This thoughtful essay is great for small groups, and comes with three discussion-starter questions at the end.
When I retired from teaching at Regent College, I had high expectations of what I could accomplish in my postretirement years. My personal heroines included strong Canadian women like Pauline Vanier who, in her early 70s, relinquished her beautiful Montreal home to join her son Jean at L’Arche in France, and helped found a movement that has profoundly changed culture. And the poet Margaret Avison, who wrote subtle and complex poetry until her death at 89. Many of my retired colleagues went on, seemingly undeterred by age, doing what they had been doing – writing, researching, travelling, teaching.
Yet, by my early 70s, I struggled with health issues – both my own and my husband’s. Without warning, we had hit the threshold between "young-old" age and "middle-old" age. In fact, some days we felt as if we had stumbled directly into just plain "old-old" age. I often found myself barely coping with daily tasks that at one time I would have breezed through on my way to more important things.
Now, the daily duties of love were the important things in my life.
I was, to say the least, surprised by age.
So when the words "still time" were clearly presented to my mind as I blew out candles on my 70-something birthday cake, I recognized and welcomed the quiet voice of the Spirit of God. My heart leaped and my mind raced. Still time!For what? Time to finish some of my stalled or not-yet-started projects? Time to speak or teach again? Time yet to do something courageous – or at least productive?
Gradually, over the next weeks of listening to the Spirit’s voice, I would come to consider still time in a very different way. Yes, there was still time to serve, and mostly in very quiet and hidden ways. More important than my serving, the Spirit seemed to be gently insisting, there was still time for me to become – to grow in grace. Still time for God to continue His transforming work in me. And perhaps, most importantly, still time to learn what it means simply to be.
STILL TIME TO SERVE – PORTRAITS OF GRACE
Fortunately, I have a group of dear friends sharing with me in the journey through the years. Some are a bit ahead of me on the homeward journey, some a little behind, but all are also adjusting to age limitations. One of these companions on the journey is Joan Churchill. Joan, a trained teacher and Christian educator, spent most of her working years engaged in the life of Baptist churches throughout Western Canada as a pastor’s wife. Now widowed, she has recently applied her life experience and wisdom in service as moderator of a village church going through a complicated transition.
TELLING THE TRUTH ABOUT AGING
Aging, as we progress through it, entails a series of losses by which we become prepared for death. But while facing age realistically and head on, we also need to encourage one another to resist strongly the widespread negativity about the aged and aging that springs from our largely utilitarian valuing of human life.
In an economically driven view of human value, the old are the grey tsunami threatening the economy. Those who are no longer in the workforce are "unproductive" except as we generate the services of which we are consumers. This attitude fosters a kind of activist approach which will, at some point, leave the aging person feeling useless or of little value.
Somewhere between false positivity ("You’re only as old as you feel" – oh, really? Then your age is somewhere between 65 and 85, depending on the day), and the equally false negativity fostered by our society’s lies about what makes a human being valuable, there lies a balanced, deeply biblical view which sees human life valued primarily because each person bears, from conception to death, the image of God, and age as gift, privilege and opportunity.
In this view still time becomes valued not only in the sense that there is still time to do, but even more in the sense that there is, in old age, the opportunity of finding still time to be, to become all God intends us to be. There is, for those of us who get to live into the bonus years beyond 70, a chance to enter a more contemplative time of life. –MH
But now that the work is done, Joan is ready to turn church governance over to others. She is discovering a uniqueness to these "extra years," including time "to listen more and talk less when in conversation about spiritual matters." At 80, she is becoming "the turn-to person when those younger in faith feel the need of support, guidance or simple companionship."
As for the local church, she says, "I continue to hold and share dreams of what could be accomplished. What I cannot do for my Lord, I can affirm and support others who are able to do."
Mentoring, whether formally or informally through the joy of warm friendships with younger people, is a theme for many of my companions. Dave Tjart completed his years of pastoral ministry in the Christian and Missionary Alliance as minister to seniors at Beulah Alliance Church, Edmonton. Now in his mid-80s, he tells me he "goes out of his way" to associate with "younger folks," and now has "a handful who seem to value my words … in very small groups, and mostly one on one, we interact regarding grace."
In their mid-70s, retired ESL teacher and immigrant settlement worker Carol Woods and her husband Rodger, a retired architect, are also involved with younger folks, travelling widely to mentor younger business people in developing economies as well as continuing to be involved in the lives of newcomers to Canada.
Their home in Calgary, located near a large university, is a place of mid- to longer-term hospitality. "We have had, unsolicited, people living in our home for longer or shorter periods of time," Carol says. "This is not always easy, and there are days when having to be dressed for the day to make coffee irks me, but the rewards are huge."
For me, serving has taken on a different configuration as I have moved from early to middle old age, and I know it will continue to change as the years pass. The same joy I once felt in opening the Scriptures in conference halls and churches, I have rediscovered in working with a team of younger women to share the Word with 15 or 20 women in the rural Nova Scotia community I called home for a time.
Instead of leading graduate seminars, I became part of some very small reading circles, again involving much younger people. We met to talk about books we had read, and about life. Where once my husband Cam and I could invite on a "come one, come all" basis and enjoy having a crowded kitchen and table, now, when we feel able, we invite guests to our table a very few at a time, and serve extremely simply.
So, alongside so many companions to be heartened and challenged by, I find there is still time to serve – quietly, joyfully.
STILL TIME TO BECOME – GRACE AND TRANSFORMATION
Even more important to me than serving, however, is the deepening of my life in Christ in the still time that health limitations impose. Walking with me in this is another beloved companion, Kathleen Gow. Well known as a sociologist, healthcare consultant, and professor of Christian spirituality at Wycliffe College, Toronto, she moved late in her retirement to Nova Scotia to be near family – and that brought her, as a gift and for a time, near to me. Kathleen, now in her 80s, says, "Accomplishments when we were younger were exciting and a gift, but they can be a barrier to trusting and accepting whatever the older years may bring."
As Cam and I accompanied our own parents into and through deep old age (all four of our parents living near or beyond 90), we found it remarkable to watch God work out new graces in them as they experienced the deep deprivations and losses of old age.
We now look to the Lord to work such grace in us too.
There is, of course, both an active and a passive component in this. We rest in the ongoing and still unfinished work of God as He uses our circumstances to transform us into increasing Christlikeness. At the same time we are actively attentive and responsive to the work of the Spirit in our lives.
Others of my companions speak of this process thoughtfully. Joan sees this as a time when, in contrast to earlier years of doing, she sees her response to Christ, "less as an accomplishment and more as obedience. I have time to focus on the fruit of the Spirit and to pray specifically for growth." Dave reminds me of the promise, "The righteous … will still bear fruit in old age / they will stay fresh and green" (Psalm 92:14).
Much of the fruit the Spirit produces in us in older years is less the immediately sweet fruit like love and joy, and more the quietly sustaining fruit like patience, gentleness, self-control.
I am discovering with age there are new disciplines of thought, tongue and spirit to be learned. This means, for me, resisting the impulse to irritability, criticism and negativity. I am being challenged to "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5).
Another fruit of the Spirit of truth is honest reflection, facing my own shortcomings, while at the same time resisting the voice of the accuser who comes to "steal and kill and destroy" whatever I have offered to God down through the years (Revelation 12:10; John 10:10).
Following the Spirit’s leading, I am experiencing a new season of repentance, a sort of personal Lenten season, with an ever deeper realization of my complete dependency on the Lord Jesus, finding my love and gratitude grow richer and deeper as I realize in new ways both the cost and depth of grace.
At the level of human interaction, an aspect of growing in grace and graciousness comes by learning to receive the kindness of others. Most of us who have been involved in ministries throughout our lives have been, by disposition, givers. Learning to receive from others, to simply say thank you, requires that we acknowledge we have needs and vulnerabilities. This provides the opportunity for growth in the grace of humility.
So too does learning to say no. There comes a time for the last solo to be sung, the final sermon to be preached, the last class to be taught. As in the Acadian forest that grew near our home in Nova Scotia, there comes a time when the old trees must fall to make space for the young to flourish. It is a law of life. Saying no to the pressure to carry on with tasks for which we are no longer suited or able is one more opportunity to grow into our last years with dignity and grace.
In the fellowship of the Spirit, we can learn to accept the many losses of deepening old age and offer these back to the one who alone can shape Christlikeness in us. Many years ago I found and clung to the promise, "The Lord will fulfill His purposes for me" (Psalm 138:8). I cling to it still.
STILL TIME TO SIMPLY BE – QUIETUDE, CONTEMPLATION AND PRAYER
Our older years offer a period of our lives in which to learn something of the contemplative life. Sooner or later health issues and other limitations will bring an end to our serving. "Where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away" (1 Corinthians 13:8), the Apostle Paul tells us.
So it seems to me that it is wise to consciously cultivate the practices that have sustained Christians for centuries – meditation on the Word of God, thoughtful, Spirit-guided introspection and reflection, and unceasing prayer.
Unhurried, ample time is a gift that has come with aging, and one which I embrace with deep pleasure.
I now experience an extension and expansion of a lifetime discipline of time set aside each day to centre myself in Christ. Though in some phases of my life that devotional time was pretty much "grab’n’go," now I can take a long, low angle into the day with small morning ceremonies of putting on the coffee, journalling, reading the Scriptures, praying and then going for a walk with our little border collie. The theme of it all is gratitude.
Many of my companions speak of the older years of aging as affording an opportunity for growth in prayer. Kathleen is often imprisoned by the chronic pain of rheumatoid arthritis, but as we talk I know it is well with her soul. She says, "We say, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want … .’ But sometimes in illness or severe pain one can only whisper, ‘The Lord is … . ‘ And that becomes the most profound reality of all. The one who knows every kind of pain so intimately comes to meet us exactly where we are."
And while Kathleen points me in the direction of the medieval Christian mystics, Carol reminds me to live it out in the present. She says, "Prayer networks through technology are a way to connect people and bring focus to concerns without our being present, so we need to keep learning how to use technology."
I have always prayed. But now, the wakeful hours in the middle of the night, the too-early hours of the morning, the half hour or more I walk each day all afford me new opportunities to pray. Perhaps the greatest new understanding for me has been the growing awareness that real prayer is produced in me, not by me.
Prayer is really the work of the Spirit in and through us from the very first heart cry of "Abba" through to our final one, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit." It is He, our blessed alongside-one, who takes up our prayers, poorly uttered and self-and family-centred as they may be, and translates them into the language of heaven, making them part of the cry of all creation for the full revelation and realization of redemption (Romans 8:22–27).
Prayer is becoming something I say or do, and more and more simply a matter of my presenting myself to God as an instrument of His Spirit, asking Him to prompt and word my prayers, and present them on my behalf.
STILL TIME – SWEET SURPRISES
I am also discovering there are, from time to time, wonderful surprises of recovery and respite. After periods of soul-wearying struggle or physical illness (and these often come together), there are periods of rest and joy in which we find we are being ministered to, restored and refitted for the next stage of the journey.
After periods when grief and loss have like a rockslide covered and choked all our springs of joy, we find one day a little trace of wetness on the slate rock face, and joy begins to trickle and then flow into our lives once again.
And, as I am finding with joyful surprise now that I have a pacemaker and my husband has recovered from major heart surgery, we may experience resurgent energy – energy we can use to make or execute plans that had seemed beyond us, or to record or organize our family stories, or for creative exploration.
The 17th-century poet George Herbert exults in such a time in his poem "The Flower," in which he says, "How fresh, O Lord, how sweet and clean / Are thy returns!…/ Grief melts away / Like snow in May … / And now in age I bud again / After so many deaths I live and write."
If and when such periods of renewal come into our still time, we can welcome them as the resting places they are, and use them to prepare ourselves for the next stages of the long journey home.
There will come a time in each of our lives, as in the whole of human history, when the angel will sound the trumpet and declare, "No More Time." But until then, dear friends, there is still time.