Tag Archives: wisdom

OK, Boomer

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.

© 2020, All Rights Reserved.


On Being Wise, or Smart, or a Smart A**

I saw my dermatologist a while back. She looked me over in search of problematic skin developments because I once had a Basel Cell Carcinoma episode. (Note: when they carve on your ear, you can hear every scrape–it’s creepy.)

Anyway, I pointed to a dark spot on the back of my hand that had given me pause and she said, “Oh, that is a wisdom spot.” My dermatologist hails from China where they graciously refer to what I would have called an “age spot” (if I’d known what I was looking at) as a “wisdom spot.” This, in apparent deference to the biological reality that most of these spots are carried by, ahem, older folks. And, given traditional oriental respect for the aged and reverence for ancestors, there is a pervasive cultural mindset that associates age with wisdom.

Now, I know that the accumulation of years and wisdom do not necessarily travel together (I have met some folks who have not lived 75 years, but just one year, 75 times). But the wisdom/age couplet is more frequently observed than say, kindergarten and wisdom. Which brings me to this.

I have a concern that we no longer value wisdom. Wisdom has been replaced by its normally less mature cousin: smart. And smart itself is often been traded in for smart a**.

(Another note: some of you may stop reading here because you are offended by my asterisked version of the word “a**.” Sorry about that, but it is apropos for this particular post and, while I will bemoan the coarsening of culture, I here call it like I see it.)

Now, I have nothing against smart. Smart people have brought many advances, in multiple fields of endeavor. I, for one, am grateful that I can check my email, or text, or read the news headlines on my “smart” phone “anywhere” (I was going to say, “in the bathroom,” but my very wise ministry partner and wife said I should change that–so I did).

But I am afraid that western culture worships at the altar of “smart.” We see the intelligent and presume that with intelligence comes wisdom. But intelligence (smart) and wisdom are not partners as often as we would like to think.

It was smart that someone figured out how to mine the data and capture hundreds of thousands of social media connections. But was it wise that social media trolls used that data to try and manipulate voters? No. The lessons of wisdom often lag woefully behind “smart.” Wisdom takes time; wisdom takes reflection; wisdom benefits from, nay, depends on lived experience.

It seems our culture is in a desperate search for smarts and often that desperate search for smarts is itself reduced to settling for smart a**.

Good Will Hunting was a film in 1997 that featured the late Robin Williams and Matt Damon (the “Will Hunting” from the movie title). Damon’s character was an autodidact savant (wicked smaaht in his Bostonian native environs), particularly gifted in math, who was discovered by a professor at M.I.T. The trouble with the savant was that he was very fond of demonstrating his intelligence and most often did it in a smart a** way.

Inevitably, the tendency toward smart a**ness got him in trouble. He had trouble with the law and, when he found a woman he liked, he had trouble sustaining a relationship.

Williams’ character was a psychologist–wise, caring, insightful, bruised by the loss of his wife to cancer–who worked at the local community college and was engaged to help Damon’s character mute his smart a** tendencies and deflate his recurring self-destructive antics–to find a path towards becoming the Good Will Hunting.

The difference between Damon’s character’s smarts and Williams’ character’s wisdom? Lived smarts…validating actual “smartness” and discarding faux “smartness” (usually of the smart a** kind) through many laps around the life track.

After a particularly emotive, smart a** outbreak on the part of “Good Will,” Williams’ character looks at him and says, “So if I asked you about art you’d probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo? You know a lot about him. Life’s work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientation, the whole works, right? But I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You’ve never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling… “(when I) look at you, I don’t see an intelligent, confident man. I see a cocky, scared sh*tless kid.”

Eventually Williams’ character says to “Good Will,” “You’re just a kid; you don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about.”

Fast forward twenty years and smart a** tendencies have been magnified by social media. Witness the many posts, tweets, comments, emojis, and the unflagging determination on the part of many to underscore the “dis” in discourse–no matter what the subject.

Kids from 8 to 80 are contributing to the ever-growing smart a** quotient in our culture. There may be smarts, but the smarts are so often devoid of wisdom and couched in smart a**ness, that the only result is self-congratulatory applause from within one’s own “tribe.”

For us in the Christian community we cannot submit to or participate in this cultural crassness. We are called to be agents of salt and light, reflecting the image of Jesus and pointing to the source of real wisdom–God Himself. Because, in fact, wisdom is not the mere accumulation of information (see the previous post); wisdom is pointing beyond ourselves to that source of all wisdom.

The Ancient of Days is the source for all the wisdom of the ages and He most often expresses that biblically nurtured wisdom through the lived experience of those who have aged. A recent crop of soup commercials to the contrary, there is no “Wisest Kid.” There may be some very smart ones–and there are certainly some smart a** ones–but wise? I think not.

To be sure, there are moments in the lives of young persons when we recognize insights of a masterful quality. But, when those moments come, we call those folks, “wise beyond their years,” recognizing an atypical expression of youth-sprung wisdom.

“From the lips of children and infants” was not a call to abandon wisdom but to embrace the celebration of God’s presence among the people. “Out of the mouths of babes” is not a universal prescription for what ails humanity; it was a commendation of worship of Jesus in the face of religious hypocrisy on the part of those who should have known better.

What we all need to do–youngsters, oldsters, in betweensters, deniers of being oldsters–is immerse ourselves in God’s truth and grow in our personal understanding of the “way we should go.” Then, as we apply those truths in lived experience, we will grow into the kind of people who can be seen as wise–even if we’re not the smartest person in the room.

When we bask in the wisdom of God’s Word and we lean into the wisdom that God has packed into the lives of ever-maturing, more “seasoned” saints, we can begin ourselves the path toward acquired wisdom and shed the culture’s current default toward smart a**ness.

While being sensitive to the “new”–in terms of cultural engagement–we ought not forget the “old”–many of whom (not all, but many) are sitting in our churches who have the life battle scars as evidence of their ability to help us navigate contemporary struggles.

© 2018

 


Three Things I Learned from Three Dog Night (It’s a Band; From the 60s…Sigh)

three_dog_night

I went to a Three Dog Night concert last month to celebrate my birthday–the tickets were a gift from my dear wife. Several things surprised me about the concert. First, was that Three Dog Night was still rockin’ and rollin’ after these many years. They got their start in the 1960s (yes, last century). The second surprise was that they were playing in the metropolis I now call home.

But, the concert was fun. The guys played most all their well-known stuff and the crowd rocked along–in actual rockers. (Yes, that was an “old people” joke.) I’m not saying the crowd was old, but the synchronized, motorized wheel chair line dancing was a thing to see. “Reach high, when you sway those canes!” Three Dog Night shouted. “What’d he say?” the guy next to me asked. “Highway cones,” his wife said. “What the what?!?”

I’m not saying the crowd was sedate, but the police officers (all two of them) assigned to S.W.A.T. patrol kept chuckling as the attendees shuffled in and out of the concert hall like they were in the line for the dessert trolley at the cafeteria. By the way, S.W.A.T. stands for Something Will Ache Tomorrow.

A woman seated in front of me tried to dance…it was not pretty. At least I think it was dancing; it may have just been a pacemaker flameout. Then there was that one 1960s-era rebel carrying pot with him…no, not weed; it was an actual pot. The bathrooms were on a distant shore.

I was having a good time laughing at all those old people, up until I encountered the old, bald, fat guy staring me down in the bathroom—I was stunned to realize the old, bald, fat guy was me in the mirror. Turns out, these old people were my people.

But as the concert got underway and I was “present in that space” (sorry, that’s a line that makes me gag that I heard from a chaplain once), I figured out that I was learning a thing or three. So, here they are:

One:  Old dogs should keep doing what they’ve been gifted to do as long as God empowers them to do it. The Three Dog Night guys are old–at least the original members of the band are. We’re talking not leathery skin, but busted up, frayed in all the wrong places, pleathery skin. We’re talking encore appearances that took hours to get underway because the Dogs had to limp off and shuffle back onto the stage. We’re talking that when they sang their hit, “Celebrate,” it was because they had managed to not trip over their mic stands. But they still have it. Those God-empowered vocal cords can still “dance to the music.”  The Christian community has bought the culture’s notion of retirement. So, we look to artificial age benchmarks to begin thinking about not doing anymore what God has gifted us to do. If you want to retire, fine, but don’t stop doing what God has gifted you to do because Uncle Sam thinks it’s time. Or because some young pups think it’s their time.

Two:  Old dogs need to stick around to help the new dogs. It’s a shame that old dogs shuffle off the stage (or are shuffled off the stage) at the precise cultural moment when all the research says the young dogs not only want but need mentorship and friendship and the benefit of experience. The young dogs want to be wise, but wisdom is a commodity acquired over time. And part of that wisdom is learning from the old dogs. Shared wisdom is a biblical mandate from the very beginning. It’s one of the reasons that Christians lean into the Holy Spirit-inspired words of the Bible. It’s one reason why we “test the spirits” against the systemic teaching of Scripture. If I want to navigate Snapchat, I’ll ask my grandkids. When I wanted wisdom for navigating life’s speedbumps, I asked my Dad.

Three:  Old dogs can learn new tricks. Three Dog Night introduced a new song at the concert. It was an acapella rendition of Prayer of the Children. It was grand and it was good and it gave lie to the notion that “older” means done. Three Dog Night was self-deprecating about how age had made them a bit slower, but when it came time to create something new, there was nothing “slowish” about it (yes, I made up a word).

I have to go now. I am about to install a new eight-track player in my component stereo system. But I should go to the bathroom first–someone said something about blue teeth–and the bathroom is very far away. 

© 2016, All Scripture quotations from the New International Version.


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