Everyone loved Gen. There was no shortage of volunteers ready to leap at the opportunity to drop something off, to make a call or to check-in with her. I knew her first as one of those gracious women who welcome the new pastor into a community. Still active, she was busy volunteering, checking in with her friends, making quilts, being attentive to her grandchildren, and dropping gifts of food off. Later she would be hit with Macular Degeneration. Where some would have felt their life slipping away, Gen did what she always did. Gen was an expert at making lemonade out of the lemons which came her way. She learned how to use her remaining sight. With a good magnifying glass she could still make out some print, and keep tabs on stitches in her current quilt.
When I planned a visit to her home, Gen would insist on my coming to her home for lunch. Being ninety and almost blind didn’t stop her from preparing that lunch. Difficulty and trials had come her way, but, from the day I first met her, until I would leave that community eight years later, Gen exuded a sense of joy. I often told her that I wanted to grow old like her. Her attitude was a gift for all of us who knew her. I was inspired by her.
Some of us grow old and cranky. Others grow old and dear. They age with grace. A friend told me this week that he decided not to be a complainer as he aged. Eighty-eight now, he admits to not always feeling his best, but after spending more time than he wanted with people who complained about everything, he simply doesn’t want to live that way. What I have found in common with those who age gracefully, is a deep-seated faith and connection with God. There is also a sense of gratitude for every good gift, from a beautiful day, to a friend who calls, to a family that cares. These aged saints, make a point of reaching out to other people, and find meaning in their lives as they do so.
The psalmist says of these:
“The righteous flourish like the palm tree,
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
In old age they still produce fruit;
they are always green and full of sap” Psalm 92:12-14
I still want to grow old like Gen.
It seems like everywhere I’ve been in recent weeks, the question of why young people aren’t joining the church, comes up in conversation. A clergy colleague’s son asks her, “Why should I join an institution that practices intolerance?” One friend, who does some volunteer work with college students says, “Young people think the church has corrupted the faith.” Pew Research, out with their latest study on religious trends, interviewed 35,000 people. They found that younger people, of all Christian backgrounds, are leaving the church and no longer claiming Christian as a part of who they are. Increasingly Millennials give themselves the title of “none” when asked their religious background.
Much of the media has not been helpful in sharing the positive in Christian faith and life. I bounce between frustration that the media doesn’t pick up on the good those faith communities are doing, and being painfully aware of the dysfunction which too often exists in churches. As faith communities we have a lot to answer for. But, I think the problem is deeper than that. Our world has so many more choices than when I was a young parent. Social media has redefined how we relate to one another. Skeptics have a larger forum. Fewer of the older generation have known how to pass on an authentic faith to their children. We put our priorities on other aspects of our children’s well being instead of growing their faith. The church and the older generation has made a mess, a very big mess of communicating the love of God to a new generation.
Yet there are other times when the church is alive and well. Increasing numbers of churches sends mission teams out to pick up after a tornado or when a hurricane strikes an area. We make health kits, send school supplies to third world nations, and build health clinics. Homeless people are fed and housed in churches, while advocating for resources to get people off of the streets. Church people staff local food banks and give generously of their resources to human need.
Still, I worry about the younger generation’s alienation from the church. I fear for their lostness and lack of trust in the God who loves them unconditionally. I fear for children who grow up without a knowledge of God. What no survey or poll can account for though, is the tug of God in a person’s heart. God has a way of finding lost children and calling us to God’s self. What is of God, will endure. The form and shape of Christianity may change in the years ahead, but nothing will hold back God’s truth. Seventy years of communist rule in the Soviet Union didn’t quench the yearning to know God. That same seed, planted in the human spirit, will exist till the end of time. Every now and then God reminds me that if God can get through my stubborn heart and mind, God can certainly get through to those I love and care about.