Jesus said, “When you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” – John 21:18 (NRSVA)
The scripture above is from Jesus telling Peter how he will be martyred for leading the rebellious early Christian community. But it speaks a truth to all of us who have been lucky enough to start to get old.
At 52, I am more aware than I used to be about the signs of aging in my own body: joints in intermittent rebellion, skin more papery, smile lines more pronounced, sleep more turbulent.
Above me on the age ladder is my vigorous carpenter of a father, who ended up in the hospital recently after a series of strokes. He—and we all—thought he would be young until the day he died, probably by setting himself adrift on the ocean in a kind of DIY Viking funeral.
Instead, he found himself on a hospital gurney, then on a helicopter, then in the ICU. More debilitating than the stroke was the loss of autonomy. He became confused, agitated and argumentative. It was very painful for this man who had been fiercely independent his whole life to have his every bodily function chaperoned, discussed and measured in a graduated cylinder.
Neither one of us felt ready for our new roles: me as caregiver taking charge and setting boundaries, him as cared-for with a fleshy helplessness and dependence on other humans for everything. But there has been an austere beauty in the change. God is giving us both a chance to become true elders as Richard Rohr describes them—not just people getting older, but people, in fact, still getting wiser.
God, you keep giving us new roles to play in the great unfolding drama of a single human lifespan. Make us playful and wise as we take the stage. Amen.