The wisest quote from the movie RED (2010) cannot be found in any list of quotable quotes from the movie. It comes from the scene where Frank Moses, the Bruce Willis character, visits his mentor, Joe Matheson, the Morgan Freeman character, who is living in an old folks home. Joe points out that he is a veteran of Vietnam and Afghanistan, but he was ambushed by one thing. There was one thing he didn’t see coming. Growing old. The rest of the movie is one incredible fun ride. Should be seen by everyone, especially those above the age of fifty. The sight of Helen Mirren firing a 50-calibre machine gun alone should give anyone fresh zest for life. But the movie is no serious treatment of the topic of aging.
Most of us past midlife can identity with the comment that one doesn’t really feel that one is growing old. After all, inside our skin is the same chap that has always been there. Here is Henri Nouwen on turning sixty:
. . . people between the ages of one and thirty are considered young; those between thirty and sixty are considered middle-aged; and those past their sixtieth birthday are considered old. But when you are suddenly sixty, you don’t feel old. At least I didn’t. Indeed, I somehow keep forgetting that I have become old and that young people regard me as an old man. (Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Formation, New York, NY: Harper One, 2010, 112.)
But the transition to the later years of life is real and one that we should prepare for. In his book Courage & Calling, Gordon T. Smith talks about this transition from mid-adulthood to the senior years.
Though many seniors can expect to have healthy, active lives for twenty years or longer after the age of sixty-five . . . there is within adult development, a necessary transition from our mid-adult years to our senior years. (Gordon T. Smith, Courage & Calling, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999, 69.)
Smith goes on to point out
This transition . . . is a necessary one, for we are older and we do not have the same physical capacities. Our role in the church and the world does change. The most obvious external feature of this transition is that we let go of formal structures of power and influence — the roles, the titles, the offices and the occupations — that gave expression to our vocation . . . (Smith, 69.)
Smith goes on to say that the transition to our senior years does not mean that our contribution to life gets any less, just different. Where in the past, we make our vocational contribution through “formal structures of power and influence,” in our senior years we make our vocational contribution through “giving wisdom and giving blessing (Smith, 70).” But Smith also understands that this transition can be scary.
All of our lives we hold platforms or titles or positions or roles that require people to listen to us; and we assume that we will be heard or recognized. But for seniors now these structures are gone. The platforms are removed. And we are only heard if we are wise — if we actually have something to say that is helpful, insightful and illuminating. This is frightening. (Smith, 70.)
I am sure we all know of leaders who are still in formal positions of power in their later years and are still functioning effectively. Smith is aware of this too.
. . . I am not saying that someone who has turned sixty-five should no longer hold office. Not for a moment . . . But I am saying that if we continue in roles of formal position or power, we hold these roles differently and we function differently. (Smith, 74)
In other words, we need to embrace the transition from mid-adulthood to our senior years even if we are still in office.
I pray that when my time comes I will know how to make this transition. I am only five years away from sixty. And I have seen too many leaders who refuse to make this transition, clinging on to positions and platforms when they should have made way for other leaders a long time ago. I have seen organizations suffer and friendships strained because a leader cannot let go of position when it is clearly time to do so. Sometimes I think it is more frightening to let go of the known than to embrace the unknown. I have never found transitions easy.
But how does one prepare for the later years of life? I am not sure if there is any definitive answer. I suspect the answers revolve around the answers to two questions: “Who am I?” and “What have I been called to do?”
Who am I? The first question is the question of identity. For some time now I have realised that my core identity is “child of God.”
See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! (1 John 3:1 NIV)
I may wear different hats in my life but I have a core identity that never changes no matter what age I am. I am a child of God, a God who lavishes His love on me. This will never change and is the true source of my identity and self-worth. And indeed the day I pass from this life is the day I graduate fully into that identity.
What have I been called to do? The second question is one of vocation. Like Smith, I believe that we all have a calling, “a vocation that is unique to each person, an individual’s mission in the world (Smith, 10),” and that this personal life mission is part of who I am and will continue to be my expression of service in the world at whatever age.
. . .we need to distinguish between vocation and career. My career may come to an end when I retire. But my vocation comes from God; it remains. It is not something that I choose or that someone else can give me or take away from me. It comes from God; it reflects my fundamental identity. (Smith, 35)
I believe my personal life mission is “to transform lives by teaching God’s Word with passion, accuracy, and relevance.” At fifty-five, sixty-five or eighty-five, I will be doing this in some way. I am deeply encouraged when I visit my professors from Regent, a number of whom have retired by now and some who are in their eighties. I am deeply encouraged by how they continue to give expression to their callings at their chapter of life. They are my models and mentors of how to follow Christ in our senior years.
I suspect that I will be the one most surprised when I am “suddenly sixty.” Not sure how I will respond when that time comes. But I know that however I feel, I will cling on to the answers to the two basic questions. I will cling on to my calling. And I will embrace my Abba more closely.