I first became aware of the relentless process of aging in an unexpected way. I was a college pastor, 37 years old, and a student from the campus across the street had come for an appointment. She talked out her problem, and we prayed. As she got up to leave, she said with a warm smile, "Thanks very much for seeing me; I thought it would be good for me to talk to someone middle-aged."

Me, middle-aged? It was a brand-new and unexpected thought. I pondered it for some time after she left. I'm not middle-aged, I thought. I am young, not that much different from the hundreds of students I preach to every Sunday.

But the truth slowly sank in, and, since then, people here and there have managed to remind me of my aging process. For example, I was holding a church conference in Western Canada when I was in my early 60s. As I crossed the conference grounds from the lodge to the meeting place, singing to myself, I saw my friend Maurice coming toward me. He stopped, put his hand on my forearm, and said in a solicitous voice, "At your age, you shouldn't be walking and singing at the same time."

Later that year, my wife, Kathleen, and I were driving across Michigan on Interstate 94. It was late afternoon and time to quit for the day, so I pulled into a motel. Inside, I asked the usual questions: "Do you have a non-smoking room for two? Preferably on the main floor?" The man at the desk studied his charts and then, smiling as if he was going to be helpful, said, "I can give you a handicapped room. Fully equipped." It was another jarring moment. Did I look that decrepit? I wondered.

But the coup de grâce came a few months ago, administered by the boss of a roofing crew replacing shingles on a house next door. I asked him to look at my roof and give me his opinion. We walked together to my driveway, and he stood for a few moments looking up. Then he said pleasantly, "You won't be around to replace those shingles."

I'm not alone in such experiences. I was standing with the late Bishop Paul N. Ellis when a young man asked him what it was like to be old (he was then in his 60s). Ellis replied, "At least I've gotten there, while you aren't sure you will."

The young man saw the humor in the bishop's reply, but his question did not surprise either of us. Many observant seniors can talk about the subtle social changes that begin to manifest themselves as age creeps on: Sales clerks may show a lack of interest in providing service; con artists look on them as easy prey for scams; younger people may ignore their comments in a group.

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Growing old is not for the humorless. I've been collecting funny stories about aging and memory loss for some time now. This is not politically incorrect, because I'm telling stories on myself. One story my wife and I both enjoy is about an elderly couple who was driving out to meet friends for a social evening. She says to him, "Honey, you try to remember where we're going, and I'll try to remember who we are."

Admittedly, there is a less pleasant side to aging. Strength begins to wane, degenerative diseases show up, floating creaks and aches become regular companions. Perhaps worst of all is the subtle anxiety, always just under the surface, about what the future will hold in this brave new world. The psalmist's prayer takes on new meaning: "Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone" (Ps. 71:9).

Slowly Down the Pilgrim Path

In my experience, that sort of response is the right one. We can allow faith to take us by one arm and hope by the other as we walk, perhaps a little less briskly than before, down this pilgrim path.

Faith says in one ear, "And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you" (Rom. 8:11). That verse need not apply only to our future resurrection. It can also suggest that even the closing years of our mortal life can be infused with special energy from God's Spirit.

Hope says in the other ear, "Because of our faith, Christ has brought us into this place of highest privilege where we now stand, and we confidently and joyfully look forward to sharing God's glory" (Rom. 5:2, NLT). If faith brings the future into the present, giving "substance to our hopes" (Heb. 11:1, NEB), then hope gives the present the assurance of a glorious future.

In the meantime, the people of God-the church-can do a wonderful thing for those in their midst who are of advanced years. It can counter today's tendency to diminish and devalue the aged. I think of this when I read one of my favorite chapters in the Old Testament at the present, Leviticus 19. It sets forth a summary of how God's chosen people were to live out his holiness in community, and one verse says, "Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly, and revere your God. I am the Lord" (Lev. 19:32).

Don Bastian is a writer living in Ontario, Canada.

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Related Elsewhere:

More Christianity Today articles on aging include:

The Visit | An almost clichéd form of Christian service to the elderly remains one of the most vital. (Sept. 10, 2004)
Gray Power | Christian-friendly senior organizations challenge AARP. (May 20, 2004)
God-honoring Retirement | Two well-known gurus of biblical finance team up for a one-two punch on building a God-honoring financial portfolio. (Feb. 19, 2004)
The Dick Staub Interview: A Gerontologist Gets Older | David Petty, author of Aging Gracefully, has long taught about the process of aging. Now, he is personally learning that one of the most important aspects is the spiritual side. (July 29, 2003)
What Your Retirement Planner Doesn't Tell You | Save in order to give your life away, not to retire comfortably. (March 6, 2000)
Thanksgiving at Fair Acres | A meal with my mother and other nursing-home residents opened a small crack in their stony detachment, and gave a brief glimpse of the kingdom of heaven. (Nov. 17, 2000)

More articles from Christianity Today sister publications:

Have I Become Useless? | What does a man my age have to offer the trend-setting generation? (July 1, 2004, Leadership Journal)
What Shall We Do with Mother? | Poll your friends over fifty. Most of them are already wrestling with this question. (Books & Culture, Jul/Aug 1999)
Grave Matters | I shouldn't have let my parents talk to those funeral salesmen unchaperoned. (Books & Culture, Mar/Apr 1999)

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