Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Going to Church With Old People

I'll begin with a confession:  I go to church with old people.  Now our church doesn't smell like moth balls; we don't have afghans hanging over any pews; and we don't have those old wooden attendance boards at the front of our sanctuary.  We do have more than a few walkers.  We have a hearing aid blow like the final trumpet about every other worship service.  We do open hymnals every Sunday.  While we have our fair share of children, youth, young adults, and median adults, I must confess that I go to church with old people.

To be honest, I've never thought I needed to confess this.  I mean, I've always gone to church with old people, and until recently, I've never thought about doing otherwise.

I was checking out at a book store when the clerk looked down at my books on theology and preaching and said, "You must be a pastor." 
     "Yes," I replied. 
     "You're awfully young to be a pastor.  You must pastor a church full of young people." 
     "No, we have people of all ages- even senior adults."  (See, I don't call them "old people," I call them "senior adults."  Job security I guess!) 
     Shocked, the young man said, "You pastor a church full of old people?"  Those are the words that came out of his mouth, but his expression made me wonder if I had said, "I pastor a church full of the Taliban."  This young man was flabbergasted that a 31 year old guy would not only pastor a church with old people in it but also find joy in doing so.  He proceeded to tell me about his church that didn't have any old people so they didn't have to worry about tradition, it wasn't a big deal to change anything, and the music made you want to dance rather than go to sleep.  Turns out, there are numerous churches like this in the OKC metro- and most metros.

Now I'm not judging other kinds of churches.  I believe the Kingdom of God has many expressions, and I've learned to find beauty in the diversity.  It's not that I despise churches with no room for senior adults; it's just that I don't understand them.  I don't understand why we would question churches without racial, class, or ideological diversity, but we are fully comfortable with churches that contain only one generation.  Heck, church growth models even seek to create churches like this.  I don't understand why we throw out the baby of good tradition with the bathwater of paralyzing traditionalism.  (I believe it was Jeroslav Pelikan who said, "Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.")  I don't understand why we succumb to the cultural myth that newer is always better and anything old (or anything that looks old) is to be avoided.  I don't understand why we place so much more emphasis on styles of worship that appeal to age demographics than the content and focus of worship which appeals to God.  I don't understand why younger people are so resistant to stereotypes, but so quick to generalize about senior adults.  I don't understand why we would intentionally create a church where our children would never rub shoulders with those of other generations, where we rarely sang the hymns that have sustained the faithful for ages, and where we never do a funeral.  (How do we celebrate resurrection when no one in our church has ever tasted death?)  I just don't understand.  

Is it possible that many churches have bought into the rampant marketing strategies of our culture which says anything old is to be remodeled or discarded for something new?  Is it possible that in our efforts to reach out to the marginalized in our culture, we have been blinded to how we often ostracize the elderly?  Is it possible that some of our cool churches are as ghettoized as some of the more traditional ones?  Is it possible that we have placed more emphasis on who we are attempting to attract than who we are attempting to reflect?  Is it possible that, in an effort to be fresh and new, we have turned our backs on thousands of years of Christian wisdom before us?

One of the great joys I've had as a pastor is sharing life with the senior adults in various churches.  They have taught me, corrected me, encouraged me, and inspired me.  They have made the church better in a myriad of ways.  Here are a few:

1) Senior adults bring the wisdom of the ages rather than the fad of the moment.  Their multitudinous experiences deepen the life of the church and enrich the practices of the church.  They serve as an indictment on the "cult of the new," those in our society who believe novelty always trumps truth.  Seniors can speak wisdom (not advice, but wisdom) into the lives of those further downstream.  For example, this last Sunday, one of our senior adult women spoke in worship about a 3-4 month period in which she lost her son to brain cancer, a grandson in a car wreck, and a sister in law to a heart attack which took place at the grandson's funeral.  It is enough to make Job cry.  At the end of her story, she pointed to our congregation and said, "God never left us, and God will never leave you.  It's going to be OK."  Everyone was moved, regardless of whether you were 91 or 19.

2) Senior adults bring perspective to the church.  Their mere presence offers a sense of transcendence.  They are subtle reminders that the church was here long before I was born and will be here long after I'm gone.  At every one of their funerals, I'm reminded of our task of carrying the torch they leave behind.  As their bodies become more feeble, I'm reminded of the frailty of humanity and our desperate need for God's healing.  They help us think beyond today. 

3) Senior adults bring life to the church.  I know this seems backwards, but I've seen it too many times. Senior adults do not resist change; they resist empty and vaporous change.  They care very deeply about their children and grandchildren (and the nature of the church at which they will feel at home).  They love God passionately, and they model care for their neighbor.  For example, we have a group called "Pray and Sew," which is a group of older women who gather once a month to pray and sew (we are very creative with our names).  At first, this group seemed harmless enough- just a bunch of cute senior adult women sewing and knitting.  However, over the last 4 years, they have made thousands of first class garments for hospitals, nursing homes, grieving families, and the military.  Their ministry reaches all around our city, our state, and our world.

I have no utopian views of old age, nor the senior adults which compose our identity.  It's not really the age of a congregation I'm concerned about, but the vision of it.  Surely, churches should reflect their communities demographically.  But even more than reflecting our community, the church is called to reflect our God.  When churches begin to "target" a certain demographic, I can't help but feel far removed from Jesus whose target audience was....well... whosoever would come. 

And so, I will continue to treasure the old people of Spring Creek.  We will follow Jesus together, laugh together, and cry together.  I'll continue to push a few wheelchairs.  I'll continue to hear stories from days gone by.  I'll continue to wonder if the distinct odor of Ben Gay smells anything like the ancient offering of incense.  I will continue to be awed by the life in their wrinkles and the love in their eyes.  

As for me, I hope I die as an old man full of years.  I hope the old man I become is somewhat wise, tolerably cantankerous, and fully faithful.  I also hope some people I go to church with will come to my funeral, especially those who are much younger than I am.  I hope they come because we knew each other, had broken bread from the same loaf, answered the same call, shared life together, and called each other brother and sister. 

For now, I'll keep going to church with old people.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Thunder, Bedlam, Politics, and the Gospel

So I've given myself some time to calm down.  I'm no longer yelling at the refs or the Thunder or LeBron or the other people who bear the burden of watching a game with me.  I must concede that the Heat simply bested the Thunder.  Nothing more.  Nothing less.  Now I've had time for some reflection.

I have been astounded by the energy in OKC during the Thunder's run this year.  Flags were hung on car windows and draped over buildings.  Everywhere I went, people wore Thunder hats and shirts.  Everyone has been talking about the Thunder.  The team captured the city, and they were a breath of fresh air.  For a long time, I have wondered about the source of the Thunder's appeal.  For a while, I thought it was the exciting brand of baskeball; then I thought it was the joy of watching young players grow up before our eyes; and then I thought it was just winning.  Last week, my friend Stacy Pyle offered an observation and light bulbs finally fired in my mind (which doesn't happen very often).  Stacy said, "It has been so refreshing to have a sports team that unites us rather than divides us."

You see, before the Thunder, Oklahoma never had a professional sports team (the Hornets' brief stint in OKC is the lone, brief exception).  For the last three quarters of a century, Oklahoma has been a state that revolves around college sports, namely the two major universities.  When it comes to college sports, the lines are clearly drawn.  Sooners or Cowboys.  Red or Orange.  Billy Sims or Barry Sanders.  People who were born into loyalty to one university never dared convert to the other.  Conversion meant shame and denial.  Now there is a pronounced energy surrounding the sporting events of these two universities, especially when they play each other, but it is a negative energy.  Fear of losing to the other school often trumps the joys of winning.  Neither team can find it in themselves to root for the other.  In Oklahoma, college sports renders the state divided. 

Then, the Thunder came to town.  Everyone wears blue.  Everyone cheers for the same team.  When the Thunder play, Sooners and Cowboys actually watch the game together.  The energy equalled that of the Bedlam, but it was positive energy- the kind that unites us.  This season, we all cheered together, cried together, and griped together (dang free throws...).  Together is the operative word.

In the last couple of weeks, I've seen some parallels between OKC's sports loyalties and the differences between politics and the gospel.  I know this goes without saying, but our land is paralyzed by partisan lines.  The palpable energy is that of divisiveness and resistance, like trying to force the positive ends of two magnets together.  Oftentimes, what energizes one party is their opposition to the other.  Seriously, does anyone steeped in partisan politics ever change their mind?  Is there any openness to creativity and "third ways?"  Is there anyone who cares more about the common good than political expediency?  Is there anyone left who cares more about people than ideology?  When the focus is on partisan politics and hot button political issues, my church (and I'm guessing yours) is split right down the middle.

The gospel, on the other hand, brings an inherent energy to a community, but it is a positive energy- like the strong attraction between the different poles of a magnet.  The gospel brings the community of faith together.  To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther King Jr., "We only find common ground in the higher ground."  For Christians, the gospel is higher ground.  The way of Jesus is not the least common denominator for us; it is the GREATEST common denominator.  I'm not advocating for an evasion of the pressing issues of our day.  We must not hide our head in the sand.  But I am questioning what determines the pressing issues of our day:  partisan agendas or the Divine mission?  If we forget the wisdom of  our center, we will never have the wisdom to speak to our circumference.    

So my plea to the church is to step into the higher ground of the gospel.  Let us center our lives on the things Jesus centered his life on, rather than the incendiary issues which claim prominence in our day.  Let's remember that the cross is our symbol, not an elephant or donkey.  Let's find our energy in the things which unite us around the communion table rather than the cynical rhetoric which fills our air waves.  Let's listen to each other sincerely and authentically, but let's listen to Jesus first and foremost.

I guess what I'm saying is let's put down the red and orange and pick up some Thunder blue.  After all, they did have enough wisdom to draft a Baylor Bear this last week!