes us to miss the possibility of today.
I propose that it is a spiritual discipline, and one we rarely invite, to understand the purpose and possibility of every age. It can be a huge benefit to your relationship with God if you can keep Him in the center of the process of growing old, which we are all doing. At the core of this discussion, I believe, is identity – how I define myself. For us to see the spiritual discipline of growing within an age and stage and then moving to the next is to keep our identity secure in God’s definition for us and His purpose for our lives. For example, if I can stay connected to my identity as a child of God, that marker can hold and guide me through child-rearing, vocational development, health challenges and community changes. The discipline is to lean into God to remember His definition for my identity through success and failure, trial and trauma, change and stagnation. Such a discipline can bear the onslaught and victory of each age.
Others have written specifically on carrying disciplines into the second half of life. You can read Richard Rohr, William Buford, Billy Graham or James Fowler. I want to focus on the discipline God may intend the most: maturity. Christ-like maturity. There are specific markers for that maturity in the New Testament:
· Humbleness, where holiness, purity and righteousness characterize a sure pursuit and discipline, is one few invite let alone desire, even with its blessing. (Matthew 5:5, 6, 8)
· Defining a new life in Christ, being able to let go of cultural definitions which prove to be constraints on life, is a true challenge for change. To understand that to grasp the greater things of God requires that we let go of the lesser things of culture, childhood and ego. (Matthew 16:25-26)
· Wisdom-keeping, which provides stability for a person and a community, is a sure discipline. It is marked by a deliberate thought process independent of the culture and, when from God, it penetrates the whole person and nurtures identity. This can only happen with dependence on God and can provide guidance to a life of integrity and give a reputation to a world badly in need of its understandings. (Prov 2:2; 2:10; 3:5; 4:23; 16:21) Those who hold their own “wisdom” and use it to isolate themselves or divide others are not mature.
· Mentoring relationships of those who partner and follow an elder can only be accomplished by one of a practiced maturity of the previous traits. Gifted leadership needs to be developed so God’s people can be thoroughly equipped to minister and lift up others, which leads to people being unified in faith of Jesus Christ and so all can mature and be formed into his likeness, love being the driving force. (Eph. 4:11-16)
Realize that each stage of life must be filled – worked for and relished – and then abandoned for the next. Be weary of the culture’s tendency to overprize youth and young adulthood, trapping the elders into a false sense of identity when they over-identify or do not match youth’s expectations. Instead, assert and preserve the dignity, creativity and richness of all phases of life.
By midlife and beyond, in love and work, the mature find a way to contribute to the community and to integrate generations. This means impacting the world today by equipping the next generation and leaving a legacy. Whether through financial contributions, through parenting and mentoring, to being a praying grandparent, investing in God’s work takes precedence in such a way that each age can be faced with a sense of fullness which can overcome the grief and loss of many things.
Each decade we live, the ultimate spiritual discipline might be the effort to keep God at the center of the practice of life.