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Aging: The Potter's Purpose for Old Clay (Text: Jeremiah 18:1-7)
Two memories continue to haunt my nights and days. An old woman, bent and broken by crippling arthritis, spoke to our Sunday School assembly on the words of Jesus after He fed the multitudes: "Gather up the fragments left, so that nothing be left." She told the church that many old people feel like left-over fragments, unused and unwanted. She pleaded with us, "Gather up and use the talents of older people."
Recently, while visiting in a hospital, the charge nurse asked me to see an old woman who had sunk into speechless depression. Her sister had bluntly told her that she was going to a nursing home. As I tried to console her, she stared at me with fear and anger, and a tear slithered down her aged cheek.
What could the church have done for either of these older people?
Jeremiah went down to the potter's house with heavy heart. The nation, Judah, was headed for ruin; her repeated refusals to be faithful to the covenant insured her doom. Like the old, marred clay in the potter's house, Israel seemed beyond redemption.
Yet a miracle of sorts happened before his eyes. The potter did not discard the old clay. He began to rework it on his wheel, until it took on new shape. Then Jeremiah realized that Yahweh was not going to discard old Judah, but, on the wheel of history, the nation would be reshaped and redirected.
Old People Feel Like Ruined Clay
A major plight of the elderly in our society is that they do feel unwanted and unused. It must have been an elderly psalmist who prayed, "I am forgotten, as good as dead in their hearts, something discarded" (Psalms 31:12, Jersualem Bible). The aging are God's prophets in our midst, reminding us of our mortality, but we will not acknowledge them. Not only are some shunted off and abandoned in nursing homes, but the majority are either bypassed or patronized by our youth-obsessed society.
Recently, I searched for some books on aging, and found none. The proprietor told me that she dared not place any books with the word "aging" on the shelves, for no one would buy them. The only book on the subject that did sell was You and Your Aging Parent.
For many people who have defined themselves in terms of their work, retirement brings periods of depression and uselessness. The church needs to show its older people that identity (who we are) is more significant than work (what we do). Despite new and more liberal federal and state laws that eliminate mandatory retirement, people still retire at an early age. For those who live on limited incomes, any major health problem or exile to a nursing home could wipe out a lifetime of savings.
The church has not yet adequately ministered to its older people. Despite the "graying in the pews," the church has not been intentional about ministry to senior adults. At times we salve our conscience by organizing clubs for them, as if all old people want at the end of life is shuffleboard and checkers. Maggie Kuhn has well-named these efforts -- "playpens for the elderly." Patronizing our elderly is as bad as ignoring them. They need more than some geriatric version of a high school hangout.
The old psalmist prayed, "Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come" (Psalms 71:18). As the graying of America reaches the pews, the same kind of depression and hopelessness exists among many of our older persons.
God Does Not Discard Old Clay
At the potter's house Jeremiah realized that the potter did not abandon the old clay, but with love and patience reworked it into another pot. Same clay, different result. Beyond judgment was hope. Yahweh, who birthed the Nation, nurtured it in its adolescence, would not abandon it in its senescence. They would find a new identity and new meaning.
Whatever else the Bible says, it tells us that God does not discard rejected people. With patience and unswerving love, He stays with us. Is this not what Jesus made clear to all whom He touched .... the ruined, the injured, the broken, the old, the poor? "A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out" (Isaiah 42:3).
His love affirmed and qualified people. Even the elderly, like the aged Simeon and Anna, found new hope through Him. Whatever else the church is, it exists to help our ever-growing population of older people find hope and meaning at the closing of the light.
Beyond the brokenness and old ruin, Jeremiah saw how the clay found a new identity. In his despair he found new hope that the Old Nation would find new direction. Little did he realize that the church of Jesus Christ would be that new identity. Nor can we imagine that this ministry to the elderly might be the major mission of the church in the 21st century.
In 1913, my grandfather, G. Campbell Morgan of London, England, preached a sermon which never was published in the Westminster Pulpit. On his fiftieth birthday, he preached the sermon, "Fifty Years and After," in which he appealed to the congregation to utilize the talents of its older people.
What we ask of life is that we may be set free from certain forms of service, not for idleness, but that we may do less in order to the doing of more; In order that we may employ the great gains the years have brought us in the interest of our fellowmen.
The restraints of the years did limit his late ministry, but at the age of sixty-nine he was called back to Westminster Chapel, where he maintained an active ministry until his eightieth year. No older person should "go gentle into that good night," but find new directions for the last of life.
What Can The Church Do?
I believe the major road of ministry lies in a balance between creative reflection and redirected service. Older people need time to be passive, to reflect on life, and to tie together all the loose ends of their lives. The philosopher Schopenhauer captured this in an interesting metaphor:
Life could be compared to an embroidery, of which we see the right side during the first side of life, but the back during the latter half. The backside is less scintillating but more instructive; it reveals the interpatterning of threads.
Gerontologists call this "life review." This is not an obsessive dwelling on the past, but an honest effort to make sense of life. Active listening to their life stories, with intentional denial of our stories, can help them find integrity in the last years, and not despair. Malcolm Cowley, writing in his book, The View from Eighty, speaks for all older people when he says, "At least we can say to the world of the future, or to ourselves if nobody else will listen. I really was," -- or even, with greater self-confidence; I was and am this."
Of course, there comes a time when older people have made peace with their past, and need to live in the present moment. But until they have come to terms with their past, there will always be unfinished business.
Opportunities for ministry by the elderly are limited only by our vision. The fragments can be gathered up and used! The church might well discover that some of its greatest spiritual resources reside within its older people. Perhaps the words of Paul, usually related to younger adults, need to be redirected at ministry with the elderly,
for the equipment of the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12).
What a vast potential for service and ministry to others is available if we "equip the saints" for their ministry!
The potter has a purpose for that old clay, and the church needs to find ways for its older people to redirect their lives at the end of life. A first-grade class had been talking about the first disciples of Jesus. Reviewing the lesson the following Sunday, the teacher asked the children what the first disciples of Jesus were called. There was a long, awkward pause. Finally, one little girl blurted out, "I know, I know -- the recycles."
The potter recycled old clay. Jesus recycled the left-over food. Our mission is to redirect and recycle our older people into creative usage of their retirement.
The church has "come of age," in that it is no longer young. There can be no return to the time when church growth was enhanced and insured by a large number of young people. Many church congregations today consist almost entirely of people past fifty. The church needs to seek ways to realize the potential represented by its older people. It must be a time when the old dream dreams and the young see visions.
The Old Testament speaks twice of standing up in respect. First, we are to stand up in respect for God; secondly, we are to stand up in respect for the elderly. The church has not yet gotten out of its seat for the aging.
The marching orders for the church may well be found in the hymn "We Are One in the Spirit" by Peter Schoeltes, where reference is made to guarding each man's dignity and saving each man's pride. Modeling the compassion of Christ, the church needs to do all she can for her elderly, so often stripped of dignity by devastating losses, so often left with little pride at the end of life.
The potter did not discard the old clay. With great patience and love he gave it back its dignity and restored its pride. What greater gift can we give God than to do that for our older people? What greater miracle for the church than to see its older people mobilized and energized for action? What greater way to love ourselves, who some day will be old?
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