Until someone I loved, only a few years older than myself, was diagnosed with colon cancer that's moved to the liver. That changed everything.
There's not much you can say to a ridiculously healthy thirty something who's more fit than most of the planet, whose diet is better regulated than most Americans, who has rambunctious children, a wonderful spouse, and the last thing anyone like that wants to hear is how growing old is so difficult, about how another birthday isn't something to celebrate.
Of course, we're all hopeful that the treatments will prove healing, that remission will come, that we'll kick cancer to the curb. This person is young enough and healthy enough that their body's better suited to handle the chemo than most of us, Yet, this has brought a lot of perspective into my life, and that of my family. Growing old(er) is a blessing that we want to afford all people, and especially this person.
There's plenty of biblical warrant that speaks to the blessings of age. Job 12 tells us that wisdom belongs to the aged, but I'm less concerned about wisdom in itself. I'm focused more on an abundance of life well lived. That appears in Proverbs 20, where we hear that "Strength is the glory of young people, while the gray hair of experience is the splendor of old age."
Lines like "the splendor of old age" sounded ridiculous to my teenage self, whose paternal grandfather had died of Alzheimer's. The line still sounded stupid when medical complications took my maternal grandmother's life. Aging didn't look splendid. It looked difficult. I'll even admit that my time in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), the hospital chaplaincy internship required by the ELCA for ordination, was most difficult when I faced the slow struggles of seniors losing their abilities. This all seemed patently unfair. Yet, something I've seen in my ministry too often but didn't fully comprehend until this recent diagnosis, is that growing old is a luxury deprived of too many and afforded to too few. High school classmates succumbed to addiction only a few years after graduation. Suicide touched too many of the campuses I attended or worked on. Even while in CPE I witnessed firsthand the ways that cancer, cystic fibrosis, and other diseases that took the lives of children, teenagers, and young adults. Those who live beyond such difficulties experience a life not available to all people. That's an invaluable splendor.
So now, I pray for old age, especially for those closest to me, who have so much life yet to live. I pray for all young people, that they might experience the splendor of a silver shadow on their temples. That we might all experience a time when we're not as strong as we once were, but the strength of others supports us in life, and so we still rejoice. That no parent would ever have to bury a child, and that when we bury our parents we'd do so in view of a long life well lived.
More than that, though, I pray for all those through whom God is working toward health and wellness. This includes neuroscientists and yogis, oncologists and dietitians, psychiatrists and counselors, artists and personal trainers, pastors and researchers, truly anyone through whom God is not merely extending life, but making life more abundant. Life itself can be abundant, no matter how many years we spend on this plane of existence. I'm thankful for those that make it so bountiful, so full of vibrancy, that growing old(er) isn't something to scoff at, but a splendor for which we give thanks.