Celebrating All Humanity: Confronting Ageism in Society and in the Church

Faith communities must, for the sake of our own spiritual well-being, engage and be engaged by the power and possibilities of older congregants.
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After battling traffic, snaking parking lots and standing in lines to buy two-by-three-inch gift cards, my soul feels sapped. I'm not sure what any of this has to do with the stable-born savior. As abominable as the consumerist co-opting of Christmas is, I realize that the heart of my protest transcends this season. The frenetic holiday marketplace simply reignites my concern for the victims of a culture smitten and shaped by conspicuous consumption -- particularly the injustice done to older people.

Consumerism tells one story of human worth, a version of reality widely accepted. Human worth is rooted in externals, in those things acquired, whether that be material objects or college degrees or job titles or Facebook friends. To be a fuller, better, happier human, one should always aim to increase acquisition, one way or the other. The enemy of consumerism is a satisfied and content person, because she does not need to acquire anything more.

In a consumerist framework, people who cannot or do not increase acquisition experience a decrease in societal worth. This is a major reason why retirement can be such a traumatic transition. If human worth is predicated on externals added to the self, then a person's worth plummets when she no longer keeps adding and, in fact, has downsized and subtracted. Precisely because older people often live on fixed incomes, no longer work income-generating jobs and may neither desire nor have the means to increase material consumption, this group experiences disenfranchisement as their real or perceived economic capacity for acquisition has flagged. Because the culture of consumerism ties human value to purchasing power, one's worth rises and falls on the capacity for consumption.

Consumerism also equates newer with better and older with inferior. If we did not buy this notion, then we would be satisfied wearing last year's clothes, talking on last year's cellphone, driving last decade's car. If we believed older were just as good as newer, then we would not feel the need to acquire at such a rapid pace -- an affront to a consumerist orientation. However unconsciously, this new-is-better logic spills over to our treatment of people: newer people are better than older. When is the last time you saw an old person on a perfume ad?

There is another, far preferable way to conceive of human worth -- instead of as external as intrinsic. As a person of faith, I conceive of this intrinsic value as rooted in God, who in creation deems creation (humans included) "very good" as an ontological reality. Our worth is a gift that does not increase or diminish with changing circumstances. A quadriplegic is just as human as a robust athlete, a day laborer just as valuable as a billionaire, an old person just as cherished as a youth. As inherently and irrevocably beloved, we cannot add to or subtract from our value.

I fear that communities of faith too often operate out of a consumerist framework of human value. I've heard from too many pulpits and in too many committee meetings the importance of attracting young people, especially young families. When we talk about a congregation as "aging," it is often said with a despairing sigh, as if an "aging congregation" condemns the church to doom and irrelevance. (I've never heard, "we need to attract more old people," yet they are the fastest growing demographic in society.) I've heard the lament, "our church is full of blue hairs," as if we should pity the congregation whose pews are filled with the old.

In essence, we place a higher price tag on younger people (and an even higher price tag on young families) than we do older people. People become commodities, some more worthy of our resources and attention than others. Just like it's better to have the new iWhatever than an older yet functional cell phone, it's preferable to have young congregants over old. However unintentionally, congregations reflect consumerist attitudes rather than critiquing the dominant culture's slighting of the old.

As one of the few intergenerational institutions left in society, communities of faith have unique opportunities to celebrate the gifts and presence of old people, to see the blessing in the "blue hairs." Rather than shrinking from an aging congregation, why not take pride in the presence of old members? If our faith communities lack older members, we must ask why this is the case and more importantly why we aren't more troubled by this fact. How do we love the neighbor who is old? How do we beat our pricing guns into ploughshares?

I serve as the pastor of a congregation at a retirement community where the median age is 85. The congregants serve as liturgists, greeters, communion servers, choir directors and members, ushers, pastoral visitors. They host dinners for new members and organize socials. They collect money for local and global charities. They celebrate with one another, and they attend each other's funerals. This worshipping community is anything but static. The question for those of us who are not (yet) "blue hairs" is why we fail to engage and be engaged by our elders? Have we exchanged a spiritually-centered view of human worth for a consumerist-driven estimation of human value?

Anna and Simeon, two lesser known characters in the Christmas story, emerge in the account of baby Jesus' presentation at the Temple. We are told that Anna is "of a great age," and we may assume from context and tradition that Simeon is advanced in years himself. These elders serve to bestow wisdom and to bless Jesus and his family. Simeon is called "righteous and devout," and Anna is called a prophet. They are spiritual guides, persons of penetrating prayer and searing insight whom Jesus and his young parents must pass through before being sent into the world. Anna and Simeon are squarely in the center of religious life, not relegated to the community's distant fringes. They are blessings, not burdens.

Faith communities must, for the sake of our own spiritual well-being, engage and be engaged by the power and possibilities of older congregants. Christmas can be a time for congregations to renew our commitment to the old, to bless and be blessed by the Simeons and Annas in our midst.

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