What Kind of Old Person Do You Want to Be?

“What kind of old person do you want to be?” Now I know that sounds like a strange question to ask of anyone, especially if you are in your teens, twenties or thirties and even in your forties. But at as I have gotten older, in essence into the last half of my time on earth, I began to ponder this quite a lot.

In fact, I would say turning fifty was the turning point; when the “switch” was turned on. I found myself asking a lot more questions. There were the usual life questions about where to go on holidays, to change my diet to be a little healthier or whether to buy a truck or downsize to a small car. But the other question that kept coming to mind was the question of legacy… what kind of impression was I going to leave?

Becoming more self-reflective and introspective has its advantages. I have developed a greater awareness of the clock ticking and could almost feel every second; each one something I could never recapture. Moses’ words to mind in Psalm 90:12, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom”. They have a sense of more and more urgency. I guess I have reached that point in life where more of the ministry road is in the rear-view mirror than in the windshield.

I saw an excerpt online of Gordon MacDonald’s book, The Life God Blesses. He is a seasoned ministry veteran with a lot of insights, many of which I could relate to. In the book, he asks the question, ‘What kind of old man do you want to be?’ He had been reading the story of Caleb, who at eighty-five, was described as following the Lord God of Israel, “wholeheartedly.”

Now when I read that, I was convicted. Although I have been a Christian for over thirty years and in ministry for almost two decades, Caleb’s dedication made me feel ashamed. But then as I thought about it, I was inspired to try and find someone who had lived that kind of life; someone who faithfully served God into their “twilight” years. But as I began thinking about all the different men and women I had met in my lifetime, the list became very short. You see, in today’s culture, finding people who are godly, full of character and integrity, is becoming increasingly difficult.

I think a flaw in my thinking was that age played a role in maturity, that somehow wisdom was only imparted to those who had experienced God for a long period of time. But the reality is, I was wrong. Now age can impart wisdom through experience, but there is more to it than that and finding people my age who were fully committed to Christ is actually pretty rare.

Now there are many reasons for this. Some drifted into self-centeredness, while others had become impatient and cynical towards the next generation. Some had let their later years sour them into becoming grumpy and critical. Many simply lived in the past and were no longer leaning forward into the future. Like the Dodo bird, it seems like wholeheartedly committed people too were extinct.

When Gordon MacDonald tried to find these types of people, he discovered age had little to do with achievement or success as we often define it, rather it had more to do with a person’s character and attitude and a willingness to live in the present.

Having served in ministry for a couple decades, I find myself getting less enamored with accomplishments and the bravado that often comes with it. I have been around pastors and leaders who strut around like roosters talking about how big their churches were and the great ministries they did. I’ve seen televangelists rise and fall.

But as I have gotten older, I have discovered that I am drawn to men and women who live well rather than those who have lived “big.” Yes, there have been a few prominent Christians who have “run the race” well. Billy Graham is an example. But he is a rarity. The truth is, those who have been in ministry a long time and are living well aren’t that easy to find.

Paul’s words to “finish well” in 2 Timothy have always been an inspiration, but finding some who actually is doing it is rather small. In fact, I have seen there is the tendency to “coast” to the finish line rather than running through it. I don’t want to be like that so I asked myself, “Why aren’t there more whose twilight years are their highlight years?”

I think Henri Nouwen gives us a clue. He writes, “I began to experience a deep inner threat. As I entered into my fifties and was able to realize the unlikelihood of doubling my years, I came face to face with the simple question, ‘Did becoming older bring me closer to Jesus?’ After twenty-five years of priesthood, I found myself praying poorly, living somewhat isolated from other people and very much preoccupied with burning issues.”

Pastors write thousand of sermons, lead hundreds of meetings and prepare countless budgets (at least it seems like it). Years of pushing and striving and leading take its toll. Many pastors feel drained, fatigued and even jaded. Even in my short time in ministry, I’ve experienced all of them. The thought of one more vision casting meeting or bylaw meeting just doesn’t crank up the adrenaline like it once did.

The truth is, many of us at this age can lead out of our experience and knowledge rather than the deep well of a healthy soul. We can become like the teachers who teach the same curriculum year after year. Just open the book and go! Back in 1998, Worship leader Robin Mark put out a song called, “Revive Us.” It is a prayer for God to revive His people. In it, he sings a line, “From the preacher preaching when the well is dry…” I’ve been there. On the outside, we have the answers but on the inside, we have questions. To further complicate things, as we get older, our physical stamina begins to diminish.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying passion for ministry goes away, but I am saying it feels different than when you first start. As a twenty-year veteran, I am finding that I face a whole new set of challenges. The triple-A of adrenaline, ambition, and achievement aren’t enough to sustain me anymore.

Like Nouwen, I have to admit that decades of ministry didn’t turn out the way I thought it would. For most pastors, we’ve done the best we could, but more often than we want to admit, ministry has been more babysitting than leading; more mundane than miraculous; more life-taking than life-giving.

Although I didn’t go into ministry with rose-coloured glasses on, I will admit ministry isn’t quite what I expected. There are days when I admittedly, I want out. I daydream what it used to be like on the outside. This may sound strange, but I have fantasized about a prison break from the constraints of ministry. I have thought about what it would be like to be away from council meetings. I’ve thought what it would be like to not be under the constraints of bylaws, rules and legalism. Like many athletes nearing the end of their careers, I’ve thought what it would be like to walk away.

Although I haven’t been a pastor my entire life, I still wonder what it would be like to be back into a “normal” life again. I ponder what it would be like to have weekends off. I dream about not being constantly scrutinized or questioned about the hows and whys of ministry. I know it sounds cynical, but it is the reality many pastors feel.

But as I read MacDonald’s question again, I am reminded that God isn’t concerned about the kind of ministry I have rather His concern is what kind of person I am becoming. Why is this more important? Because who we are and are becoming will define the ministry we have and the legacy we will leave behind.

For many who read this, thinking about what kind of old person do you want to be seems like a far-away reality. But the truth is, what we do today in yielding our lives to God and allowing Him to transform us into the image of Christ will be foundational in the successes or failures of what we do.

Each of us has been given gifts, talents, and abilities through which God can and will use to bless others. That being said, as you get older, it will be easy to lose focus, become jaded, live without passion and it is in those times where the temptation will be to quit. Because of that, I want to encourage each of us that it is in those times that we need to drill a new well that will refresh and sustain through those dry times.

There is a saying that age is a state of mind. If that is true, then the key is we need to allow God to be continually renewing our minds (Romans 12:2) so that our hearts and lives would remain focused on Him and focused on bringing Him glory even as we get closer to the finish line we call life.


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