By Robert Hull
In his brief poem “Seventy Years,” Wendell Berry writes:
Well, anyhow, I am
not going to die young.1
When my mother died at the age of 71, she seemed old to me. But I was only 39 at that time, and still full of vitality. Nowadays we are told “80 is the new 70,” but to someone only 39, my age of 72 is old, and it’s beginning to feel that way to me too.
When my Milligan College class of 1965 got together for our 50-year reunion last fall, the list of the deceased included 19 names, or 17 percent of those who had graduated with us. Also missing were some with Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, dementia, and loss of mobility.
As Luke Timothy Johnson says, “The longer I live, the more my world is populated by strangers. My parents, my teachers, my colleagues, have disappeared all around me, and with their departure, my sense of sharing the same coherent universe also vanishes.”2
My aging has brought with it some fears. I am not afraid of death, but I am afraid of living too long. To quote Berry again: “Beware of the machinery of longevity. When a man’s life is over the decent thing is for him to die.”3
But it isn’t that simple. What if my body holds out when my mental processes have begun to fail? What if my medical directives aren’t followed, and my dying is prolonged by undesired technological interventions? What if the pain I now deal with doesn’t subside but intensifies so much it can be managed only with medications that impair my judgment and necessary physical processes?
Prior to my retirement I had mapped out a future that included many things I am not now able to do. What if I cannot finish the projects I had hoped to complete?
How Does Theology Help Me?
Scripture does not furnish a theology of aging. On the one hand, a long life is described as a blessing that comes to the righteous: “Length of days and years of life and abundant welfare” will be given to those who honor the teachings of God (Proverbs 3:2)4. On the other hand, “There is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evil-doing” (Ecclesiastes 7:15). Even for the aged, life is transitory and besieged with trouble: “The years of our life are threescore and ten, or even by reason of strength fourscore; yet their span is but toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10). The New Testament says almost nothing about aging as a theological concern, other than the old are to be honored (1 Timothy 5:1, 9). But from Scripture and experience I have learned to rely on these three theological tenets: the faithfulness of God, the support of the church, and the certainty of the future.
God is faithful and compassionate. Whatever occurs in our lives, God will not forsake us. God is “the Father of mercies and God of all comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:3). He knows our fears and hears our cries of complaint, just as he heard the cry of Jesus from the cross. Although I do not believe God wills our pain, I am sure he is present in our suffering, just as he was present in the sufferings of Jesus.
In the church where I worship, it is not unusual to see an 85-year-old person on a walker giving the pastoral prayer. The aging still want to be useful; they have spiritual gifts, experience, and wisdom. The supportive church will include them in the planning and conduct of worship, leadership, outreach, and decision-making of the local church.
It is more important to live wisely than to live long: “Teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom (Psalm 90:12). We may not be able to complete all the projects we had hoped to, but the real work of our lives is in growing ever more mature in Christ.
Every life is only a “first draft,” which awaits its final form in God’s future. As Paul writes, “I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).
1 Wendell Berry, New Collected Poems (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2012), 357.
2 Luke Timothy Johnson, The Revelatory Body: Theology as Inductive Art (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015), 212.
3 Berry, New Collected Poems, 148.
4 Scripture quotations are taken from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible (RSV), copyright 1946, 1952, 1971.
Robert Hull serves as professor of New Testament Emeritus with Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan College in Tennessee.