Generations: Finishing Well


by Dr. George Strunk, Pastor of Christ Church United Methodist

Posted on May 20, 2010 at 3:07 PM

Updated Thursday, May 20 at 3:43 PM

May 16, 2010    Joshua 14:6-13

I want to start today
by reading those words from scripture
that have held us together from Psalm 71. 
“O God, from my youth you have taught me,
and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. 
So even to old age and gray hairs, O God, do not forsake me,
until I proclaim your might to all generations to come.”

Old and gray is common for every one of us. 
We wonder is it a good thing?  Is a bad thing? 
I want to talk about that today. 
We’ll talk about finishing well.

I was thinking about this formula to understand aging. 
Age is a result of experience plus deterioration. 
That’s basically what it is.  That’s what behind it. 

As you go through scriptures a certain kind of ambivalence
that I want to walk through for just a moment. 

Experience.  That’s very good.  And in the Bible it is to be honored, to be respected.
God’s plan was for his people to revere those who age. 
Leviticus says
Rise in the presence of the aged,
show respect for the elderly
and revere your God.  I am the Lord. 
Leviticus 19:32.

I’ll tell you something you probably don’t know. 
In our society we worship youth, not age. 

A friend of a friend of mine,
a man about my age was on an airport tram not too long ago. 
He’s standing because it’s real crowded
and there was a young woman sitting next to him and she was lovely. 
And she made eye contact with him. 
And he’s thinking, “I’ve still got it.”  He’s happy at this moment. 
And then she spoke to him. 
She said sir, would you like my seat? 
Which kind of deflated him a little bit. 

We have articles in magazines about anti-aging resources
but the Bible is really pro-aging. 
The word elder is used in the Bible 175 times

And particularly in the Old Testament. 
It speaks about how years can bring maturity
that will enable older folk
to come along side and mentor/guide/cheer on
those who are younger. 

Therefore elders in the community are to be prized.  It’s crucial. 

But human aging which involves experience that’s really good
ever since the fall it also involved a kind of deterioration. 

One of the most colorful passages on this in the Book of Ecclesiastes
where the writer says
“Remember your creator in the days of your youth.  Ecclesiastes 12:1 

Start thinking right now about finishing well, in other words. 
Remember your creator in the days of your youth
before the days of trouble come and the years approach
when you say I find no pleasure in them. 

And then this very colorful description of the days of trouble
that are headed your way and my way. 

When the keepers of the house tremble and the strong men stoop.

When age comes you lose a little height and strength goes down. 
One way to tell if you’re aging. 

Let’s do a little experiment. 
If you don’t mind for a moment. 
Everybody stand up. 
If you made a little noise when you stood up, you’re aging. 
It’s one of the ways to tell. 
When you’re a kid you don’t do that. 

Everybody take a seat. 
If you made a little noise on the way down, the aging deal is kind of advancing.

The writer goes on. This is all under the deterioration category. 

When the grinders cease because they are few or grind their teeth. 
No dentist in those days, no dentures, so the grinders started to disappear.

And those looking through the windows grow dim. 
What’s looking through the window about?  Your eyes. 
No laser surgery or contact lenses back then. 

When men rise up at the sound of birds. 
What’s that about? 
Just can’t sleep anymore. 
Just little noises start waking you up. 
And you start asking other people how did you sleep? 
When you’re a kid, no kids ask another kid how did you sleep last night? 
It doesn’t happen. 
As the days of trouble, men rise up to the sound of birds
but all their sounds grow faint. 
What’s that about?  Hearing starts to go. 

When the almond trees start to blossom. 
Want to guess what color almond blossoms are?  White. 
The hair starts to go white. 

And I love this one. 
And the grasshopper drags itself along. 
Isn’t that wonderful? 
There used to be spring in his step but he’s not hopping anymore. 
He’s a grassdragger now.  It’s all he can do. 

And desires no longer are stirred. 

I will leave that one to your imagination

That’s the day of trouble.

One researcher says or changes that are
deleterious, progressive, universal and irreversible. 
It’s a cheery thought isn’t it? 
Your skin will sag,
you will loose elasticity in it,
you look at your hands and realize they are your parents’ hands. 
The hair will start growing where you don’t want it to grow
and stop growing where you want it to. 
Weight will leave the poles and head towards the equator.

Some of you I know are young and vigorous and you’re thinking
that will never happen to me. 
And those of us who are older want you to know
we understand and we love you but it will happen to you. 
And we are kind of looking forward to it. 

All of which raises the question.  How do you age well? 
There’s lots written about it in our day, about successful aging, optimal aging. 
But how do you age well from a Biblical perspective? 
Because it’s going to be different.
According to the Bible, we are eternal creatures. 

I’ll tell you why it’s very important for us to consider this together,
more so that ever before in the history of the human race of the church. 

This is from the Historian by the name of Martin Marty who writes in The Christian Century.
If you don’t mind, turn to the person next to you
and guess back in Jesus’ days
and the days of ancient Rome and ancient Greece,
what do you think the average life span of the human being? 
In ancient Rome and in ancient Greece? 
The correct answer as best can be ascertained, historian Martin Marty says is
20 years old. 
A baby is born, infant mortality rates are off the charts, 20 years old.

Now fast forward 1,000 years to Medieval Europe. 
It was only 30 – 33, low thirties. 
As recently as 1800 it was 36. 
Today in the United States it’s 77 and higher than that for women. 
Throughout history people did not live that long. 

It’s estimated that today over 25%
And it may be as high as 33% of all human beings
who ever made it to 60 years or older are alive today. 
Between ¼ to maybe 1/3 of every human being
that ever hit 60 is walking the planet right now.

In our church I was asking Susan Williams the question. 
Susan said that we have 35 people in our church who are 90 or older. 
Now there may be more because of the 3,000 members,
only 2,000 of you have given us your age. 
So at least 35 of us are 90 or older. 
Throughout the centuries that would never have happened before. 
Not until very very recently. 
There are certainly some churches that are much larger than ours
but they tend to be attended by largely younger people. 
It may be in the history of Christendom
there has never been or certainly has hardly ever been a church
that had the wealth of folk who are over 90
that we have in our church. 
That may be unprecedented in Christendom. 

So what do you need to age well?  I’m talking about from a Biblical perspective. 
It’s different from our culture that says
aging well is about freedom and independence and security and comfort. 
From a Biblical perspective,
we need two things to age well… to finish well.

1)    I need whole hearted faith. 
I need the subtle conviction that I can trust God with my tomorrow. 
Not because tomorrow will be easy
but I can look forward to tomorrow
because God is already there and he’s waiting for me.

Let’s look at a guy from the Bible by the name of Caleb. 
Caleb you remember was one of 12 scouts,
spies sent out by God to explore the Promised Land,
when Israel had left Egypt. 
When the scouts returned,
10 of them said
let’s go back to Egypt and be slaves. 
This assignment is impossible. 
We can’t do it. 
Number 14:3-4. 
Only Caleb and Joshua trusted God and said
we can surely do it. 
Because of Israel’s unbelief, Caleb had to spend
40 years of his life wandering through the wilderness. 
He was 40 when he had been a scout. 
By the time the crossed the Jordan River he’s 80 years old. 
And then another 5 years pass beyond that. 
This is Joshua 14 and Caleb is speaking. 

“I was 40 when Moses sent me from Kiriath-arba to explore the land
and I brought him back a report according to my convictions. 
But my brothers who went up with me
made the hearts of the people melt with fear. 
I however followed the Lord my God wholeheartedly.”

By the way, if you have a negative attitude and a small faith when you’re 40
there’s a good chance
you will have a negative attitude and a small faith when you’re 85. 
Because there’s a good chance you won’t ever be 85. 

There are a lot of studies on this. 

Psychologist Martin Seligman
studied several thousand people in a religious community
divided them up, most to least faith filled optimistic. 
He found 90% of the most optimistic faith filled people were still alive at age 85. 
Only 34% of the most negative pessimistic people made it to that age.

Another study was the largest of its kind. 
It tracked over 2,000 adults over the age of 65
in the Southwest United States. 
Optimistic people, faith filled people
had better health habits,
had lower blood pressure,
had better immune systems
and were half as likely to die as negative people. 
If you have a positive attitude,
you’re likely to live a decade longer than people with a negative attitude.  How many of you are happy to hear that? 
If you’re not raising your hands you’re in serious trouble.

It’s kind of interesting.  There were 12 spies sent out. 
Joshua and Caleb had faith. 
We can do it.  Let’s go do it. 
The other 10 said it cannot be done. 
Let’s go back and be slaves in Egypt. 
Anybody want to guess what happened to the other 10 by now? 
They’re all dead.
None of them made it to Caleb’s age. 
Faith is such an amazing life giver.

There are all kinds of stories about this but I’ll tell you one. 

Paul Brand, a great doctor, wrote some books for Philip Yancey. 
Philip Yancey says he admires Paul Brand
more than any other man he’s known. 

But I want to tell you about Paul Brand’s Mom
Evelyn Brand. 
When she was a young woman,
she felt called by God to go to India. 
She was a single woman. 
You can imagine how much faith that took in that day in 1909. 
She met a guy named Jessie. 
They got married and began a ministry to people in rural India. 
Education, medical supplies, building roads, etc. 
Early in their ministry they went seven years without a single convert. 
Seven years without anyone coming to Jesus.

Then there was a priest of another religion
who grew deathly ill and had a fever. 
Nobody else could go near him
because it was so dangerous. 
Evelyn and Jessie nursed him
as he was dying. 
He said this God, this Jesus must be a true God
because only Jessie and Evelyn will care for me in my dying.

He gave his children to them to care for
and that was a kind of a spiritual breakthrough
because then people began to turn to Christ. 
They had 13 years of great ministry and then Jessie died. 
Evelyn is now 50 years old. 
Everybody expects her to return back to her home in England
but she will not do it. 
This is a real feisty character. 
She stays another 20 years under the mission board. 
Her son Paul came over when she was 70 years old
and this is what Paul Brand said about his mom. 
Paul Brand, this great leader said of his mom,
This is how to grow old. 
Allow everything else to fall away
until those around you see only love.

Now that’s finishing well.  This is whole hearted faith.

2. The second thing you need if you’re going to finish well is you need a challenge. 
You need a problem. 
And that’s what Caleb said.  Joshua 14:10-12. 

So here I am today 85 years old,
I am still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out. 
I’m just as vigorous to go out to battle now as I was then. 
Now give me this hill country that the Lord promised me that day. 
You yourself heard then that the Anakites were there
and their cities were large and fortified
but the Lord helping me I will drive them out just as he said.

Can I ask you a question?  What’s the toughest battle to win against an enemy? 
On flat ground
or against an enemy in fortified cities up in the hill country. 
Hill country is the toughest to take. 

That’s what Caleb asked for.  The hardest challenge. 
He has to face the Anakites, Israel’s most formidable opponents. 
They were the ones talked about back in Number 13 when the people said
We saw the descendents of Anakites there. 
We seem like grasshoppers next to them. 
That’s the Anakites of the hill country.

This guy Caleb is 85 years old,
you think he’s going to ask for a nice condo at Glenview.  No.
He wants the privilege of a really hard assignment. 
He wants one more chance to cross the Jordan. 
He wants one more shot at the hill country. 
God give me the hill country, he says.

This is interesting.  Marion Diamond is a researcher on aging
at University of California. 
She’s one of the world’s leading neuroanatomists. 
One of the things she found is that

Deliberately induced problems, challenges,
are required literally to keep your brain healthy and developing. 

She’s done a lot of work with rats
and one experiment some of them were just given food. 
But another group had obstacles placed in front of their food dish. 
They had to find a way over, around, through,
somehow past the obstacles. 
Rats that had to figure out how they get around the obstacles. 
How do they solve the problem,
They developed a thicker cortex, more dendrites. 
They were able to navigate other mazes more quickly. 
They were able to solve problems more proficiently. 
They were less likely to spend time watching Desperate Housewives. 

The fewer problems that a rat had the faster its brain went downhill. 
If you love a rat, give it problems. 

She writes in terms of successful aging,

It is not enough to continue activities in the same groove
year after year with the same expenditure of physical and mental energy. 
The brain requires new challenges
if it is to maintain a healthy functioning organ.

Give me the hill country God. 
God’s wired us so that our bodies, our brains, our minds, our spirits
require not comfort, ease, security, but challenge. 

What can God do with one person who is finishing? 

I told you a little bit about Evelyn Brand.  I’ll finish the story now. 
They call her Granny Brand.  A little old lady.  She spent her life in India,
20 years of widowhood over there. 
She’s 70 years old and she gets word from the home mission office in England
that they are not going to give her another 5 year term. 
She’s getting too old. 
She’s a kind of stubborn, kind of feisty. 
She always wanted to go to the mountains
and they didn’t have the resources for that in India
so the mission board said you’re done now. 

She had a party to celebrate her time in India
and everybody there cheered her on. 
They said have a good trip back home. 
She said I’ll tell you a little secret. 
I’m not going back home.  I’m staying in India.

She had a little shack built
with some resources that she had smuggled in and
then she got a pony. 
She rode from village to village on horseback,
a 70 year old woman,
to tell people about Jesus. 
She did that for 5 years on her own. 
One day she fell off and broke her hip. 

She’s 75 years old, her son Paul Brand,
this eminent doctor, comes and says
Mom, you had a great run. God used you.  It’s time to turn it over now. 
You go on back home. 
She said I’m not going back home. 
God gave me the mountain.  . 

She’s 75 at this point. 
She spent another 18 years travelling
from one village to another on horseback. 
Falls, concussions, and everything else. 
Finally she hits 93 years old. 
She cannot ride horseback anymore
and for another 2 years the men in those villages,
because they love Granny Brand so much,
they put her on a stretcher and they carried her from village to village. 
She’s 93 years old. 
God give me the hill country.

See that’s finishing well. 
It’s not about retiring comfortably. 
It’s not about having a great 401K. 
It’s not even about having a healthy body. 
It’s not about security. 
It’s about saying God give me another mountain. 

It might look like Granny Brand,
It might be a story that gets told. 
And it might not. 
Nobody may know about it but your God. 
It doesn’t matter. 

To finish well, Is to be a people that say God
we don’t care about comfort,
we don’t care about security. 
We just want to have another mountain
and then we know there is this other generation coming along. 

God we’re going to be a place where we will sacrifice
our own comfort,
our own taste,
our own convenience,
our own resources
to pass that phase on to another generation. 

That’s just the best. 
And that’s who God made us to be. 
So let’s all finish strong.


Dr. George Strunk is the pastor of Christ Church United Methodist in Louisville. He’s been doing a sermon series on aging. This sermon lists amazing facts about the population today. The church he heads has a membership of 3,200.