Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Billy Graham's Guide to Aging in God's Grace

Famed evangelist Billy Graham once led month-long revivals noted for aerobic sermons. Now in his nineties and widowed, he can’t get out of his chair unaided. Many people might consider that as sign that the ministry has ended; not Graham.  In Nearing Home: Life, Faith, and Finishing Well, he exposes the great gifts the aged still have to give for the Kingdom, and the lessons the aged still have to learn from the young.

Graham admits he never thought he’d live this long. The grueling paces he put himself through in his younger days often left him exhausted. Yet the Lord has another purpose for him. He might not get to lead his citywide “crusades” any longer, but his years of accumulated wisdom make him an invaluable resource for those who have inherited his ministry. He may lack the stamina to sermonize, but he has the experience to guide and uplift.

He does not claim this position for himself alone. He makes plain that, like the man who built his house on the rock, a family or society that trusts in the wisdom of the aged—the wisdom of the ages—will withstand the shifting struggles of the moment. Of course this means the aged have a responsibility to take stock of their wisdom. For Graham, as for countless evangelists before him, “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Psalm 111:10).

But he doesn’t limit himself to considering the aged as mere fonts for others to draw on. Those who live long enough have a new ministry. Whether they help guide coming generations, or use years of professional experience to defend the oppressed and uphold the discouraged, or just provide a good model of how to age well and face death secure in God, the elderly never stop offering something profound to this world.

Graham also speaks to the young, from multiple angles. Adult children of the aged have something to learn from their parents, and they have something to give as well. The young deserve the lessons of the aged, but they also have the privilege of offering their clear-eyed vigor to those who need assistance. The partnership of the young and the old, often attested in Scripture but too rare today, is dear to Graham’s heart.

In Chapter 7, Graham approaches something profound. At one time, multi-generational homes were common, and children sat down to dinner with their parents, grandparents, and even great-grandparents. Their partnership kept farms and cities both flush with shared heritage and full of the energy to uphold our best angels. Homes were places of learning, sharing, and growth, for the old as much as the young, who constantly prodded each other productively.

I wish Graham would take that even further. Today we hardly know members of other generations. We hide the aged in nursing homes, and the young in schools, creating a society of people only in their middle years. Our culture exists only in the present tense, without past or future, without wisdom or energy, without tradition or rebellion. Should we act surprised, then, that depression, drugs, and workoholism have rushed in to fill the void?

Graham’s recommendations include the spiritual, as we’d expect from a lifelong evangelist. But he also looks at practical considerations. Have the aged kept their affairs and medical directives current? What can the young do to look after their parents without lapsing into patronizing? How should the elderly respond, in our strange and complicated society, when called on to fulfill roles we never previously expected of them, like raising their grandchildren?

In raising these questions, Graham rejects the temptation to seek pat answers. He guides our attention to our own experience, our shared heritage, and Scripture. The answers to life’s questions, for Graham, always lead to the Kingdom, where we all hope to live when this life is over. To the faithful, this world is not our home. We will all die to this world, and then we will live forever where God always intended. Everything serves that goal.

Some of Graham’s intended readers are already aged. Most of the rest hope to live long enough to get old, too. Whether we reach that goal, or have already, we need hope of how we can age well, and use our age to serve God’s calling. Graham’s clear, thoughtful approach offers great hope while remaining graciously free of stifling dogmatism. He offers real hope for the aged, and those of us who look forward to age.

1 comment:

  1. This is a wonderful book not only for seniors, but for every age. As a matter of fact, young adults will benefit from this book because Rev. Graham gives great insight into the need for preparing for the future. This is an easy book to read and I appreciated his message. Growing older is not easy and can easily be depressing if we focus on what we can’t do instead of what we can. Rev. Graham has accomplished so much for the cause of Christ, but he is always humble in his demeanor and writing.