“If I’d known I was going to live this long I’d have taken better care of myself.” I can remember Eubie Blake, the great US jazz musician, saying this on his 100th birthday. (He died a few weeks later).
This was one of the quotes given yesterday in a brilliant lecture in church by Tom Kirkwood, Dean for Ageing and Health at Newcastle University. Congratulations to the U3A for inviting such a prominent speaker – he gave the BBC Reith Lectures in 2008.
And it was fascinating stuff.
The fact is that we are now living much longer than we used to, much longer. Even the comparison between life expectancy between the years 1900 and 2000 is breath taking – mainly due to improvements in public health and medicine. My mother died last week at the age of 95; her mother died in 1937 of hypothyroidism at the age of 39.
What is more life expectancy in the affluent world is continuing to grow to the extent that the United Nations, even in very recent years, keeps assuming that it is tailing off. It isn’t. There doesn’t seem to be a ceiling. 90% of our grandchildren will make it to their 65th birthday.
In his lecture Professor Kirkwood aimed to explain the ageing process. I know all about this having read chapter 9 of the brilliant book of popular science by Michael Brooks – “13 things that don’t make sense.” So I knew that the theory Kirkwood advanced for ageing caused through an accumulation of very small copying errors in cell division had some drawbacks. “What about fruit flies?” I could have asked him – but didn’t.
What was important, though, was the context he gave to the growing longevity of our society. Strangely, this is often seem as a problem. Certainly that was how the leaders of the three political parties saw it in their televised debates in 2010. Problems for the NHS, for youth employment, for pension provision. Old age is a problem.
Wrong. Old age is good news, especially as our health span, as well as our life span, is also increasing. So the apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honour your father and mother’– which is the first commandment with a promise – ‘so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’ (Ephesians 6:1) Clearly the apostle saw long life as a blessing, as good news.
Above all it was through Abraham that God chose to bless the nations of the world and – “Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.” (Genesis 25:8). Full of years, a lovely phrase.
But God’s purpose is not just to bless us but for us be a blessing for others.
Here the Bible sees the older members of his family an invaluable resource for wisdom – they have seen it all and have grown in their emotional intelligence: “Hear this, you elders; listen, all who live in the land. . . . Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children, and their children to the next generation.” (Joel 1:2).
Certainly there will not be another property bubble in Ireland or Spain while the present generation are still alive. Assuming, of course, that they are listened to!
For there lies the rub! Are we willing to accord the respect to older people to the extent that we are prepared to listen to what they say? Strangely much of the credit for me being such a brilliant grandparent must go to my mother – she had some very good insights.
Notice – what word does the New Testament use to denote those in Christian leadership?
Presbuteros, course. It can mean simply older man (10x) or woman (once) but for 57 times it is translated “elder”, which stands it in the tradition of the Old Testament.
However, it differs from the equivalent word episkopos (overseer or bishop) in that it also assumes the quality of old age. In other words, elders are leaders, in part, due to the wisdom and spiritual maturity they have obtained through a life-long walk with Christ.
What counts is not just that we may be old enough to have seen it all but that we allow the Holy Spirit to help us to reflect on our experiences so that in the great tradition of the Bible we may pass on to the next generation the wisdom of God.