In honor of Rod Romney’s passing this week, we post a copy of his sermon entitled, “The Blessings of Old Age,” which he shared in 2004 at the Baptist Community Church in Arco Idaho. Rod was an inspiration to many in the Spirit in Action community and a good friend to Del Anderson. You can read Rod’s obituary here.
The sermon is worth sharing in its entirety and I encourage you to stop and read the whole inspiring message about embracing – and enjoying – our later years.
Today I want to talk about the blessings of old age. You may well ask if that is an oxymoron, a phrase that does not make sense. Old age, as Art Linkletter once said, is not for sissies. Often old age can be marked by severe losses of many kinds, as well as illnesses. So what indeed are the blessings that old age offers in a youth-oriented culture that prizes its youngest as its best?
These blessings are numerous, as I have discovered since my retirement four years ago and having now reached the age of 73. I confess that when I first retired after six years of teaching and forty years of ministry, I had the feeling I had been put on the shelf as one who is just taking up space while waiting to die. For a very short time I felt useless. But as I entered more fully into retirement, I began to experience a freedom and newness I had never felt before. So I want to talk today about the particular blessings that I believe old age can bring: a lack of competition, a gentle wisdom, a wider perspective, and a more loving vision.
Lack of Competition
Most of our professional years are spent competing with others for place, acceptance, and recognition. We enter this world asking three basic questions: who am I, what did I come here to do, and what’s next? In trying to answer those questions we often compete with others and do our best to stay ahead and keep up with whatever norms society may impose upon us.
But in old age, there is no longer any need to do that. We have nothing to prove, nothing to defend, and nothing we need to achieve. For the first time in our lives we are free to live without competing with our fellow human creatures. We can settle in and discover more about ourselves, who we are, what we came here to do, as well as spend some time wondering about what’s ahead. We don’t have to prove ourselves any longer. We can be who we are, say what we feel, and let the chips falls where they may.
A Gentle Wisdom
Old people are often characterized as being cantankerous, set in their ways, and forgetful. That is occasionally true, but it need not be the case. You who are in the younger set can begin now to program yourselves to a different way when you reach what is often described as the golden years. The body may be in precarious shape when you become eighty or ninety, but the spirit within can be as full and vibrant as ever. We have more time to reflect, to look backward as well as forward. Rather than regretting all the things we used to do but can’t do anymore, we can look for new things to do that fit our physical or mental limitations.
I have discovered a gentle kind of wisdom emerging in myself in this time of retirement. I have three prayers that were given to me as I wrestled one day with the question of what to do when there was no more job, no more assigned duties, no more routine. The prayers that emerged from that time were these: (a) O God, keep me vital, (b) O God, keep me useful, (c) O God, keep me filled with wonder.
Vitality requires that I exercise both my body and my mind each day, which I have tried to do by going regularly to a gym and by reading new books, trying out new ideas, and writing. Usefulness requires that I be willing to take on the tasks and assignments that come to me which I know absolutely are mine to do, and to let go of those which are not mine. Being filled with wonder requires that I read, ponder and pray daily about the meaning of life and open myself to the mystery and wonder of a God who loves all of us unconditionally.
As I have attempted to live out these three prayers, a new kind of wisdom seems to infill my heart each day. Although I have found myself growing increasing liberal in terms of theology, when it comes to spirituality I have found myself going deeper and reaching forward with wonder and gratitude at the expanding miracle of a God who loves all creation eternally. That leads me to the third point.
A Wider Perspective and Vision
Freed from the expectation of others and the demands of a job, we are ready to explore new vistas of thinking. As an elderly minister in a retirement home once said to me, “So what if I don’t believe some of the things I used to. Nobody can fire me for it. I’m free now to think for myself.” Old age makes us more dependent in some ways, it also offers us more independence.
We are all on a spiritual journey. Along that journey over the years our beliefs and questions of faith may change. It’s not God who changes, but our understandings of God may change. No one has to believe exactly as we do, but as we are willing to be honest and share openly with one another, we may find ourselves viewing God from a different perspective. One thing that has expanded for me is the all-encompassing grace of God—how broad and wide and deep it is, including everyone and shutting no one out. Where I once thought God loved only the Christians and those who interpreted the Bible correctly and lived by its precepts, I now see God’s arms stretched wider than I previously imagined, including everyone, even those we would shut out.
I am and will always be a follower of Jesus. Jesus gives me the clearest picture of God I have. But I have now come to see that the followers of other religions are also loved and accepted by God. I repeat what I said earlier, no one has to believe exactly as I do, but I think we should be willing to be honest with each other and not judge or condemn those who think differently.
Frederick Buechner in one of his books wrote: “Eight-year-olds like eighty-year-olds, have lots of things they’d love to do but can’t because they know they’re not up to them, so they learn to play instead. Eighty-year-olds might do well to take notice. They can play at being eight-year-olds, for instance. Stiff knees and hearing aids, memory loss and poor eyesight are no fun. But there are those who marvelously survive them by somehow managing to see them, as among other things and in spite of all, a little funny.”
So here’s my final word of advice to the aging (which actually includes all of us, because we are all aging): don’t lose your sense of humor. Be willing to take life a little less seriously and have a good time. This life is not all we have. There’s a great adventure ahead of us, one that we have called Death. But Death is not really the end. It’s a new beginning to a better life than this one, where we will be reunited with all the loved ones we have lost, where all our questions will be answered, all our hurts and sorrows will be healed, and the great mystery of life will be explained.
I like what the poet May Sarton has said about aging: “Old age is not an illness; it is a timeless ascent. As power diminishes, we grow toward more light.” We never really die. Jesus said it best: “Unless a seed falls into the earth and dies, it cannot bring forth wheat.” The seeds in all of us must go through a series of deaths before they can flourish into a new expression of its eternal life.
I close with a few of my favorite scriptures from the teachings of Jesus. These words constantly challenge me, and would, I believe, change our world, if we would only follow them.
You have heard it said that you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.
You have heard it said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I tell you not to resist an evil person. Whoever strikes you on the right cheek turn to him the other also.
Greater love has no one than this, that a person lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I have commanded you. Love one another as I have loved you.
It is the same for everyone, no matter what age has been reached. Love is who we are, and love is what we came here to do. So let’s get busy and do it!