Here is a trustworthy saying: Whoever aspires to be an elder desires a noble task.
The Dene (pronounced Den-nay) are a Northern Canadian aboriginal tribe who govern themselves by a council of wise men. As is typical in many aboriginal societies, the male elders are chosen by the women. I once had the occasion to speak with a Dene woman about the process of selecting elders in their communities. I asked what I assumed was an intelligent question, “On what basis do you decide who’s an elder among you?” She answered me with a puzzled look, “You just know. Some people are elders while others are just old people.” It struck me as an important distinction to make for my own life, as I too grow older. Will others see me as an elder in God’s kingdom, or as just another old person?
In a recent publication by Regent College* a number of students and faculty were asked to reflect on the topic of aging well. In one article, professor Maxine Hancock speaks of the characteristics she has observed in people who age well, especially in debilitating circumstances. She writes,
I have had the privilege of watching people whose long habits of spiritual discipline and personal devotion taught them to accept infirmity with patience, and care with gratitude. Even those who experienced dementia retained a core identity grounded in Christ; they met death at peace and unafraid.
Often, when I meet with younger people for spiritual direction, I will ask them what type of old person they want to be. I try to encourage them to start preparing now for the characteristics they wish to see in their future selves. As Eugene Peterson notes, it is a “long obedience in the same direction” that ultimately forms the character of old age.
What are the character traits that God is presently investing in you for your old age? What is it that you are being obedient to today that will bear fruit for the person you will soon enough be? How, in your old age, might all that you have learned from a life of seeking and finding God contribute to the fabric of the Christian community around you? In other words, what type of elder will you be? Or will you be just another old person?
In the same publication, Dr. James Houston reflects on the life-long relational qualities that contribute to the making of an elder. He writes,
An elder is someone who, all his or her life, has been committed to relational values such as friendship and family. As elders grow old, they continue to foster communal values and strong relationships. In the Old Testament, the elder is the one who facilitates the maturing of personal relationships within the community
This relational emphasis is also echoed by Regent graduate Linda Seale who sees mentoring as one the chief tasks we should anticipate and equip ourselves for as we age. She writes,
Mentoring involves wisdom. In a world overwhelmed with information, we are sadly lacking in wisdom. Wisdom develops over a lifetime of pondering and integrating the experiences given by our Lord. We need to pass this on to the next generations to help them mature, to stand there with encouragement, and to provide that fertile soil in which new leaders can develop.
The prophet Hosea counsels us to “sow righteousness for yourselves, reap the fruit of unfailing love, and break up your unplowed ground” (Hos. 10:12). In other words, the making of an elder is a seasoned work that begins long before we reach old age. As Linda Seale wisely concludes, “Aging well is a process that begins by doing any stage of life well.”
Grow old along with me!
The best is yet to be,
The last of life, for which the first was made:
Our times are in His hand
Who saith “A whole I planned,
Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”
Rabbi Ben Ezra, by Robert Browning
*see http://www.regent-college.edu/pdf/regentworld/RegentWorldSummer2011.pdf for a pdf of this publication.