Lean Thine Arm: Growing Old Gracefully
By Maxie Dunnam
Monday, September 01, 1986
In my last sermon, I talked about Parent Burnout. I told some of you that you would get equal time. Today, I'm talking about "growing old" -- growing old gracefully.The truth is that this sermon is not just for one segment of the congregation; it's for all of us. We're all growing old. And as someone has said, "growing old is not so bad when you consider the alternative."
A 90-year-old was asked what he felt like when he woke up in the morning. He responded, "Surprised."
Now I know that you teenagers in the congregation will want to turn off right now when you know what I'm talking about, but you have grandparents. And you young adults, you'll be tempted to do the same: to turn off, because as far as the way you live from day to day and that with which you are preoccupied, you don't consider growing old. But I warn you--your day will come.
You know you're growing old when:
Your mind makes contracts your body can't fulfill;
You know all the answers, but nobody asks the questions;
You look forward to a dull evening;
You walk with your head held high trying to get used to your bifocals;
You turn out the light for economic reasons rather than romantic ones;
You sit in a rocking chair and you can't get it going;
Your knees buckle and your belt won't;
You regret all those decisions to resist temptation;
You're 17 around the neck, 42 around the waist, and
108 around the golf course.
And then someone made this observation: I find that one of the most disturbing aspects of aging is my growing inability to recall important information like the Greek alphabet, the gross national product of Lebanon, and where I left my glasses. This becomes particularly pronounced when I go upstairs to get something. Halfway up I realize that I have no inkling of what it is I'm going upstairs to get, so .... should I go back downstairs and try to remember what it is I needed, or should I continue up and look around for something that needs bringing down? Unable to decide, I resort to sitting on the landing, only to discover that after three minutes, I've completely forgotten whether I was originally upstairs going down .... or downstairs going up!
Well, I'm not sure that's the way I would want to define growing old, but it does make a suggestion, and that is that older people who enjoy a sense of humor get along far better than those who don't.
Growing old is inevitable. It's an unavoidable process that begins at birth. The question is how do we deal with it, how do we cope, how do we grow old gracefully?
I.Let's begin by looking at our scripture lesson again. I don't know how old the person was who wrote this psalm. In many translations of the Bible, this psalm has this inscription at the beginning: "A prayer of Moses, the man of God." If Moses wrote it, he had to have been old when he did. He didn't start the Exodus until he was in his eighties. It's a psalm about the eternity of God and the frailty of humankind.
Where is there a more picturesque expression of the eternity of God?
"Lord, thou hast been our dwelling place in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting thou art God" (
Where is there a more gripping word that grabs us by the shoulders and shakes us until we come to grips with the reality of our human frailty?
"Thou dost sweep men away; they are like a dream,
like grass which is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers" (
Then there is that additional piercing word that underscores how fragile and frail and tenuous life is: "Our years come to an end like a sigh" (
Yet there's more in the psalm, far more. Where is there a more challenging and encompassing call?
"So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom" (
And where is there a more confident prayer, a more hopeful possibility?
"Satisfy us in the morning with thy steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days (
Let thy work be manifest to thy servants,
and thy glorious power to their children" (
With that psalm as a backdrop, let's talk about growing old, and let's let the psalm inform us. We're trying to discern how we may "number our days in order to get a heart of wisdom," how to cope with aging; not the aging of others, but our own aging--how to grow old gracefully.
Many of you here find rich meaning in the title of the sermon. For years, Sunday after Sunday, you heard our precious founding pastor, Dr. Charles Grant, call you to prayer in your Sunday morning worship service:
Every morning lean thine arms awhile
Upon the windowsill of heaven
And gaze upon the Lord
Then, with a vision in thy heart
Turn strong to meet thy day.
As I worked on this sermon, that seemed an appropriate title: Lean Thine Arms Awhile Upon the Windowsill of Heaven. That's what the psalmist was doing, isn't it? As he contemplated his own life in relation to God--the eternity of God and his own frailty--that's what he was doing. He was leaning his arms awhile on the windowsill of heaven. He was gazing at the Lord.
And when he had that vision clear--the vision of the eternity of God and his own frailty--with that vision in his heart, he could turn strong to meet his day.
That's what we need constantly, at every stage of life. That's the reason the sermon is not alone for those who are sixty or seventy or eighty here this morning; it's for all of us.
Life can never be what it was intended to be unless we keep that perspective--the eternity of God and the frailty of humankind--and that perspective comes only as we lean our arms upon the windowsill of heaven and gaze at our Lord.
Now with that backdrop, I offer some specific suggestions which will keep us alive all our life. That's what the little girl said to her grandfather: "Granddaddy, I hope you stay alive all your life."
II.My first suggestion is: Don't give in to procrastination.
That's not just a problem of growing old; it's a problem all through life. Procrastination is a great enemy for all of us. How much of the good and the beautiful, the exciting and the positive, never happens because we procrastinate to the point that the opportunity spends itself.
Bud Schulberg was a famous writer; you remember his book, What Makes Sammy Run. Like all creative people, he found it extremely difficult to get started. This is the way he described it. "When it's time for me to write, first I clean the typewriter, then I go to my shelves, and I return all the books that belong to my friends. Then I play with the children; then I find some friends to have a drink with; then it's time to clean my typewriter again" (quoted by Mark Trotter in "Prescription for Procrastinators," January 3, 1982).
It's called procrastination, and some folks live by it. Their philosophy is, "Don't do today what you can put off until tomorrow."
William James, the great psychologist, gave us some saving advice when he said, "Seek the first possible opportunity to act on every good resolution you make."
As we grow old, especially when we come to retirement, the temptation is to procrastinate--to put off doing things. We do it because we think we have all the time in the world; there's no point being in a hurry now that we are retired. But that can easily become a habit. Procrastination can become a lifestyle, and it doesn't add anything positive and creative to life. Don't give in to procrastination.
III. My second word is: Don't use age as an excuse.
There are some benefits and privileges that come to us as we grow older, but there is a real danger that we will use age as an excuse.
The danger is that we'll fall into the snare of taking for granted preferential treatment, expecting it rather than being appreciative of it when it occurs-like being given a place at the front of the line, having doors opened for us, people standing to give us their seat. Now if this doesn't occur, if we have fallen into the snare of using age as an excuse, our disposition will turn sour.
Carried to the extreme, some persons fall into the trap of feeling that when they reach their age, they have a right to be short-tempered.
Don't use age as an excuse. There's no exclusive membership in the human family. This is an inclusive club of which we remain a member until we die. Being on Social Security doesn't give you a right to be inconsiderate, nasty, cantakerous. And nowhere along the way is there an excuse for being less than the loving and lovable person God and others would have us be.
That's one level of using growing old as an excuse. Another level has to do with using age as an excuse for being less capable and less useful. I know that energy wanes with age. I know that there is a healthy slowing down that ought to be affirmed and celebrated, but I'm talking about something else. I'm talking about the common myth that says as we grow old, we automatically become less capable and useful.
Carl Sandburg wrote Remembrance Rock at seventy. Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals when he was 78; Sophocles wrote Oedipus Rex at the age of 75 and Oedipus et Colonus at 89. Titian completed his masterpiece, "The Battle of Lepanto," at the age of 95, and he began work on one of the most famous paintings in the world, "The Descent From the Cross," when he was 97. (Levenson, Harvard Business Review, July-August 1969, p. 52, quoted by John E. Biegert, So We're Growing Older, The Pilgrim Press, New York, 1982, p. 13)
There are additional examples. At 100, Grandma Moses still was painting. At 94, Bertrand Russell led international peace drives; at 93, George Bernard Shaw wrote the play, Far-fetched Fables; at 91, Eamon deValera served as President of Ireland; at 91, Adulf Zukor was Chairman of Paramount Pictures. At 90, Pablo Picasso was producing drawings and engravings; at 89, Mary Baker Eddy was directing the Christian Science Church; at 89, Artur Rubenstein gave one of his greatest recitals in New York City's Carnegie Hall. At 89, Albert Schweitzer headed a hospital in Africa; at 88, Pablo Casals was giving cello concerts; at 88, Michaelangelo designed the Church of Santa Maria degliAngeli. (U.S. News & World Report, September 1, 1980, quoted by Biegert, Ibid. p. 13)
So don't use growing old as an excuse not to be capable and useful.
IV.That leads to a third point: Keep a struggle going. Keep something in your life with which you have to struggle.
Again, this is a problem that plagues us throughout our lives: the perverted notion about contentment.
There is a contentment we need: the contentment that frees us from the clamor of drives and desires which make us slaves to things and possessions, to potential fame; the contentment that frees us from being the servant of our appetites and ambitions; the contentment that lets us be at peace with ourselves in the face of all the external pressures that move in upon us; the contentment that breaks us free from an obsession with influence and power; a contentment that cuts us loose from an obsession with affluence and the false power that it brings.
But there is also a contentment that may destroy. That sort of contentment playwright Eugene O'Neill once defined as "a warm stie for eaters and sleepers." Once a person arrives at a state of contentment with what he is, when a person is through changing, he's through. If we're content to be what we are and rest on what we've done, we will never become our best. And becoming our best is an on-going process. We need to keep a struggle going.
That's the reason I keep talking about the exciting, almost unlimited potential of this church. There are so many persons here who no longer have to work to earn a living, persons in good physical health whose minds are agile and creative, persons who have shaped industry and business, persons who are skilled in all sorts of areas, persons who can use their hands as well as their minds in getting things done. You note I'm talking about women and men.
It's for your benefit as well as for the kingdom's sake that you need to hear God's call to ministry, that you need a cause for which to labor, some work to do that is unselfish and serves the desperate needs of others, some struggle that will engage your imagination and energy. Do you need examples?
The public schools of Memphis need saving. I don't believe the American way of life can be preserved apart from a strong public school system. I don't believe we can be responsible citizens much less responsible Christians apart from a commitment to the rights of little children from all walks of life to have an opportunity for the enrichment and enhancement of life that comes from education. I have a strong notion that there are people in this congregation who could, as volunteers, make a big difference in the public school system of Memphis.
Peace. I believe this is the crucial issue of our day. Nothing has been the same, and nothing will ever be the same again since 40 years ago when that bomb obliterated Hiroshima at 8:16 A.M. on August 6, 1945. I said a moment ago that Bertrand Russell led international peace drives at age 94. The threat of nuclear war is ominous, and impacts the way we think and live, the way our nation spends its money, and the future directions in which we're moving more than any other single factor. The church is involved and must be.
Who here in this congregation--especially, who among the retired folks--would take as a ministry the struggle of waging peace, studying the issues, keeping the congregation informed, challenging our Christian conscience?
V.The final observation I would make is: always know what time it is. This could be a sermon in itself. We know the problem and how it gets to us. Living in some other place but now.
The big temptation of age is to focus on the past: losing ourselves in the beautiful memories of success and love and liveliness, or burdening ourselves with the pain of failure and guilt. I don't have time to deal with those false stances except to remind you that whether losing yourself in the glowing memories of yesterday or burying yourself in dark regrets, either robs you of life now.
My focus, however, is at another point. Age should remind you of what the psalmist expressed so forcefully: the frailty of life. "Our years come to an end like a sigh." One of the biggest snares into which we fall in life is the lie laid on us, I believe, by the Devil himself. It's the most difficult kind of lie with which to deal because it's so attractive and there's so much truth in it. Brace yourself now. The lie is this: "There's always a tomorrow."
"That's no lie," you say. And I grant you the truth of it because we don't need to argue this close to the end of the sermon. Well argue later when I preach about death. For now, be gracious in mind and grant my point at least at one level. I think you can do it. And I'll be gracious, and we can agree at this point: Even if there is always a tomorrow, the older we get the less tomorrows there are.
That's the reason I urge you: Always know what time it is. Death is around the corner. It's around the corner for all of us--but the older we are the more certain it is that death is just around the corner.
Two questions then:
One, do you know what's just around the corner for you? Beyond death? If you know what time it is, you will be investing a lot of attention to your relationship with God. Do you know those words of Emily Dickinson? I discovered them just this week.
I never saw a moor
I never saw the sea
Yet know I how the heather looks
And how a wave must be
I never talked with God
Nor visited in Heaven
Yet certain am I of the place
As if a chart were given.
Are you that certain? Do you know what's just around the corner for you--beyond death? If you know what time it is, you'll be giving that matter your very best attention.
Now the second question. Are you taking someone with you? I mean, if Heaven is just around the corner for you, are you taking someone with you? Are you sure that those you love know where you are going, and that they will join you there?
It will be awful to get to heaven and be unable to find some of your loved ones. But, let me tell you what will be hell in heaven. Listen: It will be hell in heaven when we awaken to the fact that we didn't do what we could to insure that our loved ones and friends knew our destination was Heaven--when the awful fact dawns on us that we didn't even extend an invitation for them to journey with us.
If we remember what time it is, we will give attention to these two questions: What's just around the corner? And, who are we taking with us?
So, you are growing old. We all are. Then:
Every morning lean thine arms awhile
upon the windowsill of heaven
And gaze upon the Lord
Then, with a vision in thy heart
Turn strong to meet thy day.