Saturday, June 23, 2012

Immature Elders

A video has been circulating in which Francis Chan calls on Christians to make better use of the closing years of their lives. I've addressed the subject many times, and I agree with the general thrust of what Chan is saying. It's something that ought to be said more often. In fact, our society needs to radically change its standards for other stages of life as well, not just the elderly years. What we expect from the opening and middle decades of life doesn't make much sense either.
But there are some commenters in the thread linked above who are criticizing Chan. They mention the health problems that the elderly typically have. Why expect so much from the elderly when they have such bad health? One man comments, "I just love it when younger people tell me how much more wonderful they are than me." And so on.
Is Chan's intention to "tell older people how much more wonderful he is than them"? I doubt it. And I doubt that he was ignoring health issues. He included a lot of qualifiers that his critics are ignoring, and much of what he said was ambiguous enough to allow for a more reasonable interpretation than his critics suggest. For example, he mentioned that the elderly can give money and mentor the young. How much health do you need to do that sort of thing? If elderly people can return to work (as many do), play golf, garden, travel on vacations, travel to visit relatives, go out to eat at restaurants, keep living in their own home until they're in their eighties or older, watch television, etc., then why think they can't do Christian work like praying, teaching a Sunday school class, giving money to Christian ministries, evangelism, apologetics, and missions trips? In this information age, with so many advances in medicine and technology, with the sort of political freedoms and opportunities we have in nations like the United States, shouldn't we have higher standards for the elderly? Shouldn't we expect more from them?
As an apologist, I often notice the absence of the elderly in apologetic contexts. Often, there's an absence among other groups as well, not just among the elderly. But older Christians have some advantages that younger ones don't have. They should generally have more experience and knowledge, and retirement should give them more free time. Do we see that reflected in churches, books, online forums, financial giving, etc.? Not as much as we ought to.
We don't exempt people from criticism, even criticism by those who are younger, just because they're old. Think of Jerry Sandusky, for example. There's some honor associated with aging, but a person's age is just one factor we take into account among others. And middle-aged individuals have a responsibility to teach and set good examples for those who are younger. They tell young people what objectives they should set for themselves as they get older, what standards of judgment they should apply to other people, etc. Part of being responsible in your young and middle-aged years is planning for the closing decades of your life. Younger people often pay the bills for those who are older and take care of them in other ways (through taxation, by taking the elderly into their homes or placing them in facilities that will care for them, and so on). There's no way for younger people to avoid making judgments about the elderly.
I suspect that the resistance people often encounter when they make comments like Chan's is a result of a couple of factors, among others. Comments like Chan's give people a sense of guilt about their own behavior. And they don't like the implications Chan's comments have for older people they don't want to see criticized, like their parents or grandparents. When the elderly are criticized, the criticism may be applicable to somebody like your grandmother or your uncle, not just the elderly in general. But we should take the medicine, even though it tastes bad. We can appreciate and honor older generations for the good they've done, but recognize that the good is accompanied by some bad. We should try to improve upon what they've given us, "that a people yet to be created may praise the Lord" (Psalm 102:18). You don't honor your elders, or prepare the way for future generations, by comforting and flattering them with lies.
What's below is another video I found helpful. Like Chan's video, it could be taken the wrong way, but need not be. For example, I wouldn't take the comment about getting rid of television, video games, etc. as a claim that something like watching television or playing video games is always inappropriate in every context. But somebody might take the comment that way. If you're going to interpret some of the comments in that manner, which the speakers probably didn't intend, then at least appreciate the general thrust of the message they're conveying:
"Consider a story from the February 1998 edition of Reader's Digest, which tells about a couple who 'took early retirement from their jobs in the Northeast five years ago when he was 59 and she was 51. Now they live in Punta Gorda, Florida, where they cruise on their 30 foot trawler, play softball and collect shells.' At first, when I read it I thought it might be a joke. A spoof on the American Dream. But it wasn't. Tragically, this was the dream: Come to the end of your life - your one and only precious, God-given life - and let the last great work of your life, before you give an account to your Creator, be this: playing softball and collecting shells. Picture them before Christ at the great day of judgment: 'Look, Lord. See my shells.' That is a tragedy. And people today are spending billions of dollars to persuade you to embrace that tragic dream." (John Piper, Don't Waste Your Life [Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2003], pp. 45-46)


  1. Billy Graham has been in failing health for several years now. Yet he recently published a book, at the age of 93. He continues to bear witness to the Christian faith as best he can, making the most of the circumstances he finds himself in. And he has insight, from hindsight, that his younger self didn't have.

  2. Patrick and Francis both have the same last name of Chan. Must be a good last name!

  3. Harold Thune, Senator John Thune's father, is one elderly chap who continues to be one of the greatest Christian influences for me and others in the community. Wish there were more like him.

  4. There are immature elders. In part it's because the church in their day had some growing up to do and it took our generation to do it for them. In their day cultural Christianity was more prevalent and the gospel was conflated with the American dream.

    The irony is that younger people often think they are better than their elders. It's a new day and dad or grandma doesn't understand the new fangled things. We have better preachers, better music, better resources, better technology, better techniques, etc. It's easy to marginalize the particular wisdom that our elders have in favor of our supposedly better ideas.

    So we need to realize that cultural Christianity has been replaced with such crap as the Emerging Church or Your Best Life Now. Our generation is really not any better at getting it going now that we don't have to go to church to be respected by today's secular society. And when our kids think they are better than us, we are only seeing the results of the disdain we have for our own parents. It kind of reminds me of Steven Furtick in his "Haters" video.