Getting old with gladness

The length of our days is seventy years – or eighty if we have the strength… Psalm 90:10

Grey hair is the splendour of the old. Proverbs 20:29

I pick up the Saturday newspaper – the one that’s twice as chunky as throughout the week – and my heart sinks. “Anti-ageing” shouts the header, advertising a “feature article” inside: “The ultimate mid-life bible. How to be healthier and live longer”. (“Ultimate”, indeed! – what rubbish is that.)

Open the paper and you find that – yet again – they have wheeled out a clutch of doctors, nutritionists and “fitness experts” to tell us how to stay healthy and beautiful and live to a ripe old age. And it seems just a week or two since the last such feature.

Don’t get me wrong. Of course it’s good, indeed important, to look after our bodies – they are, after all, temples of the Holy Spirit, according to 1 Corinthians 6:19. (That, surely, is a description worthy of that much overdone word “awesome”: have you ever pondered what it means for you?)

Yes, we ought to watch our weight and diet, and aim to get plenty of exercise.

But why oh why this fixation with physical well-being, this obsession (and that is precisely what it is for some) with appearance and shape? After all, the death rate among the population of the world is very precise: exactly 100%. Yup, we’re all going to die one day, so why not get used to the idea and accept it with faith and cheerfulness?

I noticed my first grey hairs when I was about twenty, during my student years. It didn’t bother me a scrap: both my parents were silver-grey for as long as I could remember, so I took with good humour those kind friends who gleefully recommended certain preparations to disguise the reality.

I was swimming at our leisure centre the other week and got chatting with the man in the next lane. He was noticeably quicker than me, but I was able to point out that he was also a fair bit younger. Whereupon he replied, “Yes, didn’t you tell me the other week that you had turned eighty?” (I am in fact still in my sixties – if not by much.) I could only laugh – and, anyway, people in swimming pools can’t wear their glasses, can they? If I needed comfort and consolation (which I didn’t), it’s surely right there in Proverbs 16:31, which tells us that grey hair “is attained by a righteous life” (if only!).

But the point is: Who cares anyway?

What matters is not, When are we going to die? But, What are we doing with the precious time God gives us before that happens?

Avicenna, a top scholar of the Islamic golden age (he lived about 980-1037), was advised to slow down a bit and take things easy. To which he replied: “No. I prefer a short life with width to a narrow one with length. ” That attitude surely wouldn’t disgrace a Christian. And Jonathan Swift, who wrote Robinson Crusoe, wrote, “No wise man ever wished to be younger.”

I can think of at least three lessons which we Christians can teach our tragically materialistic, this-worldly world.

First: long periods of time and enormous sums of money spent on fitness regimes and beauty products are largely wasted. What good could you have done with that time! What good could that money have achieved! Focus on what matters! – growing your relationship with God, and doing good for others. And if you’re getting a bit grey and creaky – so what.

Paul tells Timothy that, yes, of course, “Physical training is of some value, but godliness is valuable in every way” (1 Timothy 4:8). Good advice!

Second: while old age is not something most of us feel able to welcome, the fact is that it can be a joyful, fruitful and productive time. The old are not to be dismissed, shunted to one side, or despised. In this, again, we in the “Christian” west have much to learn from non-Christian parts of the world, where the elderly are treated with honour and respect.

And third and most important of all: this earthly life is not all there is, and death is not the end.

Jesus died, and Jesus rose again: fact. Death is a defeated enemy: fact. The resurrection is the crowning glory of the Christian faith – and how our sad, troubled, lost world needs to hear about it!

So let’s learn to say with Paul: “As far as I’m concerned, to live is Christ, but to die is even better” (Philippians 1:21).

And when we have learned it ourselves, to teach it to others…

Lord God, thank you for the wonderful gift of life. Help me to value and cherish it, and to use it for your glory. Help me too to keep in mind always the resurrection life which finally awaits me. Amen.

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