At the Gate

Question: I am 66 years of age. I need to think more about living as an elder. What does this mean for you?

Response: I must begin by saying that I don’t think there is a one-size-fits all pattern for eldering. Like so much else we have to work it out “with reverence and experimentation.” [1] But neither are we adrift when it comes to becoming elders. I will use reverence and experimentation to offer a response to your question.

Reverence…. By this I mean that every stage of life is sacred. Abundant living does not have an expiration date; it exists in older adulthood as much as in any other phase of life. But as in all the other phases it takes on different forms and expressions when we ate older.

This means we become elders respecting the aging process and learning about it. We can learn from resources that describe human development as well as those which emphasize some aspect of it (e.g. psychological, spiritual, financial, social). At the end of this response I will list some of the books that have been helpul. Reverence for life in all its stages is what disposes us to live into elderhood with anticipation rather than anxiety. God is with us.

Experimentation…. By this I mean being willing to learn through trial and error, and also by using paradigms which others have found to be beneficial. The one I am currently exploring is the biblical metaphor of “sitting at the gate.”

“At the Gate”…. Elders do not disappear. We remain at the place where people come and go, but we are not coming and going as we once did. Elders remain engaged, but in a new way. We have a role, but it is a different role. At the gate, elders are still involved, but in a way different than before. To use the metaphor of Hebrews 12, we are no longer on the track running the race, but we are still in the stadium, in the great cloud of witnesses.

“Sitting”…. Elder posture is one of observation and conversation. Elders “stop, look, and listen,” and we practice what Eugene Peterson called “the ministry of small talk.” This is not insignificant talk; in fact, it is often strategic…and always pastoral. It is interaction with others arising from attentiveness more than from activity. It is responding more than initiating. I believe the main ingredient for this kind of interaction is encouragement. It is our turn to say (as hopefully others said to us in our younger days), “Don’t quit! You can do this.” At the gate or in the grandstand, we are cheerleaders.

When elders do this well, they serve the primary purpose of their life stage: to be providers of wisdom, which J. Philip Newell defines as “understanding enriched by experience.” Of course, wisdom is not the unique possession of elders, and not all old people are wise. But because elders bring a longer-lived experience to bear on things, hopefully their knowledge will be shaped by it. In that sense, elders are intended to be stewards of wisdom. Joan Chittister calls this “the gift of years.” It is a gift God calls elders to tend and offer.

I use the word ‘eldering’ as a way of indicating that living as an elder is a blend of action and process. We do the best we can in our stage of life to be helpful to those still “coming and going”—still running the race. And as we do so, we continue to learn how to do it better.

Here are a few of the books that have been useful to me in becoming an elder…

Joan Chittister, ‘The Gift of Years’

Emilie Griffin, ‘Souls in Full Sail’

Benedict Groeschel, ‘Spiritual Passages’

Rueben Job, ‘Living Fully, Dying Well

J. Philip Newell, ‘One Foot in Eden’

Parker J. Palmer, ‘On the Brink of Everything’

Paul Tournier, ‘Learn to Grow Old’

I have written a book about clergy retirement entitled, ‘Stepping Aside, Moving Ahead.’ It includes thoughts about eldering, many of which apply to us all, not just clergy.

[1] I paraphrase “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12) this way with respect to eldering

[If you have something you’d like me to respond to, use the Oboedire email to be in touch:]

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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