- Rev Peter Chan (BPCEC)
The Mission of Aging
Even when I am old and grey,
do not forsake me, O God,
till I declare Your power to the next generation,
Your might to all who are to come.
Looking Backward Instead of Forward
How do you know you have aged? When you talk about the past more than about the future – its prospects and possibilities. You spend more time reminiscing what you had done than readying yourself for what you want to do for now and in the future. In other words, you know you are feeling old when you are looking backward on the past rather than looking forward to the future.
It is interesting that there is a question that we always pose to a child or teen, but never to an adult. We often ask a child, “What do you want to do when you grow up?” It is a question that encourages a child to dream, desire, and design his/her life in pursuit of a goal or mission.
Strange that we do not pose this question when we are an adult, “what do we want to do when we grow up and old?”
In my conversations with people who are in their early fifties onwards, many express their foremost desire in retirement is to travel around the world. They lament the fact that they did not have the time and money when they were younger as they had been busy working to raise their families. In retirement, when they are freed from having to work and have the money to spend, they hope to reward themselves with worldwide travelling.
For those who are more inclined intellectually and have the passion for learning, they express their desire to enroll themselves in courses that may or may not lead to a certificate or degree. They just enjoy learning some knowledge and skills. Again, they missed that opportunity in their younger days as they were busy raising children.
Whether we are looking forward to travelling or learning in retirement, we must recognize one social trend in our country, that life expectancy is moving upwards – that is, we are living longer. According to the Singapore Statistics Department, in 2021, the life expectancy at birth is 83.5 years old (Male – 81.1 and Female – 85.9). And the life expectancy at age 65 is another 21.2 years (Male – 19.2 and Female – 23).
Reason for Sharing My Thoughts
Inching towards the 60s, I realize there is the tendency for us to focus on health issues. Perhaps, I consider myself belonging to the middle-income bracket, so livelihood after retirement is not a prime concern. But for those in the lower-income bracket, growing older intensifies their focus and anxiety over money and health. In other words, regardless of our financial status in old age, we will be anxious over either money or health, or both.
Why am I mentioning about our dreams, desires, designs, and difficulties in growing older, for those aged 60 and above? Perhaps, I am one of those who will be moving into this category very soon. No, that is not my greater reason.
The greater reason for me in writing this piece of reflection is to help us refocus and realign our lives as we age or grow older. When we speak of Christian Education (CE) in the local church, we often think of children under age twelve and teens under twenty. But CE is more than Sunday School and Youth Fellowship. Or, whenever we speak of discipleship, we seem to conveniently omit the seniors.
Perhaps we are not expecting them to be fruitful in evangelism and discipleship, which to me is a serious mistake! In a fast-aging society like Singapore, churches should think seriously about how to disciple and mobilise Christians who are “old and grey.” This is reflected in many of our churches’ seniors’ fellowship groups where they are focusing on social and physical activities. Sadly, many of these seniors’ fellowship do not focus on fostering continuing spiritual growth in worshipping God by learning the Word, bearing witness for Christ, and growing in love for one another through communal activities.
There is absolutely nothing wrong in designing and desiring to occupy ourselves with travelling and learning. But are these all that we design and desire when we are “old and grey”?
The Psalmist’s Twofold Petitions
If we are to continue in our discipleship in Christ – denying the self, taking up the cross, and following Christ daily (Luke 9:23) – then we need to take heed what the Psalmist says in his prayer to God. He asks God to allow him to do two things if he is allowed to live longer in old age.
First, he asks God to protect and provide for him when he is old and grey. The psalmist asks God not to forget him in old age. To remember is not simply a mental exercise but a relational and affectionate focus of care. To remember our parents in their old age does not simply mean to intellectually keep in mind that they are still around, that they have not passed on from earth. It carries with it the relational and affectionate care for them. In the ancient world and much of today as well, when one is old, there is a tendency to be “forgotten” or “neglected” because we are no longer economically productive and physically less able and agile. The youths and young adults in our churches are still socially active, physically strong, and economically productive, so they tend to be our focus in ministry and budgeting. So, those of us who are aging, we join in the plea of the psalmist to God and our church leaders, to not forget us when we are old and grey. There is validity in praying to God for provision and protection in old age.
Second, he asks God to prolong his life with the purpose of declaring His power to the next generation. The Church is essentially a collective chosen and called people. The apostles Peter writes in 1 Peter 2:9-10,
9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
Christians are chosen and called to be a community belonging to God, called out of darkness into His wonderful light, to declare His praises. The Church is essentially a community chosen and called to worship God – i.e., declare His praise – God’s perfection and powers!
In the Old Testament, Israel has been chosen and called by God, to belong to Him, so as to declare His praises among the nations. In Exodus 7:16, Moses was instructed to tell Pharoah these words:
Then say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to say to you: Let My people go, so that they may worship Me in the desert. But until now you have not listened.
From these two references from the Old Testament and the New Testament, we may say that the people of God and the Church of Christ have been saved for a purpose – to worship – i.e., declare the praises of Him among the nations. From the cradle to the crypt, and from earth to heaven, we have been chosen and called to proclaim God’s praise with our lips and lifestyle, in words and deeds, individually and collectively.
The mission of worship or praise is somewhat confined by us to the young – children, youths, and young adults. What about the people who are “old and grey”?
So, despite our worries and anxieties over money and health in old age, we are still called and committed to proclaiming God’s praise, as long as we have breath. “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord.” (Psalm 150:6) Yes, “everything that has breath”, that includes you and me, especially when we are “old and grey”!
The Mission When I Am “Old and Grey”
Finally, when we are “old and grey”, we may not be able to travel to places to proclaim the praises of God, and we may not have the energy to do much ministry work and play many ministry roles. But surely, we should be able to declare God’s power to the next generation! One unique role in which God gives to us who are “old and grey” is grandparenting. While some of my contemporaries have become grandparents, I have not been given the privilege yet. As grandparents, we can ask God to provide and protect us, and to prolong our life with the clear mission of proclaiming His praise to the next generation – i.e., our grandchildren!
Yet, for those who have yet to become grandparents, or perhaps would never be, we still have “the next generation” in our local church community. We should seek opportunities to engage the younger ones (children, youths, and young adults) in our midst. We should seek to declare to them the power of God demonstrated not only in the Word but in our lives!
Therefore, “when I am old and grey”, I have no reason to ask God to provide and protect me, and prolong my life, if I just want to enjoy my travelling and learning, without the greater reason of designing and desiring to declare His praise to the next generation!
I hope I have stirred up some food for thought for my fellow “greying” brothers and sisters. Allow me to end this reflection with the prayer by my favourite Christian hero, Jim Elliot:
“God, I pray Thee, light these idle sticks of my life and may I burn for Thee. Consume my life, my God, for it is Thine. I seek not a long life, but a full one, like you, Lord Jesus.”