The righteous flourish like the palm tree,
and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord;
they flourish in the courts of our God.
In old age they still produce fruit;
they are always green and full of sap,
showing that the Lord is upright;
he is my rock, and there is no
unrighteousness in him.
—Psalm 92:12-15 (NRSV)
The Scriptures promise that if we seek God’s will, we can continue to serve God—to bear fruit—in old age. One need only look around at the gray-haired Friends attending peace demonstrations, centering their meetings in silence and giving vocal ministry, participating in Quaker organizations, helping with potluck lunch, and serving their meetings and communities in many ways to see the commitment of Friends to serve God to the end. Though our aging bodies may restrict our efforts, old age liberates us so that we can be open to new and daring ministries as never before, and we know as we serve that the fruit we bear results not from human efforts alone but from God working through us.
So it was with Sarah. Hebrew Scripture (Gen. 18:1-15, 21:1-7) tells the story of the birth of Isaac, the child of Sarah’s old age. One hot day, the Lord appeared to Abraham in the form of three strangers. While Sarah eavesdropped, and Abraham entertained them with a feast, the strangers told Abraham that his wife would bear a son. Sarah found this prediction laughable. She had longed for a son when she was a young woman, but now that she was old, she had resigned herself to her childlessness. Sarah laughed out loud at the foolishness of the strangers’ prediction, but one of the strangers rebuked her, asking, "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?" (Gen. 18:14a NRSV). Sure enough, in due time, Sarah gave birth to Isaac (the name Isaac means "laughter"), and after his birth Sarah laughed with joy and marveled at God’s unexpected works.
In old age, a person may give birth to new things, in ways that seemed laughable when he or she was young. We strive in our youth for what we want from life. As we mature and grow in our spiritual journeys, we come to understand that what we desire may not accord with God’s will for us. We may grieve as we resign ourselves to giving up the desires and ambitions of our youth, but as we give up those desires, we become more open to accept God’s will, including accepting the service that God would have us do. Then God may call us to a ministry that we never thought possible for ourselves. We might laugh as Sarah did, but we know when the work is accomplished that it is God who has brought it about.
An aging friend of mine served God in his young and middle adulthood as an ordained minister in a mainline church. When he retired, my friend thought he was finished with ministry. He felt drawn to Friends meetings as a way to deepen his own spirituality, but laughed at the idea that God might be calling him to some new ministry. Yet as he became drawn into the work of his meeting and of the yearly meeting, he found himself nurturing the spirituality and encouraging the ministries of those around him. The fruit of his present ministry—to help others become closer to God—is exactly what he was striving for as a young clergyman. But now, it is totally unexpected and totally the work of God using him as a humble instrument. My friend laughs when he thinks about it.
Christian Scripture tells a parallel story about the parents of John the Baptist (Luke 1:5-80). Elizabeth and Zechariah, an elderly childless couple, had hoped for a son who would become a priest like his father. Once while Zechariah performed his priestly duties, the angel Gabriel appeared in the sanctuary and told Zechariah that his wife would bear a son. This boy would not be Zechariah Jr., the "chip off the old block" that Zechariah had longed for in his youth. No, this was to be John, filled with the Holy Spirit, who would prepare the way for the Lord. When Zechariah expressed disbelief, the angel struck him mute, and Zechariah did not speak again until after John’s birth.
We strive in our youth to establish our careers, and we labor through middle age to provide for our families. We might like to be called to serve God in daring ways, but we must think of the practicalities: Who would support my family if I spent time away from my work or if I were injured or killed in a dangerous ministry? Old age liberates us from these concerns. Like Zechariah, the cautions are silenced. The responsibilities of middle age have been resolved as our retirement is settled and our children are grown. Now, we can give ourselves fully to the leadings of the spirit.
My friends Roger and Myra Wolcott, ages 75 and 74, are members of Sandy Spring (Md.) Meeting and residents of Friends House Retirement Community. Roger is a retired college professor, and Myra is a retired Head Start teacher as well as a mother and homemaker. When their children were young and they were providing for the family, they always made time to engage in community service, but after they retired they felt called to more daring service: to bring a peaceful presence to places of violence and deprivation. In 1992, Roger and Myra joined the Witness for Peace Program and traveled to Nicaragua to offer protection for local people in the contra war. Later Roger and Myra went to Cuba and Roger to Chiapas, Mexico, on similar missions. In 2001, Roger served as a delegate for the Christian Peacemaker Teams to Hebron to be a peacemaking presence in the violent Middle East, and in 2003, he traveled to Grassy Narrows, Ontario, to be a supportive presence for members of the Anishnabe Nation who were protesting a lumber company’s clear-cutting practices on their traditional hunting grounds. Roger and Myra have taken volunteer "vacations" to participate in service projects in the Cook Islands and in Jamaica. The Wolcotts’ ministries have involved elements of danger and physical hardship. "God forbid we should take a cruise!" Myra laments in jest. But despite hardships, Roger and Myra have been willing to be obedient to the leadings of the Spirit, and through them God has sown seeds of peace.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were given a difficult ministry: to be the parents of John the Baptist. John was not to be the ordinary child who would study for the priesthood and make his parents proud. John’s parents had to accept his difficult ministry and his eventual sacrifice. Less mature parents might not have been able to accept God’s will for their son. As we age, we grow willing to let go of the outcome of the ministries that God calls us to, even if it means that others might view us as foolish, and our work might be seen as a failure. God appoints to the most difficult and hopeless of tasks those with the maturity to detach themselves from the outcome of their work. These are the people willing to serve God when failure seems certain.
In February 2003, my friend Elayne McClanen, age 74, a member of Sandy Spring Meeting and a resident of Friends House Retirement Community, felt called to civil disobedience. While protesting the impending war in Iraq, she was arrested for crossing a police line onto the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. Elayne harbored no illusions that her arrest would prevent a war, but, trusting in the leading of the Spirit, she accepted her ministry as a witness to nonviolence regardless of the outcome. After her arrest, Elayne could have entered a guilty plea and paid a nominal fine to resolve the matter, but when her case was assigned to a public defender who happened to be a blind man, Elayne felt God calling her to an unexpected ministry. She felt the Spirit working through this blind lawyer’s unique vision as he raised a constitutional argument concerning a citizen’s right to access to the Capitol. Elayne trusts that God has some creative work to do through her case, and she accepts God’s will. As she awaits trial, she cannot predict the result; she may have to serve a jail term. Elayne believes that God has chosen her for this witness because her age and freedom from family responsibilities enable her to be willing to accept any result.
Old age provides an opportunity for Friends to be truly obedient to God’s will by accepting new, daring, and difficult ministries. It is an opportunity to bear fruit in unexpected ways, and an opportunity to laugh with Sarah.