Sermon: A is for Aging

Broken Bodies, Healing Spirit Series

July 12, 2020

Psalm 148 NRSV

What is Ageism?

Have you visited a greeting card aisle lately? How many cards are jokes about age?

About a month ago, my mother-in-law and I picked out a card for Shane’s 30th birthday, and it was making fun of age. I struggle with memory sometimes. I won’t remember a name or a place. I also love naps.

The average global life expectancy has more than doubled since 1900, and there is an immense pressure in our society to slow aging down. Aging is something we are taught to be ashamed of. Hollywood enforces this really well. Few movies have speaking or named characters age 60 and up, and many are portrayed as impaired. We spend a lot of money, time, and brainpower keeping the illusion alive that somehow, maybe it will be ME that doesn’t age. Because of this fear and shame, it becomes easy and almost “normal” or common to judge people simply by their age.

Ageism is discrimination and stereotyping on the basis of age. The “isms” are socially-constructed ideas that change over time. Their values aren’t true. They have been formed over time. They pit us against each other to maintain the status quo. Much like the other “isms” in our world, ageism is the water we swim in.

How many of you grab your back or a hip and exclaim: “Wow, I am getting old!” Or when you forget where you put your keys, who says: “Oh, silly me. Senior moment!” I don’t know about you, but I have been misplacing my keys since I had keys to misplace.

Older people are probably the most ageist of all because they have had a lifetime to internalize the negative messages we are bombarded with. Have you ever rejected a haircut or an outfit or a relationship or an outing because it’s not age-appropriate? All of these things are ageist. They are self-deprecating, and we have all been groomed to think it’s okay to feel this way about our own bodies and others.

The pandemic has unveiled many things. With the other isms (like sexism and racism) ageism needs to be added to our list of issues to become more aware of. Whether it is assuming that people are too old to participate, or people are too young to be in charge, we need to stop.

With “ages 60 and up” being the “at-risk” age range of COVID, all of a sudden people who haven’t really thought of themselves as “old” are feeling “old”. And it is causing a lot of anxiety. COVID hasn’t caused ageism, it has just unveiled things that have already been there.

Aging is something that everyone goes through, and it is something that culture does a really good job teaching us to fear. There have been studies on the brain and how aging affects the brain. There appears to be a u-curve of happiness through our lives. People are happiest at the beginning and end of their lives, so maybe that mid-life crisis isn’t really a myth. In fact, I see a place where the time that people are the unhappiest in life and when society begins to step up its game of shame around aging intersect.

Now, this isn’t to say that the fears and worries that come with getting older aren’t legitimate. Things like running out of money, getting sick, ending up alone, these are all realities and are frightening. However, the water we swim in, the culture we live in, affects these things drastically.

How does ageism affect the world and the church?

Ageism is a huge problem in our society. Just like it is not okay to allocate resources by race or by sex, it is also not okay to allocate the needs of the young against the old. We experience this anytime someone assumes we are too old or too young for something. It cuts both ways. Younger adults may have difficulty finding jobs and receive lower pay due to their perceived lack of experience, while older adults may have problems achieving promotions, finding new work, and changing careers.

Ageism that affects younger people is very present in the church and the world, too. One of the hardest things I faced graduating college and trying to find a job to get experience was finding a company to allow me to actually get experience and learn. Many jobs require experience to be hired, and experience requires being hired somewhere.

I have been asked often how many years of college I attended to be a pastor. Or, it’s assumed that I am the pastor’s daughter. Something that affected me a lot in my first year of professional ministry was a comment made by someone who has known me my entire life. I was helping clean and paint the parsonage at my home church right before I began my first appointment as a pastor, and one of the parishioners said to me, “I am sorry, but you will always be a little girl to me. I cannot see you as a pastor.”

Or how about this: what if commercials were completely honest and they said: “Oh, you’re thinking of a second career? You’re an empty-nester now? Well, it shows. Here are some face creams and some testosterone pills to make you feel younger when in reality, you will feel ashamed of your body.”

Or, how many have heard the phrase, “Don’t wait too long. Your biological clock is ticking.” Comments like this seem harmless at first. Or, at least, “normal” right? Everyone says it. Everyone is doing it? But it’s those common things that are the most harmful to ourselves and society.

Ageism pits generations against others. Many things we connect with age don’t have to be negative things. Ageism has taught us to be ashamed. There is an obsession with youth and the struggles in our culture that older people are obsolete.

We can all say really hurtful things about the church population make-up trying to explain the decline of congregations:

--“If the older people would just let go of the control, we could grow”.

--“If younger families would just get their acts together and show up to church, we could fill our pews and Sunday school rooms.”

--“If we could just get back to the good ole’ days when people came to church and didn’t prioritize other things, we would survive.”

And some of the assumptions I struggle with the most, especially when thinking about leaders in the church:

--“Oh, he has been on committees for decades. I am sure he doesn’t want to be involved anymore.”

--“She works a lot. I bet she doesn’t have time.”

It robs us of unity and quality of life because we no longer share knowledge and experience. We are missing out, everyone. Ashton Applewhite gave a powerful TED Talk a couple of years ago about how to end ageism. She shares that it is not the passage of time that makes getting older much harder than it has to be. It is ageism. It is embarrassing to be called out as older until people quit being embarrassed about it, and people of all ages can help with that.

So, how can we perceive gifts without dismissing people?

Ageism is a bit unique because the other is always “us.” Aging isn’t something to be fixed. So much of our theology revolves around seasons, creation, dying, and new life. It is a thing that unites us all.

Our scripture reading from Psalm 148 takes inclusion to the limit. It’s past one group allowing another group to be a part of them, but instead, reaches that liberation level. It is a reminder of our connection to creation and creator--earth, biology, etc. The psalm encourages us to embrace the “nature of things”. This means aging, seasons, etc. Creation, yes even young and old bodies are choruses of praise to God’s goodness! The more clearly we see these forces at work, like shame and fear, and how the market takes advantage of that shame and fear, the easier it is to resist and tell better stories.

Applewhite asks the important question: Why on earth do we stop celebrating the ability to adapt and grow as we move through life? Why should aging well mean struggling to look and move like a younger version of ourselves? We can look more generously at each other. We can bring quality of life to all ages in the church. How we treat people affects how they treat themselves.

Some of the ways Applewhite has begun fighting ageism in her own life is by changing her vocabulary.

She stopped calling moments of forgetfulness “senior moments”.

She stopped blaming her sore knee on age. Her other knee doesn’t hurt, and it’s just as old.

Therapy stories

One of the best places to begin the fight against ageism is healthcare. Unintentional under-treating is a pretty common thing, especially in physical therapy offices. Physical therapists can tackle ageism in its tracks while treating patients. Offering therapy to the person, not the population (and all the assumptions that come with an age range) can be life-changing for a person. A patient’s function, safety, and independence are the main focuses for healing.

One therapist shared about two different patients she was currently caring for. One patient in her mid-80s exercised 5 days a week prior to physical therapy. Instead of discouraging this patient from exercises because she is in her mid-80s, the therapist visited the patient at the gym to make sure she was lifting weights and exercising in effective and safe ways.

The other patient, also in her late 80s, was preparing for a cross-country road trip with her son. Again, instead of telling her patient to not go because of her age, they spent their time prior to the trip practicing going up and down the stairs of the RV safely.

South Korea stories

How about the story from South Korea, where rural schools are emptying each year with less children. Towns are opening the schools to adults who never learned how to read and write.

One woman, 70 years old, enrolled in first grade, burst into tears of joy on her first day of school. “Carrying a school bag has always been my dream.”

Now, ageism could have affected the decision on how to save the rural schools. The assumption could have been made that going to school to learn how to read and write was “too much” for older people. But they didn’t. And a slice of liberation was offered to entire towns.

Now, we can fix all of this.

The times I have succeeded most in my career and in my own healing of my knee I had people believing in me. Giving me tasks according to me, not my age. They let me try and fail and learn.

Much like the physical therapist, our role as the church is not to determine which activities are appropriate for age ranges. We are to listen to what activities are important to people and help make that happen. The Church is a wonderful place to unite age. We have such an option to liberate people from these “isms” we have grown so used to experiencing. We know that Church that is diverse is not just a better place to connect, but that diverse churches connect better.

And guess where it starts? It starts in how we address ourselves and others. It’s checking our language and phrases. When those things shift to a positive place, people react positively. Give people of all ages purpose and motivation and support, we will see the church diverse in age and vibrant. It will be a liberated space. The more clearly we see these forces at work, the easier it is to come up with an alternative, more positive, and more accurate narratives. Aging can very much be something that unites us.

Another way to resist ageism is not to worry about someone’s age. Whatever that person is doing--whether it’s working or having a baby or going to college or running a marathon--age doesn’t matter. Before you ask questions to determine someone’s age or credentials, ask yourself, “Why do I need to know this? Will it help me connect with this person more? Or will it cause assumptions to grow?”

Being an “old person in training” is a resistance. It undoes the “otherness” of ageism.

How do we ask?

One of my first clergy meetings as an intern out East, there was a group of middle-aged clergy that presented a solution for getting younger people to come back to church. I sat up a little taller, curious what these people (who could be my parents) thought people my age needed. The presentation was underwhelming, and actually a bit offensive. Many of the younger clergy were shifting and whispering.

One clergy person stood up and said, “My church had this same question. Would you like to know what we learned?”

The presenters shrugged. “Sure.”

The clergy person continued, “We went and asked the younger families in our neighborhood what they needed. We learned that they needed help with potty training. Our members who already have potty-trained kids partnered with these families. It has become a great ministry.”

We can change things. We can change our words and thinking. We can be more generous with ourselves and others. We can liberate one another from the shame of our age.

We can receive the whole giftedness of our community. Let’s get to work. Amen.

I send you out into the world with God’s love and abiding presence in your life, no matter your age. Be an old person in training this week. Amen.

Psalm 148 NRSV

Praise the Lord!

Praise the Lord from the heavens;

praise God in the heights!

Praise God, all the angels;

praise God, all God’s host!

Praise God, sun and moon;

praise God, all you shining stars!

Praise God, you highest heavens,

and you waters above the heavens!

Let them praise the name of the Lord,

for God commanded and they were created.

God established them forever and ever;

God fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

Praise the Lord from the earth,

you sea monsters and all deeps,

fire and hail, snow and frost,

stormy wind fulfilling God’s command!

Mountains and all hills,

fruit trees and all cedars!

Wild animals and all cattle,

creeping things and flying birds!

Kings of the earth and all peoples,

princes and all rulers of the earth!

Young people alike,

old and young together!

Let them praise the name of the Lord,

for God’s name alone is exalted;

God’s glory is above earth and heaven.

God has raised up a horn for his people,

praise for all his faithful,

for the people of Israel who are close to God.

Praise the Lord!

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