I have many old friends. Most of them don't mind me calling them old because they are old and because they're wise enough to know, old is good (This is a soapbox of mine...). Of those friends, several have asked me to write about how to serve God in the evening years of life. I've hesitated to write about it because, well, I'm not old.
But I do have old friends. And I've seen them be old well.
Before our family trip to Croatia my husband and I didn't know Tom and Sandra Sibley much at all. We'd shared a few meals at crowded tables. We'd emailed. But we'd never spent more than an hour or two together. When we arrived at the airport, we didn't know what to expect really. Tom (pictured above) met us, grabbed the heaviest suitcases, and rushed us out of the airport, across the parking lot, into the car, and back to his house through thick big city traffic.
We met Sandra at the house, the most stunning house with the most beautiful, flower-full gardens. Tom showed us the wall he'd built into the side of a hill--thousands of pounds of rocks he'd hauled up and down. Sandra made us lunch. We talked for hours. Stayed up late. She shared the itinerary she'd planned--every day organized and full.
The next day she took us on a tour of Zagreb while Tom worked at the Biblical Institute (he's the president). She walked so fast and so far our kids struggled to keep up.
The whole trip was this way--us racing to keep up.
It wasn't until the third or fourth day that something dawned on us, something I guess we should have noticed earlier but honestly never did: Tom and Sandra were old--Tom closer to eighty than seventy and Sandra in her seventies, too. We only noticed because Sandra kept reminding us to wear coats and sensible shoes.
Over the course of our time with them, Justin and I became more and more convinced we wanted to be old like Tom and Sandra are old.
We want to work. And go on hikes. And mentor young people. And have a gorgeous garden. And take risks.
I sat down this morning to make a list of things I learned from Tom and Sandra about being old well. Whether you're old already or will be one day, you'll want to take note of these helpful reminders...
1. Don't quit.
Tom and Sandra moved to Croatia in their late fifties, early sixties. Tom had just retired from preaching after a long, faithful tenure serving the Kingdom. Their grandchildren were toddlers. They were entering the phase of life when people slow down. Just a few months into Tom's retirement they realized they were not that kind of people.
The last 15 years in Croatia has been the busiest season of their lives. And they love it.
I doubt this will come as a surprise: lots of people use old age as an excuse to check out. They're done with work. Done with serving at church. Done with learning new things. Done with making new memories. Done with discovering new music. Done with technology. Done.
At first that seems relaxing and comfortable, but eventually it's painfully obvious that being done is a lot like being dead.
If you're alive, be alive. Work is a beautiful part of living. Find good work and do it well. Play. Celebrate. Serve. Discover.
Being old can feel like an ending, and in some ways it is. End well.
But being old can also be a beginning--it's an opportunity to go places you've never been, to read books you've always wanted to read, to make new relationships with new people, to kindle faith and commitment in the hearts of new believers, to reach people who desperately need God.
Just because you're old doesn't mean you're done.
2. Have hope.
My small group is made up entirely of young people--not a one of us is over 40. I asked this week, "What frustrates you most about old people?" (Don't worry; we said what we liked best, too) and the overwhelming response was basically this: "Some of them are always complaining."
Complaining about politics. Complaining about their family. Complaining about church. Complaining about "kids these days." Whatever the topic, it seems an old person can quickly identify the most depressing thing to say about it.
Are these broad strokes? YES. But do some old people act this way? YES.
We young people understand: You've seen a lot. You've been disappointed. You worry that things might not ever get better. But we still think they can. We're willing to work hard to fix problems. We're eager to make the world brighter.
And we want you to help us. We want you to stay positive. To look for the good in things. To expect victory instead of assuming defeat. To believe things are going to get better.
That might be hard, but deep and abiding optimism is fundamental to following Christ. And--it's worth pointing out--optimism and naiveté are not the same. Christ followers aren't naive. They're not callow. They just know there are things worth hoping for and ways to actively partner with Christ to bring those things into being.
3. Maintain perspective.
As an old person, you're kinda required to be wise (if you're not wise by now, you need to start praying, because old age without wisdom is a bear). One of the primary pillars of wisdom is perspective--knowing what matters and what doesn't.
Sometimes old people struggle with that (young people always struggle with that). Things that aren't very important gain primary importance. And things that are very important slip through the cracks.
For example, as an outsider looking in, it seems like physical health is the primary value of old age. That's a problem because physical health is not a primary thing (and is almost always a white whale). I know that's easy for me to say being young--though I've struggled with chronic health problems for years (including, somewhat anachronistically, bursitis--a cousin to arthritis). But it's true. Old people are sometimes so desperate to achieve health that they'll sacrifice important things in pursuit of it--limited resources like time and energy and even their calling in the Kingdom to connect with and invest in the body of Christ. Too, they'll often believe a lack of health disables them from serving God.
Whether or not you're healthy, you are capable of a beautiful, selfless, God-honoring life.
While poor health can limit the types of work we do, it's not a significant barrier to growing a contagious relationship with Christ and making lasting connections with Christ's people.
If you constantly opt out of life because your health is bad, you've already given in to death.
When he was younger, Tom had brain surgery to remove a tumor. Doctors assured him it would probably grow back. While we were in Croatia Sandra said offhandedly one day, "I guess the tumor isn't going to grow back." She said it as if she'd hardly given it a second thought since they'd been in Croatia. Like the tumor just didn't matter that much.
Some people would have let a diagnosis like that rule their lives. They'd have stayed close to familiar doctors and lived careful, always-checking-in days. But that's not at all what the Sibleys did. Because Tom's health wasn't the most important thing.
You have to do what's most important to do. And you need the wisdom to see what that is.
4. Share what you know.
You know things. So share them.
Don't hoard them. Don't say, "No one wants to hear what I have to say." No one wants to hear what anyone has to say--so what. They need it. SHARE.
In the parable of the talents we realize God intends for us to use what He's given us. And when we don't, He doesn't take it lightly. God intends to teach through you. He intends to bless through you. He intends to comfort through you. He intends to counsel and warn and encourage and guide. And if you hold tight to the life you've lived, refusing to share what you've learned along the way, God will not excuse it.
You have resources young people cannot access. You've seen things they haven't seen. You'd made mistakes they haven't. You've had victories they haven't. They need you.
I know young people are difficult to teach. I know they're bad listeners. Your job isn't to make them listen (not even God tries to do that). Your job is just to share what you've been given. To be generous and not greedy. To be brave and speak into the lives of the young people around you. To teach a class or write a Facebook status or meet with a young mom over coffee.
Again and again in Croatia I listened to young people tell me how much Tom and Sandra Sibley mean to them. They told about the New Years Party at their house when they stayed up past 1 in the morning talking about God. They shared about the year they'd spent living in the Sibleys' home, learning up close what a good marriage looks like. They said Tom and Sandra were like their parents, except more willing (and able) to offer wise and helpful counsel.
Their choice to share what God's shared with them is shaping a generation of new believers in eastern Europe.
5. Don't fear death.
Multiple times during our conversations with Tom and Sandra, they talked about their eventual deaths. They didn't shy away from the topic at all. They spoke with confidence and assurance about a day that would inevitably come--a day they didn't dread, a day they, in a way, welcomed. They said they wanted to stay in Croatia until the end. They said, "We want to die working."
More than almost anything, this is what I'd love to see more of among old people (and what I'm praying I'll still have when I get there): courage.
We younger people need to see you stand up to death, to be confident and sure even as it approaches, standing your ground, knowing it to be the impotent enemy it is, already defeated by the God of abundant life.
You are the front lines in the fight against it. You feel the cold shadow of death in your joints and in your lungs, in your marrow, even as it infiltrates your cells. Some of you will spend every day for the rest of your lives fighting the visible and violent forces of death.
Fight like a man who knows he's won. Fight death with the only weapon it fears: fight with life. Live abundantly. Live in a way that spills out and onto everyone close to you. Live love. Live joy. Live peace. Live truth.
Ignore the pressing smell of death and bloom with victorious life--the kind of life only God can give. The kind of life that slays death.
And when you live that way (and die that way), your courage will spread throughout the camp, waves of bravery washing through the ranks, inspiring us, all of us, to fight on.