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Monday, May 4, 2020

"Aging" (Will Willimon)

TITLE: Aging: Growing Old in Church (Pastoring for Life: Theological Wisdom for Ministering Well)
AUTHOR: Will Willimon
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020, (192 pages).

One of the world's biggest concerns is a growing aging population. As people live longer, world leaders are increasingly concerned over the costs of medical care and the rising infrastructure requirements to take care of the elderly. In many societies, the aged are no longer net contributors to the economy. It costs the state more money to take care of them. Of course, it can be argued that during their younger days, the aged have done their fair share to bless the economy. Retirement benefits are a way in which the state show appreciation for their past contributions. However, if the aging numbers continue to dwarf all other age groups, it does pose not only a financial concern, but many other issues as well. Projected numbers by various research groups show that if the trends continue, many aged will be living in abject poverty. Measured on such a scale, it can be downright depressing. Author Will Willimon writes that many people in this age group, "unaffordable health care, poverty, housing insecurity, and painful dislocation will fill their last years with anxiety and fear." This is indeed a major concern. For the Church, financial matters are not the main concern. They need to help address the spiritual and emotional side of aging as well. More importantly, we need to ask the question: "Where is God leading me in this time of life?" Willimon aims to help us do just that. This is also something crucial to the author's ministry as the average age of his large Church denomination is 62!

Like a good trusted preacher, Willimon begins with Scripture, walks us through Scripture, and ends with way to let Scripture points the rest of the way for us. He highlights various passages (175!) in the Old Testament that talk about elders. He borrows from Billy Graham's reflective book about aging and shares some nuggets. In the New Testament, he looks at various elderly biblical characters and the attitudes believers need to have toward them. Elders are called to be role models. From the biblical contexts, he then shifts gear to see the cultural reality of our modern society. With aging comes loads of negativity. Using King Lear as an example of foolish aging, Willimon reminds us that one of the responsibilities of aging is to cede control to others. This is the true test of character whether one is willing to release power to others. We don't just retire. We need to retire graciously and gracefully. It is also an opportunity to grow even closer to God, which is why Willimon dedicates an entire chapter to do just that. In a world that are constantly trying to get more good things for their own good, the call for Christians is to be good in all things. Wisdom to manage is more important than the skills to accumulate anything. He quotes the spiritual writer Richard Rohr's advice: “How can I honor the legitimate needs of the first half of life while creating space, vision, time, and grace for the second? The holding of this tension is the very shape of wisdom.” Drawing examples from movies, books, and literature, he guides us through various ways to look beyond how the world sees retirement.

Without leaving readers on any limbo, the author then guides us through what it means to age successfully. While many see successful aging as an antithesis of fear, truth is, nothing can ever fix aging. We can prolong it. We can try to avoid it. We can even try to overcome it with creative strategies. Eventually, our bodies will decay and we die. That is the truth. If that is the case, why focus on avoidance? Instead, look toward renewal of hope. One way is to see aging as an opportunity to be free "to give ourselves more fully to our vocation, our partnership with God in God’s ongoing work in the world." This is one of the best parts of the book, to see a renewal of vision. He goes on to show us how to guide the Church in its care of the aged. The Church has responsibilities to facilitate socializing; to promote intergenerational interaction; to become a place for "meaning-making" and "meaning-receiving." The fourth commandment should not simply be narrated but lived out through through "creative restructuring of the family."

My Thoughts
Let me target my reflections on three groups of people. First, the young. I believe society have idolized young and youthfulness. This is a big reason why the old are marginalized, at least mentally. With a society that is infatuated with anything newest, fastest, and the freshest, the younger one is, the more value is given. Just take hockey players for example. The young newly drafted players are the ones with the greatest potential for any team. The older ones may seem like reliable workhorses, but using their salary scale as a guide, once the prime is past, so does the monetary rewards. For young people, remember that youthfulness is a passing phase of life. We will eventually grow old and be like everyone else we used to despise directly or indirectly. Taking the advice of Ecclesiastes 12, and the many nuggets of wisdom from Willimon in this book, young readers will benefit by being prepared for the aging process but learning to care for them. This requires some guides. Blessed is the Church that has young people willing to be mentored by an older person in the community. Church for the young is not just about youth groups or young adults ministries. It is essentially about preparing one for the work of the gospel ministry. Youth programs are often filled with fun and games, but the truth is this: life comprises less of fun and games; more of the need to make meaning out of what we do. Learn from the old and the experienced in their journey of meaning making.

Second, the working adult generation. They are probably the busiest group, especially young parents who had to juggle between their families, their jobs, and their various responsibilities. Work with the ministry leaders with regard to how to care for the aged. Lead in the area of intergenerational relationships. This group is perfectly suited for this role because they are neither too young nor too old to bring about unity within the Church. For example, many older adults eat alone. Many young people prefer to hang out with their own friends. This young working adult generation can bridge the gap in more ways than one. Those with children know that people of all ages like to play with the little kids. They also bring a natural smile in the eyes of the aging population. With children, there is no need to break the ice. The working adult generation can also assist in going back and forth between their parents' generation and their children's. Instead of being swallowed up with work and worldly concerns, visualize the calling of God to be the glue that binds together the Church of all ages.

Finally, the elderly. Consistently throughout the book, he reminds all to remember Ps 90:12 that exhorts us to number their days in order to gain a heart of wisdom. Ideally, this should have been cultivated since young, but lest that didn't happen, it is better late than never. Having said that, it is easy to regret about failing to do the things that one should or ought to do. It is already too late to regret. What is most constructive will be to pray and ask God to show us how and who to mentor. Young people may have a lot of knowledge and opportunity. They lack for experience and hindsight. If the elderly can mentor a young one, the Church will be stronger as one unit.

This is one of the best books on aging that I have read. Filled with wisdom and insight, it is written by one who had seen many cultural shifts. With biblical insights, we are reminded once again not to be blindsided by the worldliness and cultural outlooks trying to shape our faith into its mold. Quoting the words from Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas in their classic book, "Resident Aliens," they wrote: "The theological task is not merely the interpretative matter of translating Jesus into modern categories but rather to translate the world to him. The theologian’s job is not to make the gospel credible to the modern world, but to make the world credible to the gospel." Learning to age well is not about replacing this task but to continue this ministry. Aging is about sharpening this calling to meaning making and meaning receiving. Powerful book!

I encourage all Church leaders, pastors, and anyone in any position of influence within a Christian community to read this book. Read it more than once.

The Rev Dr William H. Willimon is Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School. He is also the Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church and the Dean of the chapel at Duke University. Not only is he a preacher, a teacher, and a writer, he also calls himself a "peculiar prophet."

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


This book has been provided courtesy of Baker Academic and NetGalley without requiring a positive review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.

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