Blessings from the Elderly and a Memaw Bible Commentary

When Older People become Everyday Prophets

Sarah Condon / 2.27.20

Recently at church, an older lady grabbed me by the shoulders and said, “Look at me in the eyes. You are a wonderful mother. You are a wonderful preacher. You are a wonderful wife. I wish your parents were here so I could tell them that.”

(For the record I feel like none of these things most days, and certainly never like all of them at the same time.)

I suddenly found myself in the second chapter of Luke, breathless:

Anna, a prophet, was also there in the Temple. She was the daughter of Phanuel from the tribe of Asher, and she was very old. Her husband died when they had been married only seven years. Then she lived as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the Temple but stayed there day and night, worshiping God with fasting and prayer. She came along just as Simeon was talking with Mary and Joseph, and she began praising God. She talked about the child to everyone who had been waiting expectantly for God to rescue Jerusalem. (36-38, NLT)

Clearly, I am not Jesus, and I am also not a child. But this woman’s words were a balm to my soul. I felt that she took in my my exhausted, sweaty appearance and saw something that God told her to name. She blessed me in biblical sense. And it struck me as not just something that I need, but something we could all use a dose of.

In his book Being Mortal, Atul Gawande traces the loss of this blessing for us, culturally speaking. He points out that we all used to die much younger, so the old were precious members of our society. They carried memory, wisdom, and also, I would argue, the ability to bless. Dr. Gawande argues that because most people can see their 80s and even 90s, the elderly have become less special. Interestingly though, our society has become so segmented that the very young and the very old rarely cross paths. In fact, I would suggest that church is the last place this happens at all.

Lest I create the image of an ancient fairy church godmother, I should clarify that some of my greatest friends have always been tough old ladies. As a loud, opinionated younger woman, I have always been told that I will “get older and calmer.” People will remark to me that my fire will not burn as bright when I have lived longer. I know that’s not true. Good Lord, I pray that it’s not true.

I long to keep company with the old women in my life who say things like “I don’t care” while people are still talking. I like old ladies who ask hard questions in equal parts about why I cut my hair so short and what the church is doing to feed hungry children. They are funny and unapologetic and they give me hope that I might always be the person God intended. In other words, they bless me.

One of the often unspoken gifts of ministry is that you learn that the old were once young. Sure, the church is full of old people. But the church is full of old people, and they all used to be young. I have received communion alongside a doctor who aided workers building the Panama Canal. For four years I ate church suppers with a CIA operative who worked during the Korean War. And I cannot count the testimonies of the elderly who have survived the loss of a child, or the falling apart of a marriage, or a near-death health crisis. They have dashed dreams, tales of romantic desire, and a hopeful sense that things could always be worse. Because they remember when things were worse. This too is an odd blessing for everyone.

And the thing is, they look like the prophet Anna: elderly and insignificant.

Once you reach a certain age, you are put into a category of aged. It becomes easy to look at older people and forget that their lives had and have as much meaning as our own. It become easy to disregard the work they did because our work seems so much more valuable. It becomes very easy to no longer see them as the wisdom in the room.

And it is our disastrous loss.

Somehow, through the blessing of my family, I was given my grandmother’s Bible when she died. I did not deserve it. None of us did, actually. Faith and scripture were such a part of her life that when we gathered together after the funeral her Bible sat there as a kind of chair for Elijah. I have never been big on relics. But its one thing to have some old saint’s toe. It’s a whole other casserole to have the MBC (Memaw Biblical Commentary).

I venerate it on a daily basis.

One old bookmark from the 1980s—which appears to be encouraging Southern Baptists to use “modern media” filmstrips and pamphlets (never change, Church!)—has several gems scribbled on it.

But it is her commentary on Joshua that gets to me. In the third chapter of Joshua, there is an explanation for how to handle the ark of the covenant, and somehow, someway, my grandmother saw wisdom there: “And Joshua said, ‘Sanctify yourselves: for you have not passed this way before.’”

She simply wrote next to it, “I equate this with old age.”

This is perhaps the most important blessing that older people can offer us. They can tell us that this season we are in will not be our last. That the worst thing that has ever happened does not define who we are and that it might not even be so bad. And they can grab us by the shoulders in church and impute to us that we are doing a wonderful job of this exhausting and sweaty thing called life. And they should know, after all. They have passed this way before.