Joining Hands by Robert Steiner

Joining Hands by Robert Steiner

Older adults can be passionate lovers, hard workers and angry activists too! Yet we live in a society that seems willing to write off their wisdom, skills and experience. This discrimination against older people – ageism – is an ideology invading our land like a swarm of locusts, reinforcing myths and stereotypes that marginalise those regarded as too old to be useful and productive. The US peace activist Christine Smith describes ageism as ‘the annihilation of feelings, self-expression and relatedness’. In this respect, old people have a lot in common with orphans and other children who also feel ostracised and alone.

It has taken a national crisis like HIV/Aids to recognise and re-affirm the resourcefulness and talents of our elderly citizens. The love and caring shown by grandparents across South Africa reminds us of a different truth which is much closer to the wisdom of our Judeo-Christian heritage: Old age is not a problem, but a blessing! At the same time, their selfless and endless love is a direct challenge to us as faith communities, particularly for churches shaped predominantly by Western Christianity. For in many traditional African communities, older people continue to be deeply respected and treasured for their contribution to society.

Recently, Christians celebrated Pentecost and the yearning of God’s Spirit to be embodied in nurturing and caring communities. In his Pentecost sermon, the apostle Peter heralds the coming of the Spirit by quoting from the prophet Joel: ‘Young men [and women!] will see visions and old men [and women!] will dream dreams.’ Young men and women not disillusioned and despairing, but visionaries! Old men and women not marginalised and neglected, but powerful dreamers! This provocative memory is rehearsed at every Pentecost service, waiting to be realised anew by communities who are willing to unite young and old in the transformation of our society.

Joel’s prophecy was originally spoken to people who had experienced the devastating disaster of locusts swarming the land and consuming every tree, shrub and crop. The promise of new visions and new dreams, connecting young and old, spoke of a different future and breathed new life into a generation that was despairing. At Pentecost the early followers of Jesus felt that their powerful experience of God’s Spirit was the fulfilment of this prophecy. The time has come, the ‘day of the Lord’ has arrived! A momentous truth which the church tries to re-experience and re-own at every Pentecost service: God’s Spirit taking hold of young and old from every background, culture and age and transforming them into a community of visionaries and dreamers. The story highlights that faith is not simply an individual quest, but a shared journey with glimpses of God’s dream of a new humanity.

Old Testament leaders like Moses, Joshua and Daniel were all in their eighties when they reached the height of their careers and performed the courageous acts for which they are still remembered today. The Torah, the Prophets and the wisdom tradition all remind us of the many dangers and fears and the incredible resources and opportunities that are associated with old age. The fifth commandment to honour father and mother is far more of an imperative to honour the richness of vision and wisdom that comes with old age than an attempt to address the problem of rebellious teenagers.

Suffering Job is adamant that ‘age should speak’ and the teachers of Proverbs know that grey hair represents a crown of splendour. Psalm 71 gives voice to those who fear being cast off and forsaken in the time of old age. And the prophets warn us not to neglect those who are widowed!

The stern warning of Proverbs 29:18 brings us back to Joel and Peter and our initial concern for nurturing and caring communities: ‘When there is no vision, the people perish…’. But what would happen if the visions of the young and the dreams of the old were to join hands, strengthened by the promised presence of a Spirit that longs to be embodied in communities of faith? A network of older people, working side-by-side dynamic young leaders from the poorest communities can make the dream of a love life generation come true.