By Rev. Thomas L. Kline
“Thus says the Lord of Hosts: Old men and old women shall again sit in the streets of Jerusalem, each one with his staff in his hand, because of great age. The streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets” (Zechariah 8:4,5).
What a beautiful picture this is: old men and old women filling the streets of Jerusalem. Because of their great age it says they are carrying staffs in their hands. And then the picture goes on: alongside of these old men and women are boys and girls playing in the streets elderly people and young children together in the streets of Jerusalem. And the Lord looks at this picture and says it is marvelous in His sight. It is marvelous in His sight because it is a picture of a community that is whole and well, a community that is alive. And why? Because all ages are present and valued.
This morning we want to talk about the blessings of old age, the fact that the period of human life known as old age is a crowning step for our lives, the fact that old age is a state of life to be valued for its wisdom and enlightenment, the fact that old age is an essential part of a healthy community, church or society.
It is interesting that the Writings of the New Church divide our lives into four stages: our childhood, our youth, adult age, and finally, the last step is said to be old age. Our childhood is said to be a time of instruction (that’s when we learn); adulthood is said to be a time of intelligence; but old age is said to be a time of wisdom. Old age is a time of wisdom, a wisdom that comes from innocence. It is a willingness to be led by the Lord.
But why is wisdom associated with the final years of our lives? First of all, we are told that true wisdom is not just a matter of learning, but a matter of life. True wisdom is not up here (in our head), but wisdom is down here (in our heart). True wisdom comes from the life-long journey of walking hand in hand with the Lord. It is the life-long journey of discovering who the Lord is the journey of finding that we can trust Him to be with us every step of the way. That’s the wisdom of old age.
True wisdom is the life-long journey of seeing the truths of the Lord’s Word down here in the uses and activities of our lives. In that process of bringing truth into our lives, over a lifetime we make that truth our own.
Finally, the wisdom of old age is the magnificent realization that we can’t do it alone, the realization that without the Lord we are nothing. In old age we look back over our life and see that the Lord has been there all the while.
What do the Writings of the New Church teach us about old age? Just listen to this passage from the Writings: “Old age is the last age, when earthly and corporeal things begin to be put off and the interiors of a man begin to be enlightened” (AC 3492). So in the last stage of our life the Lord allows the things of our body to wane gradually and grow dim. We find that our physical bodies are not what they used to be. The Lord does this on purpose, so that during the last stages of our lives our minds can be elevated toward more interior things. The Lord, in His wisdom, provides a gradual giving up of the things of this world as a preparation for the eternity of heaven.
It is interesting to ask elderly people what things they value most. How often they respond with memories of friends, family, and human relationships. In old age a transition is taking place. It is a time of uplifting our lives toward heaven.
Another beautiful teaching in the Heavenly Doctrines: We are told that the body grows old but the spirit itself does not age. The body grows old, but if anything the spirit grows younger. This is why we all find ourselves in the unusual situation where as years are put on, we still feel the same. The body may feel older, but the person inside that body is still the same. We still feel just as young as we ever did. And in this sense we are all young. It is the timelessness of the human spirit.
The Writings teach us: “To grow old in heaven is to grow young” (HH 414). In relation to eternity we are all in our spiritual infancy.
A final teaching from the Writings of the New Church (an unusual teaching): The Writings say that old age begins at the year sixty. This is an unusual teaching because we don’t often think of ourselves as being old as we approach sixty. At sixty we are often still involved in our day-to-day uses. The events of our natural life don’t suddenly change at sixty. But still the Writings suggest that this is the beginning of old age because it is a time when subtle changes are taking place in our spiritual attitudes toward life. At age sixty, even though we are still involved in our life-long occupations, we see those uses in a new light. Gradually we are willing to accept the limitations of the human spirit. We begin to have the humility that we may not accomplish everything we set out to accomplish in life. We begin to see the reality that this life is not forever. We begin to face the reality of the next life. The things of this world are not as important as they once seemed. Our values change and are uplifted. We not only believe but we actually feel and see that there are higher realities worth reaching for. It is the beginning of an uplifting in the growth of our spirit.
Old age need not be a time of decreasing usefulness. If anything, as age advances, the uses of life can become higher and more heavenly in their form. Retirement sometimes can be feared and seen as a time of uselessness. But retirement can also be a new opportunity to pursue the real loves of the heart. So often, because of life’s circumstances we are forced into careers and occupations that we do not truly love. Yet in the autumn of our lives, the opportunity is there to find our ruling loves, to pursue those dreams we always held to, to find those uses that more match our eternal character.
Old age is also a time of reflection reflection on life in the light of the Lord’s Word. Those approaching old age may not think of themselves as theologians or scholars, but they need to realize that even a simple understanding and reflection on the Lord’s Word in the light of that period of life known as old age can bring about a wisdom not known in any other period of life. A person reading the Word in the wisdom of old age brings about a conjunction with the heavens that is essential both to the individual and to society as a whole. The power of the heavens to one reading the Word in the light of a lifetime of experiences is the very heart of the church on earth.
Every age has blessings and it also has its challenges and hardships. And this can be especially true with old age. It can be a time of physical decline, a time of extreme loneliness. It can be a time of seeing lifelong friends pass on and apparently leave. It can be a time of loneliness when a spouse has already gone to the other world. It can be a time of depression, physical pain, a time of wondering, “What is my use in this world? Am I merely a burden on society?”
We may not fully understand the working of the Lord’s providence and permission. At times we may have to trust that uses are being performed in old age that are greater than we can see and understand. We may have to trust that at times the uses accomplished by prolonging life in this world are greater than the individual.
The Lord may extend life in this world to provide a plane of innocence here on earth innocence that is more far-reaching than the individual can consciously know. Or the Lord may be secretly implanting heavenly remains and memories as a final blessing on a long life of use. We need sensitivity, love and care for those in the hardships of old age the courage to trust in the Lord’s will. The Psalmist said, “Cast me not off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength fails” (Psalm 71:9).
I would like to end with a picture of Moses. This picture is from the 34th chapter of the book of Deuteronomy. It is that beautiful picture of Moses, in the last hours of his life on earth, standing on the top of Mount Nebo, looking over the promised land of Canaan. For forty years Moses had led the people through the wilderness. He had led them out of their captivity in Egypt, and now he had led them up to the very border of the promised land. And now we see that glorious moment when Moses, now an old man 120 years old, is ready to die. The Lord allows him to see the promised land before He dies.
That picture of Moses’ viewing the expanse of the promised land, the land where the Children of Israel would now live, is a picture of true wisdom, the wisdom that comes in old age, that wisdom that comes when we have walked long enough through the journey of lives to really know and see that the Lord is with us. The wisdom of old age: it is a wisdom that comes when we begin to put off the captivity of earthly and corporeal things and are truly willing to see and accept the reality of heaven and the next life. That picture of Moses viewing the promised land before him and at the same time remembering the long journey that was behind him (both sides of the mountain) is a picture of true spiritual enlightenment.
In the book of Zechariah we have a picture of old men and women sitting in the streets of Jerusalem with the streets of the city full of boys and girls playing. It is a picture of the spiritual ages of our lives from childhood to old age. And the Lord looks at this picture, and His response is that it is marvelous in His eyes.