How can a man be born when he is old? (John 3:4).
With a curious frown, the great silver-bearded attorney let his question just float there, suspended in the damp night air.
How can anyone be born again when he or she is old? Wasn’t the whole Industrial World taught the undeniable axiom: “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”?
But Jesus rebutted that myth! Old dogs can learn new tricks—and new truths— especially if the old dogs are hungry, especially if the trainer is playful but consistent, especially if the great kennels of the world howl against such age-old age prejudice.
A great, unreached people group
In terms of ministry efforts, senior adults could well be counted among the great, unreached people groups of the world. But Jesus shows us a better way. He brings the fifth commandment to life, touching even the way mid-lifers spend their money (Exod. 20:12; Mark 7:6-13). He even patterns church order on sound intergenerational relationships (1 Tim. 5:1-25).
As the Wonderful Counselor (Isa. 9:6), Jesus offered both sweet words and hard sayings to His nighttime visitor. Leaning to neither extreme—to a truth-only brutality or a love-only sentimentality—Jesus ministered a balanced spirituality, “…speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15).
A lesser man could have been unduly flattered by the curiosity of the older man, particularly that of a folk icon sitting on the Jewish Supreme Court. But in the end, Jesus drew the elder Nicodemus onto the sojourner’s path.
In the two years following their providential heart-to-heart talk, Nicodemus moved from being a beloved infidel (John 3:11) to being a sincere seeker (John 7:50–51). Eventually he inched open the door of trust and became a secret believer (John 19:38–42). From the front row of the jury box, Nicodemus would have seen Jesus’ integrity sparkling like a diamond against the black velvet of human corruption (1 Pet. 2:21–23). Later in the sunrise of resurrection, a bolder faith must have dawned on Nicodemus, since his old secret became a new story in the Gospel of John.
In all likelihood Nicodemus did not come to Jesus’ quarters, hoping to change religions. Successful seniors rarely wake up, hoping to replace their denominational banner by nightfall. Unlike the adolescent, older adults are not prone to think with hit-or-miss logic. While they may think more cautiously than youth, seniors also tend to think more accurately than youth. But once they are committed, most are deeply loyal: less likely to quit a job, a marriage, or a belief.
Gallop polls tell us that older adults, when compared to middle and younger adults, often exhibit a growth in spirituality. With more flexibility in their schedules, seniors often read Scripture, pray, and think about the supernatural; nonetheless these changes may baffle the simple observer who merely chronicles their diminished attendance in formal worship services.
Integrity versus despair
Psychologists point out that the typical older adult is on a quest for integrity versus despair. Like great puzzle-makers, attentive seniors are trying to integrate—or link—the pieces of their lives together as they reminisce. Without ever seeing the picture on the box, they keep trying to answer the question: “What has my life meant?”
Gerontologists suggest that many seniors feel pressured by their limitations and their regrets. Thus they can become preoccupied with their bodies, frequently monitoring how their bodies look, feel, and function. They can also become preoccupied with their work, using their overt productivity to measure what they are worth. They may even become preoccupied with themselves, obsessing on who seems to care about them and who apparently does not.
But by the grace of God, many older adults have learned to transcend their bodies, rejoicing that there is more to them than their physical lives. Many have learned to transcend their work, recognizing the intangible contributions they have made—and are making—to the people around them. And many have even learned to transcend themselves, accepting that there are many others worse off than they are, people worthy of their concern. These transcending men and women are following in the footsteps of an imprisoned apostle who overcame the temptation to be preoccupied with his body (Philippians 1:20–21), his work (Phil. 1:7, 12–13), and his ego (Phil. 1:15, 17–18).
The Modern Nicodemus
A modern Nicodemus came into my life ten years ago. Having grown up in one religion, Wendell followed his seventh-grade sweetheart into another. But by the age of seventy-two, these life-long lovers were dumbfounded. Their denomination had gone beyond diatribes against the Viet Nam War; now the denomination had ordained a practicing lesbian.
Rather than giving up on God and giving in to cynicism, Wendell and Sylvia followed a trusted friend into a Bible-centered church, a church that gently told Wendell that he wasn’t allowed to join officially. Sylvia had long ago learned to rest in the good works of God, but Wendell was resting in his own goodness. Like the rich young ruler, Wendell needed to learn that there were only two ways to heaven: perfect obedience or perfect surrender (Luke 18:18–30). Though the former is humanly impossible (Rom. 3:23; James 2:10), the latter is divinely possible (Eph. 2:8–9; Titus 3:5).
Like the Nicodemus of old, this beloved infidel would require at least two more years to come to Christ after his doubts had set in. Sylvia’s stroke led him to chisel yearning words on their joint tombstone: “Together Forever.” Then on the anniversary of her death, he begged for answers: “Will God receive me? Am I good enough yet?” Listening with a thief-on-the-cross kind of simplicity, he heard the words of biblical counsel: “Wendell, the question is not whether He will receive you; the question is whether you will receive Him. The Bible says, ‘Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God’ (John 1:12).” With tears of penitential relief Wendell’s prayer touched off a party in heaven.
Last summer at the age of eighty-two, Wendell’s body was laid beside that of his seventh-grade sweetheart. His example taught us, as did Nicodemus of old, that old age need not be wintertime; indeed, it can be harvesttime.