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The Fear of Growing Old
“How can one be born again after having grown old?…” John 3:4
This morning we’re finishing up our sermon series entitled “Fear Not: Living Fearlessly in a Fear-full World.”
Over the course of our series we’ve taken a look at the epidemic of fear which we have to contend with: The Fear of the Change, The Fear of Rejection, The Fear of Terrorism and Parenting. These two don’t necessarily go together.
And this morning we conclude with “The Fear of Growing Old”.
In preparation for my sermon today while I was recently away at a pastor’s retreat I read Billy Graham’s book, Nearing Home: Life, Faith, and Finishing Well.
Billy Graham, the great evangelist, is now 92 years old. In his introduction, he writes, “I never thought I would live to be this old. All my life I was taught how to die as a Christian, but no one ever taught me how I ought to live in the years before I do. I wish they had because I am an old man now, and believe me, it’s not easy. Whoever first said it was right: “Old age is not for sissies.”
For those of you who are wondering this morning whether or not you qualify for having grown old, consider the following criteria given by comedian Jeff Foxworthy who says, Old Is When…you can eat dinner at 4:00 in the afternoon and the only reason you’re still awake at 4 in the morning…. is indigestion.
Old is when you no longer drive at night or you are the first person let go in a hostage situation.
Old is when you don’t care where your spouse goes, just as long as you don’t have to go along or when your secrets are safe with your friends because they can’t remember them anyway.
Old is when getting a little action means you don’t need fiber today and getting lucky means you found your car in the parking lot.
So, how many of you now consider yourselves as having grown old? If we’re being honest with one another, if you’re at least as old as I am, we’ll confess that with aging comes some fear and trepidation.
For some of us with aging comes the fear of losing our physical beauty or attractiveness,….such, that is, “as it is”, which may be particularly true for women in our society where such a high value is placed on youthfulness.
There is a wonderful scene in the movie “Hook”, the sequel to Disney’s classic movie “Peter Pan”. Having left “Never, Never Land years ago Peter is now a middle aged man who has long since forgotten his childhood of the land where you never grow old.
Returning to rescue his two children who have been kidnapped by Captain Hook, he comes upon his friends, “The Band of Lost Boys”. Weary of adults, they don’t recognize Peter at first who has grown old until one of the boys approaches him and stretching back the wrinkles of his face and declares, “There you are Peter.
There you are.”
How many of us waking up in the morning and looking in the mirror have wondered from time to time whose face it is that is looking back at us in the mirror until smiling, laughing, or crying looking deeply into those eyes or pulling back on the wrinkles there comes a moment of recognition… “There you are David.” “There you are.”
Another major fear of growing old is the loss of our health and independence. Spending time with older members in my congregations, I’ve often witnessed the slow and often difficult loss of their health and independence.
At times, I’ve been reminded of Jesus’ disconcerting words to the Apostle Peter concerning his future. Jesus says to Peter, “Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and would go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.”
As we age, our fear is that some day we will lose our health and independence and will have to stretch out our hands and depend on the care of others. With advancing years comes not only the fear of declining physical health and independence but of our memory.
How many times have you gone downstairs to get something to eat out of the refrigerator, and by the time you get there, you forgot what you came down for. Or put something in an important place so that you would remember it but now forget where that important place was?
This past week I had lunch with a middle aged friend who shared that earlier in the week she had searched frantically through her house trying to find her ringing cell phone. She said the ringing seemed to get louder and louder in each room she entered. Until, finally she realized that her cell phone was in her back pocket.
For some of us, including me, having watched my father decline for eight years with lewy-body dementia, with our advancing years comes the terrifying prospect of losing our memory, of forgetting our loved one, even of who we are.
Another fear having reached middle age or retirement is that our best years are now behind us. We’ve sown our wild oats, discovered our vocation or career, some have married, raised our children, reached retirement and we are now left wondering what is there left for us to do?
There are also those who feel that the first half of their life was almost unbearable and fear that the second half will be even worse.
Nicodemus was a religious leader of the people who came to Jesus one night under the cover of darkness. A respected teacher, I imagine him as a middle aged man. He says to Jesus, “Master, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”
Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Skeptical, Nicodemus asks “Can anyone be born anew,” after he has grown old?”
Some people are afraid that the best is now behind them or having been dissatisfied with the first half of their life fear that things can never change. Like Nicodemus, they’re skeptical “that anyone can be born anew after they have grown old?”
For some, particularly in our American culture where the elderly have been denied a great deal of respect can come the fear of disappearing or being discounted. Old people get in the way. To set in their ways, they’re forgetful, walk and drive too slowly.
A piece of advice: Never get behind a senior citizen on Penn Ave., during rush hour, who is pulling into the Ranch House for breakfast. They first have to memorize the turn then start looking for the closest parking spot to the door.
The elderly remind many of us of what we would like to forget.
Finally, for many, as we age comes the fears of being alone and even death.
As a young boy, I can remember laying on my stomach at the tops of our stairs and looking down into the living room and dining room to watch my parents and their friends gathered around five or six card tables laughing and playing bridge.
Today, when I talk with my mother she says there is now barely enough to fill a table.
With the passing of time can come the death of parents, a spouse, siblings, classmates, neighbors and friends and the prospect of being alone and death itself.
So, what do we do with our fears of growing old? How do we do growing old well? Let me share with you just a few ideas.
The first thing to remember is the words of the Apostle Paul who reminds us “do you not know, that your body is the temple of God and the Spirit of God dwells in you.”
One of the first things we should do is take care of ourselves physically. The Apostle Paul writes again in (I Corinthians 9:27) “I discipline my body like an athlete in order that I may not be disqualified from winning the prize.”
Have you ever watched those amazing television clips of old Chinese men and women starting each day out in a yard or city park doing Tai Chi? For many of us our body may not be what we would have asked for if we had a choice but it is none the less “the temple of God.” And we should take care of it such as it is.
There are numerous studies which show that by walking 30 minutes a day alone we can lengthen our life span by three years or more and improve our quality of life.
Exercise is also proven to prevent certain forms of cancer, reduce high blood pressure , the risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, obesity, constipation, if you’re wondering, type II diabetes and depression. Staying active is to love God with all your heart, mind soul and strength.”
We not only have to exercise our bodies, but also our mind. The Bible says we are to “be transformed by the renewing of our mind.”
Our brains are pliable and elastic. We now know that the human brain is able to continually adapt and rewire itself. Even in old age, it can grow new neurons.
While severe mental decline is usually caused by disease, most age-related losses in memory are simply the result of inactivity or a lack of mental exercise and stimulation. In other words, we use it or lose it. So, we need to keep mentally active. Read. Do crossword and Sudoku puzzles. Play cards. Join discussion groups.
Even more important is to nurture and exercise a healthy attitude of gratitude. If there are attitudes that will help us to grow old without fear even in the face of our growing limitations, I’m convinced that they are gratitude and love. A sense of humor also goes a long way.
Another absolutely essential attitude and practice for overcoming our fear of growing old is to accept responsibility for our own meaning making.
For eight years my mother lived half the year in a retirement community called The Villages an hour north of Orlando, Florida. Over 70,000 senior citizens within a five mile radius playing softball, golf, paddle tennis, swimming, dancing, taking college classes and shopping in strip malls.
I’ll never forget the first year I visited and walked into a Publix Grocery Store. My check out attendant was an 80 something year old woman in a sharp fashionable uniform wearing bright red lipstick and the boy who bagged my groceries was an 80 something year old gentleman with a smile and a bow tie.
I thought I was in the movie Cocoon. I don’t imagine they needed the money. What they were doing along with all the others was “Meaning making.” We can’t expect our children or friends to live our lives for us. We have to make meaning on our own.
Join the Praise band or choir. Volunteer tutoring grade school or high school students. Drive for meals on wheels. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Take a water painting class. Join a yoga class at the YMCA.
Like Jesus said to Nicodemus we can be born again once we’ve grown old. We can be re-born over and over again. But, we have to be open to and willing to
Follow the Spirit.
Finally, someone has said it and I believe it, it’s not really death that we are most afraid of, it’s the fear that we’ve never really lived.
Toward the end of his life Pope John Paul II wrote, “Somebody should tell us, right at the start of our lives that we are dying. Then we might live life to the limit, every minute of every day. Do it! I say. Whatever you want to do, do it now! There are only so many tomorrows.” It’s not really death that we are most afraid of. It’s the fear that we’ve never really lived.
This might mean for some of us…
Taking that trip we always wanted to but have always felt that now was never the right time. It may mean finally writing down your memories that you keep saying that you’ll get around to some day.
For some of you it may mean mending broken relationships that continue to weigh heavy on your heart.
If able, we should live with the fewest regrets. So that when the inevitable comes we can say “It is finished, I’ve run the race”.
If we’re taking care of our bodies, if we’re exercising our minds and nurturing a grateful spirit, if we’ve busy taking responsibility and making meaning of our lives and making sure to leave no regrets, my sense is we won’t have much time or desire to fear growing old. We’ll just live.
So there it is the end of another sermon series, Jesus second greatest command in the New Testament after his commandment to love.
“Fear Not, Living Fearlessly In a Fear-full World.”