I don’t know why this 2019 article (Boomers, Take It from Woody or Iron Man: It’s Time to Pass the Torch) from Christianity Today showed up in my Twitter feed when it did. The algorithm was probably just messing with me.
I do know that–as I read it–I became as, yes, an aging Boomer, slightly hot under the collar at the article’s thesis–that Boomers don’t know how to let go. But, as I reflected further, it was clear that what fueled my concern was deeper than the admonition for Boomers to “let go.”
To be fair, there is much in the article to commend. There is solid reflection on biblical patterns of faith transmission. There is important reflection on the purposefulness of that faith transmission. All that material is worth ingesting and digesting–and acting upon.
But there are at least two things that are worth further consideration.
The first is the unquestioning embrace of Western (North American and Western Europe) cultural approaches to aging and retirement. Westerners view retirement as a taken-for-granted reality. Westerners view “new” as inherently better. Neither of those ideas is biblical.
In the Scriptures, the only people admonished to “retire” were the Levites (Numbers 8:25) who had been performing the arduous work of managing the sacrificial system for (by the time they reach age 50) many years. They would have been worn out from years of maneuvering sacrificial animals in the Hebrew cultus. But interestingly, even though verse 25 says they are to retire, verse 26 immediately provides for their ongoing service to help other, younger Levites manage the sacrificial system.
Other than that example, retirement, as we know it and have it thrust upon us, is not a paradigm in either Testament. What we do see in the Bible is that those who are called and gifted (and all Christians are called and gifted) continuing to act on that calling and those gifts right up until the moment they can no longer do so.
Our culture migrated from the farms and fields to the cities. In the farms and fields, multiple generations worked alongside each other as long as ability persisted. When physical ability no longer persisted, the aging were still usually held tightly within the fold and embraced for wisdom in the ongoing enterprise that was family and farm.
As industrialization took hold and workers migrated to cities and factories, a different secular working environment imposed different work and life patterns. Families were divided; the “nuclear family” became the new normal; which has led to, in recent years, elders increasingly being sequestered in “retirement” facilities. But this adjustment in approach to family and work was and is because of the economic system–not because of biblical prescription.
To be sure, many who worked physically demanding jobs in factories, at the waterfront, etc., are (ala the Levites) often completely worn out at the end of 30- or 40-years’ worth of production line endeavors. Those people need to be able to get some well deserved physical rest. Our societal and governmental retirement programs have evolved to try to enable that rest.
But, in the process, Western culture has increasingly advocated a “get out of the way,” “get invisible,” approach to the aging. And, sadly, the church is buying into that idea.
Should wisdom from the aging be uniformly and unquestioningly embraced? Certainly not. Every idea needs to be tested by the Scriptures. There shouldn’t be undiscerning respect for our elders, but it does seem to me that the biblical paradigm calls for respect as the default setting in our Christian relationships.
I can hear it now…the leadership in a church in the ancient Near East getting a long and admittedly difficult letter postmarked “Patmos” from the aging Apostle John…saying, “What do we do with another letter from the old guy? Sure, he was with Jesus and all, but that is so early 1st Century.”
I think it is important to hold onto the fact that it is wisdom we seek–the employment of information in God-honoring ways. Innovation does not equal wisdom. Talent does not equal wisdom. Knowledge does not equal wisdom. They all require wisdom in their application. Tik Tokking videos is one thing. Wise content in those videos–well, that is something else entirely.
And new wineskins? That passage isn’t about embracing every new cultural idea that comes along–or “letting go” in the way that the article’s author proposes. That passage is Jesus being clear about the radical nature of His mission which would not be constrained by historical forms nor be fuel for pointless rabbinic debates. Though the Matthew 9 passage may inform us about currency of methodology; it says nothing about discarding those whose methodology may require Spirit-discerned adjustment.
There are multiple prominent Bible models of leaders who served well into advanced age. Maybe we should look there for our thinking about life and ministry. “Term limits” in the Kingdom of God are set by God, not the generation ready to hustle the incumbents off the platform. God created us to work–before the Fall–and that DNA-based work reflex is one that only God should bring to a conclusion–on His timetable.
The second thing worth further consideration is the use of current cultural metaphors to underscore the need for Boomers to let go.
Before we do that, perhaps we should correct those film references. Tony Stark (Iron Man) didn’t “retire.” He was killed in action–doing his job right up until the very end of his life. That Tony Stark made provision for a young Spider Man to access his wisdom in coming years reinforces the value of that wisdom–but does not mandate a “use by” date for Stark’s presence in the life of “the kid.”
Woody didn’t “retire.” He was shuffled off after repeatedly being ignored by Bonnie. Woody was often left to huddle with the dust bunnies in the closet–along with other “old” things. Interestingly though, there were numerous others of the old gang who continued to be present in Bonnie’s life. This was not primarily an issue of the “old guy” holding on…this was an issue of a younger person’s preference and indifference.
However, the larger issue is embracing cultural images to propagate ideas that just don’t resonate with Scripture. I am all for finding and using illustrations that “connect.” Woody and Buzz have featured in sermons from time-to-time (“You’ve Got a Friend in Me”). But taking our cues from culture–with respect to something as significant as the ongoing presence of people in faith life and ministry–of any age–is problematic.
In particular, these misapplied cinematic illustrations merely serve to underscore a flawed cultural milieu. A cultural milieu that can bleed into the church and which has often been hostile to the ongoing presence and activity of the “old.”
We need to quit parroting the culture…every time we do, we miss the mark biblically.
If we must appeal to cinema to help communicate biblical ideas about relationships and ongoing service for those who have aged, I commend “The Intern” with Robert DeNiro and Anne Hathaway. The film doesn’t get everything right–because it’s a film. But it does get right that the reservoir of wisdom that is often so cavalierly discarded today can still fuel lives of ongoing purpose and, yes, contemporary achievement.
And, in an ironic development, this appears to be another case of the Western church community embracing a subtly phrased “kick them to the curb” idea while the culture it’s emulating is beginning to tentatively discard that idea. Senior citizen employment in the U.S. is on the rise. There are certainly economic reasons for that. But there is also the inborn sense of purpose that fuels life.
I think we need purposeful, multigenerational, ongoing gift-based ministry…not limited by the way the Western world does business or thinks about the number of “laps around the track” any one person has.
While pastoring an inner city church that had seen some urban flight and aging demographics take hold, we began discussions with a church that had been planted in the city, but which had been meeting in rented space, to see if we might find a way to join forces.
At a combined congregational meeting, one of our wise seniors asked the youngsters from the other church, “What about us? Is there any place for us in your ministry?” One of the millennial attendees from the other church quickly stood to look that senior in the eye and said, “We need you!”
Amen to that.
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