Growing Old

Yesterday, I spent the afternoon visiting the greatest generation that Tom Brokaw once described so very well. All 3 of these visits were with women. I had hoped to visit with at least one gentleman but he didn’t answer the ring at his door. These are people with really amazing stories. I love that it’s my job to get them talking and then ask them questions so that they will tell me even more stories. They have seen and done amazing things, but for each of them, there are health concerns. Each has a different concern facing them with family members trying to help where they can.

Instead of going on a fourth visit, which let’s admit that 3 visits was an introverted achievement, I went in search of a cup of coffee and started googling “growing old in america.” Because there is some fear around growing old. I’ll admit it that I have some fear as I watch these amazing women. I notice the challenge of independence and the limits of the body and even the mind and when family members are just so overwhelmed and don’t know what more to do. And I have heard it said so many times by this generation and some others that we ship off the old. We don’t care for each other as we once did. I sipped my coffee wondering if this is really true. Was there a really a time that we cared for our aging elders that well? David Hackett Fisher seems to think this is a nice story we’ve told ourselves. I’m really not sure.

But, I did read these statistics with shock and dismay. Because all these numbers and facts say to me is that we don’t do a very good job of listening to each other. We have been told this story over and over again that in America, anyone can pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. Not just that you can, but you should. Some even try to quote the Bible saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” But that doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible. It’s another story we have told ourselves.

What it does say in the Bible goes something like the Gospel Lesson for Sunday. Someone interrupts Jesus in the middle of his teaching, to ask (er, demand), “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.” Jesus doesn’t want to be the judge. He doesn’t want to mediate. He even seems a little annoyed that this guy could be so greed but he doesn’t send him away empty. Jesus gives him a story about a man that had a surplus crop and built a barn to store it. I especially like that in this parable this barn builder talks to his soul, telling it to “relax, eat, drink and be merry.” Generally, this seems like really good advice. But, we quickly learn that it’s not when God calls this barn builder a fool for he has stored up his treasure but is not rich in God. And there’s the question this greedy man in the crowd and all of us must ask: what does it mean to be rich in God?

Because it’s not about stuff, right? That much is clear. But, it seems to be driving at something more ephemeral. Something a bit harder to pin down. Something that we might not really grasp in our time and in our place because our world is so different. Jesus is preaching in a limited good society. There is only so much stuff to be had so that if one person gets rich (and you know stuffs all those riches in a barn for himself), he is taking away the wealth from someone else. There isn’t more out there. He just took it. And it wasn’t his to take. Richard Swanson explains this really well:

The farmer misunderstands the world. He thinks that hard work and luck have earned him an exemption from human interconnectedness. He is wrong.

So, again, what does it mean to be rich in God? Maybe it’s as true as it was in those wise words that Clarence wrote to George in the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. Maybe we need to remember what Cláudio Carvalhaes said at the 60th Synod of Lakes and Prairies Synod School: “I know how you belong to God by the ways that you belong to each other.” He went on to say: “Individualism is killing us. Am I my brother’s keeper? Yes, I am. If you are hungry, I cannot sing a hymn. Unless you are taken care of, I will not sleep at night. Belonging to God is not easy.” And it’s not. But it seems that this is exactly what it means to be rich in God. It means that we are connected. That none of us is alone at any age — but especially not in our latter years when we reflect on all that has been in our lives as Oliver Saks did so beautifully on his 80th birthday. But, it shouldn’t just happen on big birthdays or at big milestones, it should be something we remember every single day. We are rich in God because we have each other.

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