This month I hit a birthday milestone, and it has hit me harder than I expected. Lord willing, my life isn’t even half over. I know there are so many more things in store for me in the future and that aging can be exciting. But I have also realized over the last few months that I am slower that I used to be, I can’t do some of the things that I had taken for granted most of my life, and some of the physical pains don’t go away as quickly as they used to. My son is stronger than me and he can beat me at most video games. That’s an embarrassing combination, and maybe a definition of middle age!
All of these things have caused me to reflect on the aging process in light of who I know God to be and who I know God created me to be.
Lament is a very important biblical concept that we often overlook. In our hurry to get to a solution or an action step, we jump right past acknowledging the pain. The Psalms of the Bible contain many examples of lament. The formula typically recalls something that God had done in the past followed by wondering why those things aren’t a reality anymore. Laments also typically contain a cry for help and for answers followed by an acknowledgment that God was, is, and always will be in control.
I have learned to apply this formula to my life as well. Often I lament why I can’t do the things that I used to do. I have mourned the loss of some physical abilities and have even had to mourn the loss of my specific calling as a pastor to youth. I have asked God why these things had to be taken away from me and have asked for answers. I have cried and expressed anger towards God, all parts of lament. And throughout all of these laments I have tried to maintain a realization that God is still in control of me, just as he always was and always will be. Mourning what I have lost has helped me move forward in many cases.
With the loss of certain things due to aging that I held very dear, I have also realized that God has given me new gifts and abilities in this time of life. God’s gifts to us change over time. While the gifts of my youth suited me well in my youth, the gifts that God has given me now suit me well right now. Do I wish I could still play basketball or lift weights like I did when I was a teenager? Sure I do. But those gifts suited me then. I have realized that the gifts God has given me now suit me now.
Instead of playing a lot of sports now, I have the opportunity to coach sports. While my jump shot has deteriorated, my ability to teach students how to shoot a jump shot has not. While I can’t throw the discus without throwing out my back, I can teach students how to throw a discus quite well. And while I may not be able to stay awake until 2 am playing video games with my son anymore, I have more confidence to ask him deeper life questions than I did when I was younger. The bottom line is that while some of the abilities and gifts that I had as a younger person are gone, new ones have taken their place. Learning to use and treasure those new gifts is a part of aging well.
Aging often reminds us of the shortness of life, which is it's own gift of wisdom. There are a few ways to react to life’s brevity. One is to become frightened and even sad in the face of dwindling years and diminished capacity. Another is to slow down and appreciate every part of life more fully. I read the stories in the gospels of Jesus leaving the crowds behind and spending time in prayer and devotion and I think that in a way he was choosing the second approach to a shortened and busy life. Allowing life to fly by without the chance to process and appreciate it seems to be a mistake.
So I find myself enjoying the little things in life more than I did when I was younger. I try not to rush through meals with my family as much as I used to. Instead I take the time to talk to my family and listen to the stories of their days. I don’t get as mad about traffic jams as I once did. Instead I find good music or a good podcast to listen to. When I reach the destination on a challenging hike in the mountains I’m not quite as quick to turn around and begin the journey back down again. Instead I enjoy the view, the sounds, the smells, a good drink of water, and the company that I might be with. I’m trying to say the words “I Love You” more often to my family, my friends, and other people I’m in community with. In general I’m trying to listen to God more, ask him what he is saying to me, and listening for him to tell me what he wants me to do with my life every day.
In 1 Corinthians 13, the Apostle Paul talks about the differences between children and adults in terms of the way we think and talk and live life. Children live life one way and adults live life another way. Each are appropriate to the depths they have so far achieved. We see things differently in different stages of life. That is true in many areas, maybe none so clearly as how we see our faith, our life with God, and God’s character.
I know God differently at 40 than I did at 21 or 12. I generally have more knowledge about who he is in my life and in the life of the world around me. I understand his calling on every area of my life in different ways. Different attributes and even names of God speak to me more now than they did when I was younger. God has not changed, but my view of him has deepened as I have grown older.
I’m still not overly excited to see this milestone birthday and I’m pretty sure when the next milestone rolls around I won’t be that excited for that one either. I still have to go back to this list from time to time and remind myself that not everything is bad as I age. But as I remind myself of all the good things that I’m gaining as I grow older I’m excited for the future. I’m excited to see what God has in store for me. I’m excited for what he wants to teach me and for how he wants to use me.
As you age, what are you afraid of? What things from your past that you have lost are you mourning? What new things are you discovering or learning about yourself or about God? How have you slowed down and appreciated life more? Maybe we can learn from each other more about who God is calling each of us to be as life goes on.
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster