The elders at the church where I pastor met this week for an EhD – an Elder Half Day. We hold these monthly, a 3-hour gathering for the sole purpose of exploring a single theme. An EhD involves 3 things: biblical exploration of that theme; a guided but free-flowing discussion on it; and prayer – lots of prayer.
This EhD was on the older generation. That’s a vague way to describe an age group, but roughly it refers to those in their mid-60s and beyond. This is the fastest growing age demographic in Canada. For example, in the 70s, 8% of the population was over the age of 65. In the next 2 years, 16% will be. But because Canada’s population has grown in those 40 years, that doesn’t tell the whole story. Try this:
• In 1971, 1,750,000 men and women in the country were 65 or older.
• Today, it’s 5 million.
• By 2016, it will be close 6 million.
This is one of those realities we ignore to our own peril. Thanks to the persistence of my chairman, himself approaching this magic age, our elders stopped ignoring it. His heart on the issue distills to a key question: How do we honour and engage the older generation? Or to phrase it more like he does: “How do we heed the wisdom of those who have lived long, and how do we release it for the sake of the whole church?”
We started the conversation this week. And we got excited. One of the participants emailed me after to say it was the most inspiring EhD he’s been at yet (and he’s been to all of them).
What got us exited? That’s simple: the sheer wealth of life experience and spiritual depth bound up in the older generation. They know things. They’ve seen things. They’ve been through things. Theirs is a wisdom, not of books and theories and guesses, but of sorrow and joy, trial and error, triumph and defeat. It’s been quarried from real rock. It’s been forged in real fire. It’s been tempered in real water. They have, in their hearts and bodies, gone places the young just speculate about but feel entitled to opinions on anyhow. The great tragedy is that those who have earned their opinions, and honed them to a fine wisdom, are so seldom consulted. And they rarely offer their thoughts unbidden.
Yet we need this generation like never before.
Emerson said the great need of his day was for the centuries to speak to the hours. In our day, may at least the decades speak to the years. Let wisdom speak, and may we all be listening.
On a recent trip to Ireland, my host gave me a guided tour of the Belfast murals. A whole section of that city, like Chemainus, the city next door to my town, tells its history in pictorial form: large bright depictions of key events and personages emblazon the sides of buildings. But unlike our sister city, the Belfast story is grim, bloody, and heavily slanted on one side of the sectarian divide or the other. It is a montage of outrage and vendetta, almost entirely preoccupied with the time of the “Troubles,” a nearly 30-year stretch, from 1969 (though with much deeper roots) to 1998 (though with ongoing repercussions), when Catholics and Protestants clashed violently over their very different visions of Ireland’s national identity and destiny. It’s much more complex than that, as any Irishman would be quick to tell you – there are layers upon layers of political, cultural, educational, economic, and class issues involved – but for simplicity’s sake that’s as good a summary as any.
Most of these paintings, both in the Protestant sector and the Catholic one, are freshly done, though the subject matter of most dates back to the 70s. The same meta-narrative is painted and repainted, so that a new generation learns it by heart. Every day, as people walk and drive past, the images of their heroes and martyrs, villains and Judases, loom large, shaping public identity and imagination. The images recall the past, but determine the future.
The story is essentially the same, regardless of which side of the very real divide – a 12-foot-high wall topped with coiled barbed wire – you’re standing on: we are innocent, righteous, and fair, and our enemies are treacherous, evil, and cruel. We love peace and they love war. The Catholics say it about the Protestants, and the Protestants say it about the Catholics.
I found the experience profoundly sobering, how two people can look at a single event and, depending on the accident of their birth, render completely opposite verdicts on it.
And I found sobering the power of story. We are, in many ways, the sum of the stories we tell ourselves. Our sense of who we are – our place in the world, our rightness and virtue, or worthlessness and bad luck, or victimhood, or entitlement – is tied to what story we believe, and the story we believe is the story we keep repeating.
The gospel has been described as a better story than all the ones we might otherwise hear or speak. It is a story grand and sweeping and beautiful – of a God who creates in love and for love, of a creation that rebels and sins and runs away, of a God who pursues his creation to the ends of the earth and gives himself wholly to win her back, and who spares no expense to restore his creation to its original design.
It’s a good story.
The world is trying to tell us a different one, one that diminishes us, confuses us, misleads us, divides us. Let’s resolve to tell ourselves the good story, the gospel story, often enough, vividly enough, truthfully enough, that it displaces all the lesser stories, and shapes who we really are.
I'm currently in Ireland, in the lovely seaside town of Bangor, a suburb of Belfast. I started the week here, then drove down the coastline to Dublin to view the book of Kells and other historical wonders, then spent a night in Armagh, with its rolling green hills and red brick mills. I'm back here now in Bangor, to do a week of teaching.
This past week I have been on a guided tour of the St. Patrick Trail, led by Arrow Leadership's CEO Carson Pue. It's been a fascinating and faith-building journey. We've gone from the bay in Northern Ireland – Strangford Lough – where Patrick first made landfall in the country, to the place, not far from there, where he lies buried beneath a flat rock, shaped as God made it except for Patrick's name chiseled atop. And we visited several of the monasteries and churches he established, including the cathedral in Armagh where he is listed as the first pastor.
Of all I've learned about his life and times (Carson is an expert, and just finishing a book on Patrick), two things stand out. First, unlike other monks, Patrick never intended his monasteries to be cloisters where monks lived sheltered lives of quiet scholarship: he intended them as boot camps where monks were trained up and sent out as evangelists. This is a brilliant model for the church. Too often we regard church as our refuge, a place to escape the world, rather than as our training ground, a place to prepare to subvert and win the world. More than ever, we need to measure the church's success, not by its attendance records, but by its obedience factor; not by its seating capacity, but by its sending capacity.
Second, Patrick taught his monks to choose, long before they ever arrived in the place they were sent, the values by which they would live. In that way, the world would not define them. Patrick chose a life of purity, integrity, humility, simplicity and courage in a culture where most of that was lacking. In his day, he had "rock-star status" – Carson's phrase – women threw themselves at him, chieftains and pretty kings offered him land and wealth. He never indulged any of it. He had resolved long before to be satisfied with Christ alone. It was this resolve, more than anything else, that empowered Patrick and his monks to effectively Christianize within a single generation a deeply pagan culture. This, too, is a good model for the church. Some of Patrick's counter-cultural approach to living the faith would strengthen us, within and without, and be a more effective way to reach the world.