In the West and particulary in North America, the wisdom of the aged often falls on deaf ears; shabby sentiment fails to veil indifference. Even the church pursues the “next generation,” often to the extreme of excluding mature saints.
This has not always been the way of things. The Law commanded, “Show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the LORD” (Lev. 19:32). And that is still good advice.
We have much to learn from those who have gone before us, particularly if they have lived well. And on the DTS campus we are blessed with saints who have served the Lord faithfully for decades. Recently we polled some of them. A group of distinguished DTS professors participated in a Kindred Spirit survey about aging, and below you will read about their responses.
The Surprise of Aging
Aging creeps into one’s life on cats’ feet. Dr. Hendricks describes it as a “quiet, ill-defined blur that steals up on one with little advance warning.” He adds, “My body refuses to cooperate with my mind, as if it were a stranger. Mysterious little aches and odd moments of forgetfulness pop up. Birthdays become irrelevant. The surprise is that I no longer seem to be quite the ‘me’ I have always known.”
Dr. Toussaint also registers surprise at how soon aging happened: “Younger people begin to call you ‘older’ when you don’t expect it.” The calendar argues with Dr. Zuck about his age. It “says I’m 79, but I don’t feel it, and people say I don’t look like it.” Except for some aches and pains, Dr. Merrill doesn’t feel old either. “I feel like I have always been the same age!” he exclaims. A pleasant surprise for Dr. Lightner has been that “I have been able to keep serving the Lord with more opportunities than I imagined.”
The Right Attitude
Seniors are earthlings, just like everyone else. Dr. Zuck asks that the younger among us “treat seniors as normal people, not like oddities from Mars.” Dr. Toussaint continues the theme—“seniors want young people to talk to them as they would to a friend. Seniors are not aliens from space.” As Dr. Lightner reminds us, “Remember you too are aging.” Respect rather than fear was mentioned by several of the profs. They want their suggestions taken seriously rather than written off as out of date, as if they can’t or won’t learn anything new. Dr. Lightner adds, “Do not think everything new is wrong; but do not think everything new is better. Respect people and their views even when you disagree with them.”
Like people of any age, seniors appreciate it when the young reach out to them. Dr. Merrill loves to be around younger people, especially those who initiate getting to know him. As a seminary student, Dr. Hendricks was forever changed by his relationships with Dr. Dexter McClenny, Dr. John Mitchell, and Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer, all seniors. “I look back on my younger years when I spent time with an older pastor, Dr. Dexter McClenny,” Prof said. “[He] mentored me in some of the practical aspects of shepherding a church. I was privileged to be invited by Dr. John Mitchell of Oregon to go fishing up in Canada and revel in his endless reminiscences of his early days in an itinerant ministry. My time with Dr. Chafer when I was a student at Dallas Seminary is a relationship that changed my life.” Prof believes that “younger people can gain much from seasoned saints. Beyond the classroom there is a vast amount to learn from older people if one is willing to take initiative and be available.”
Prof reminds us to keep a few things in mind as we cultivate relationships with our elders. “Physical limitations do not necessarily signal mental deficiencies. Because our society tends to marginalize elderly people, try to include them in appropriate activities, but be mindful of limitations. When seniors opt out of anything, it can often be because of hearing loss, failing eyesight, arthritic pain, or something very personal. Perhaps even the noise or confusion of an event, or just plain weariness may not be an affront, but simply a fact of life.” He adds, “Ageism is a fact of modern American life—our society has for many years celebrated youth. I try to ignore it if I am relegated to the sidelines or treated inappropriately. I believe the wisdom of age allows us to understand and overlook the often pitiful immaturity that exists.”
Fortunately Dr. Toussaint cannot recall a time he has ever faced age discrimination. “I have found the opposite,” he said. “Generally people have shown greater respect and deeper appreciation.” Dr. Merrill hasn’t faced discrimination, either. He postulates, “I must not be old enough yet.” But then he adds, “My wife and daughter will not allow me to work on the roof or on a high ladder. I'm thinking of suing them for age discrimination.”
Those who are long-lived experience burned-out bodies, broken hearts, and the burden of time running out. For Dr. Toussaint, “physical incapacity” has been his greatest difficulty. Dr. Lightner agrees. He can’t get as much done, as he’d like. “I get tired quickly, hear less, and show age.” These physical changes are forced and unwelcome. Dr. Hendricks observes, “Many people try to live in denial, ever chasing the elusive idea of youth. A realistic view of one’s circumstances can be difficult. For me six decades on the platform was second nature, but [having] to come to terms with major changes presents a significant shift in my daily living. The inability to travel long distances and to traverse rough terrain is like entering a strange new world where I am unacquainted with the language.”
The fight for Dr. Merrill is with the clock—“the frustration of having so much left to do and knowing I don’t have the time to do it.” Time weighs heavily on Dr. Zuck as well, but for different reasons. His most difficult aspect of aging is “being without my wife who went to heaven two years ago… I still miss her terribly. Being without my wonderful sweetheart is the toughest assignment the Lord has given me.”
A Fresh Perspective
The old can become new in the world of perception. In the lives of these professors people are more important, possessions less so, and priorities have shifted. Dr. Merrill says, “I like younger people now more than ever. I see myself in them and relate to their struggles and disappointments.” Being more understanding with young and old alike has become a priority for Dr. Lightner. People have become more important for Dr. Toussaint, too. He evaluates his priorities differently, and says, “I think much more often of death and anticipate seeing the Lord Jesus.”
Dr. Zuck has also become more aware that he won’t live forever. As for Dr. Hendricks, “to put it in the words of the hymn, ‘the things of earth grow strangely dim .…’ Material possessions are even less attractive than when I was younger. Eternity and its values loom more importantly than ever. As a believer, I think God is preparing me for my heavenly home.”
The Retirement Years?
The road does go ever on for servants in the kingdom of God. In Dr. Lightner’s words, “As I approached retirement age, I feared I would not have as many opportunities to serve. The fact is I have more than ever.” Dr. Zuck and Dr. Hendricks both believe the concept of retirement is an unbiblical one. Dr. Zuck says, “I call this time in my life being ‘refocused,’ not ‘retired.’” According to Dr. Hendricks, “When the elderly priests in Israel ‘retired’ from active duty, they were mandated to coach and mentor the young men coming up. As long as God gives us life on earth, we have a mission to perform, even if it calls for suffering under the care of others.” Retirement is not on the horizon for Dr. Merrill, who is “only 76,” but he points out “the good thing about being an academician is that I can quit the classroom without having to quit thinking.” And as long as he is mentally and physically able, Dr. Toussaint plans to continue doing the work he loves.
Wisdom from the Trenches
So what words of wisdom do these elders have for the aged and those who love them? Dr. Zuck recommends, “Keep busy, and keep in touch with the Lord.” Dr. Hendricks says, “I have often said that as long as we live, we must learn. When we stop learning, we stop truly living. Our archenemy, the devil, loves to trip up older people who feel they finally know it all. Undoubtedly the wisest words come from the apostle Paul. In our vernacular: Don’t ever give up. Keep standing, keep spiritually healthy, and keep your eyes on Jesus. Our final performance review before the Father is just ahead.” Dr. Lightner says, “Take one day at a time. Keep busy as long as you can. Keep involved. Do not sit, soak, and sour!” Dr. Merrill suggests, “Recognize the wisdom you have acquired just by getting older and maximize it by helping those not so far along the road.” Dr. Toussaint says, “Don't say, ‘I am too old for that.’ Keep active mentally and physically. Think young and be sure to keep some younger friends.” Then he quotes 2 Timothy 4:7–8: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”