A Pepper Grinder Post

Wilting Flowers

This past week I turned 56.  That same day, I found out that a co-worker had hurried to be with his mother who had become gravely ill.  Then I went outside today and saw that the flowers on the rhododendron by our driveway, which had been so beautiful just a week or two ago, were now wilting and turning brown.

new flowerIn case you hadn’t noticed it, we live in a culture which is obsessed with and worships youth.  It is no secret that people look better when they are young than they do when they get old.  Young adults are generally thinner than middle-aged and older adults.  They have fewer wrinkles; they have more hair.  This is no different than it has been since the fall of man.  What is different now is that being old is not seen as special at all.

Listen to what Solomon said in Proverbs 20:29 (NET):

The glory of young men is their strength, and the splendor of old men is gray hair.

He acknowledges the strength of a young man.  I would say that the female version of this would have to be something like, “The glory of young women is their beauty.”  But what are old men and women left with?  The splendor of gray hair?  In our society, that sounds ludicrous.  How many millions or billions of dollars do women spend coloring their hair when it starts to turn gray?  My wife and I have noticed that until you start looking at women in their 70s and 80s, it is very difficult to spot any with gray hair.  Think of all the middle-aged couples you know where the man is graying or completely gray and the woman doesn’t have a single gray hair.  How do they do it?  As was said in hair coloring commercials of my youth, “Only her hairdresser knows for sure.”

And yet this thing which is treated like a plague in our society is described as the splendor of old men in Proverbs.  This just shows how far we have drifted, not only from the Bible, but from almost all traditional cultures.  In these cultures, as in the Bible, an older person was deemed worthy of honor and respect because he or she was old.  He had superior wisdom and knowledge; she had worked hard and made sacrifices for many years.  Older people were seen as sources of important understanding for the young.

old flowerBut look how the old or middle-aged and the young are often portrayed in modern media.  This is purely my impression, but it seems to me that there has been a significant shift just during my lifetime.  When I was a kid, it wasn’t that hard to find TV shows where the parents were portrayed very positively.  I’m thinking of shows like Leave it to Beaver, Little House on the Prairie (though the books are SO much better, in my opinion), or Father Knows Best.  The kids were adorable, charming, and sweet, but the adults were wise, kind, and together.  Now it seems to me that you see more and more portrayals of parents as petty, selfish, and very out of touch.  The young have become, not only strong and beautiful, but also wise and compassionate.  Youth has become everything; old and middle age, nothing.

Is it any wonder, then, that we color our hair, get our eyes lasered, and get surgery to remove unsightly bulges and wrinkles?  As Lady Polly said of Queen Susan in The Last Battle by C.S. Lewis:

She wasted all her school time wanting to be the age she is now, and she’ll waste all the rest of her life trying to stay that age.  Her whole idea is to race on to the silliest time of one’s life as quick as she can then stop there as long as she can.

I even read recently about older women in South Korea turning to prostitution.  In a society which, like most Asian cultures, laid strong emphasis on honoring and caring for the aged, there had been little need for a government safety net like Social Security in the U.S.  Parents would, of course, be cared for by their children when they could no longer support themselves.  However, as South Korea has become more westernized, children have (according to the I read) moved away from this responsibility.  As a result, there are older women without husbands who do not have enough money to feed themselves.  Some of these women are becoming prostitutes to pay the bills.

very old flowerHow should we, as Christians, respond to a youth-worshipping culture?  For those who are elderly, I would say, “Be yourself.”  Don’t believe the lie that you are worthless because you are not young.  Don’t try to act younger than you are.  No matter how others see you, God sees you as someone deserving honor.  If you try to act “young,” you will deprive those of us who are looking for a wise, older model.

If you are young, realize there is a huge and largely untapped source of wisdom outside of your smart phone.  Look for older people, especially older Christians, from whom you can learn.  Yes, the young pastor of your cool church may have some good words of wisdom.  But so might your parents.  Don’t assume that you know everything they know.  Even if you may not agree with everything they say, there are things they have learned in their many years of struggle, from which you could profit.

I am in the position of being in the middle.  I need to resist the temptation to pretend to be a young man when I will be 60 in a few years, but I also have a father in his 90s whom I can honor and learn from.  Even though I have been a believer since I was 15 and my father doesn’t know Jesus at age 94, I have a lot to learn from him.  For one thing, his consistently positive and thankful attitude in spite of the challenges of his present life never ceases to impress me.

Most importantly, for all of us, we need to remember that we are short-timers here.  If we are young and beautiful like the rhododendron flower at its peak, it won’t be long before that external beauty starts to fade.  If we are old and feeling wilted and shriveled, we should remember Christ’s promise that death will be swallowed up in victory.