In our reading for today, Sister Joan writes, "The problem with aging is not age, it is petrification, rigidity of soul, inflexibility." How true that is. I have met a lot of very old young people. And I have met some exceptionally young elderly folks. As one of my favorite preachers, William Sloane Coffin, once said, "My goal in life is to die young as late as possible."
One of the great gains of serving as a pastor in congregations is that I have become closely related to more "seniors" in the course of my life than I ever would have had I not been a pastor. I have had my share of seniors who are petrified, rigid, and inflexible. On my best days, I responded well to such encounters. I reminded myself of how much change they had endured without choice and how invested they had now become in the unchanging patterns of church life. If they lost a sense of familiarity and predictability in the community that had been a rock of assurance for so many years--what would be left to hold on to? Would there be anything to hold them when they needed it most?
That being said, I have to say, that over all my years in ministry--almost 40 years--my overwhelming experience is of seniors (and I mean folks who would now call ME young in my 60's) with a remarkable capacity for change and flexibility--a largeness of soul. Even when they had their reasons for sticking with the way things were and had been, they listened and reasoned and came to welcome change and support it in all kinds of ways. Of course, it made a difference, always, that they felt heard and understood and not dismissed and did not feel that their take on things was simply being tolerated. When they were thoroughly included in the discernment process of change--it (and they) made all the difference. We always learn when we understand even when we disagree.
That being said, I have to say that some of the most petrified, rigid and inflexible people in the course of my ministry have been those younger in years. Indeed, a particularly sad memory I carry is of a congregation I served in my early years of ministry. Upon leaving after 8 years of ministry, a younger pastor (in his 30's) was called and in less than 5 years he destroyed the congregation. One of the most petrified, rigid, in flexible people I have ever met (and I did meet him on a few occasions). He succeeded in cultivating that same posture among many of the younger people I had known and worked with for years. Others rejected his heavy handed ways. Seniors were largely shunted aside, lost in the fury and the fray. The church died. There is not even a building that remains.
We are never too young...or too old to cultivate a receptivity to new ideas and perspectives, a genuine curiosity about what and how others think, an ability to know one's mind and yet always assume that there is more to be known. How are you doing on that front?
On one occasion, Jesus said, "Don't put new wine put into old wineskins; otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved." (Matthew 9:17)