When I was twenty-six, a package arrived at my home accompanied by a note from my grandmother that simply read, "Take good care of this. It's very valuable." Inside the box was an object that, at first, did not seem like much. It was a rather small, somewhat tarnished, metal pitcher. Dented in several spots, it bore the marks of some tough tumbles. But on the pitcher's side was an inscription, indicating that it had been the prize for a sailing race in which my great-great grandfather had been a victor in 1901. On the bottom was an insignia I now know was the mark of a renowned silversmith. "Take good care of this," my grandmother had written, "It's very valuable."
It seems a bit strange now that my grandmother felt that she needed to give me that counsel—that I wouldn't automatically recognize the worth of what I held in my hands. But, if truth be told, I didn't fully at the time. I was living near Silicon Valley in the hey-day of the tech revolution. Kids in garages were founding businesses that were changing the world. That which really shaped the future, it seemed, was in the minds and hands of the young. America was a culture obsessed with the fresh-face, the new idea, the avant-garde. And in the midst of all this, a battered old pitcher and a grandmother's note seemed slightly tired and out of place.
It could seem even more so that way in American life today. We've become a society where the word "old" is often used as a synonym for "irrelevant." We're told that we must unlearn the rules of the old economy; we must develop new business models, new materials, and new technical skills; we must constantly upgrade or get left on the shelf. And there's some truth in that, of course. We know that all living things must change and adapt; we grow or we die. God himself delights in creativity, in deliberate diversity, in making "all things new" (Revelation 21:5). The word "new" is used in a very positive sense fifty-one times in the New Testament alone. To follow Jesus is to be on a journey of renewal right up through our last breath on earth.
The command: care for the elderly
But in and amidst this quest for the future, God did not intend us to stop valuing the ancient too. In going for tomorrow's gold, we were never meant to stop treasuring the silver, and especially the family kind. In fact, this concern was so high in the mind of God that it made its way into his Top Ten List of things we must be particularly careful about. Did you know that? It's right here in the 5th Commandment: "Honor your father and your mother, as the Lord your God has commanded you, so that … it may go well with you in the land the Lord your God is giving you" (Deuteronomy 5:16).
When we read these words, we may hear them as a call to show respect or obedience to parents, and that is a fair reading. I believe this text, however, is more broadly aimed at calling God's people to care for their elderly amidst the timeless temptation to shelve or discard them. That God commands this should be reason enough to do so. But, as the verse suggests, God's commands are also issued "so that … it may go well with" us. Sooner or later, most of us will become the silver pitchers in our families and communities. Creating a culture in which a high standard of care toward elders is widely observed to be to everyone's advantage. So how do we do it?
Say "Thank you"
First, we can take the time to say "Thank you," for the grace they've poured out over the years. I knew a man named Hank whose Parkinson's disease progressively stole his ability to move around on his own or even to speak. If you met Hank in his wheelchair, you'd have no idea that once he'd been an immensely handsome man of powerful physical bearing. He was a military chaplain through whose winsome witness God had poured amazing grace into the lives of others. But to the uninformed eye, Hank now seemed like nothing but a hollow shell, an empty pitcher of sorts.
One day while I was visiting Hank at the nursing facility where he lived, his son Doug arrived. The younger man knelt by his elder's wheelchair and began talking of the times that he'd seen his dad doing something very significant, touching someone's life in a special way. As the son talked, his father seemed to sit taller and taller in his chair and a nearby nurse gazed at him with new eyes. The son ended by grinning and saying, "Thanks, dad, for always doing your best to make a difference." His father's eyes and face shone like freshly polished silver.
"I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus" (1 Cor. 1:4), said Paul. Is there someone older around you who hasn't been thanked in a while—maybe a very long time—for the sacrifices he or she made, for the gifts or service rendered, for the witness shown and the work done, for the grace they allowed God to pour through them to meet the needs of others? Decide today that you will be the one who says, "Thanks for being such a worthy vessel."
It's harder, of course, to say thank you to people you barely see. Sometimes the best way to express gratitude to someone is simply to invest time with them. An elderly man lay in a hospital with his wife of 55 years sitting by his bed. "Is that you, Ethel, at my side again?" he whispered. "Yes, dear," she answered. He softly said to her, "Remember years ago when I was in the Veteran's Hospital? You were with me then. You were with me when we lost everything in a fire. And Ethel, when we were poor—you were right by me then, too." The man sighed and said, "I tell you, Ethel, you are bad luck!"
All kidding aside, one of the hardest things about growing older is the progressively fewer number of people who truly are there by our side. Struggling with busy lives, many of us younger folk neglect to make the calls or visits we should. We fail to stop long enough to hold the conversations that let our elders know that they haven't simply been shelved. The psalmist wrote: "Do not cast me away when I am old; do not forsake me when my strength is gone" (Psalm 71:9). Yet I read recently that more than one-half of the persons living in nursing homes today receive fewer than an average of one visit per year, and 50% of these people have relatives living within an hour's drive away. When God commanded us to honor our elders, he had a deeper quality of love in mind.
Listen and learn
One of the most meaningful ways we can express love to our elders is simply to listen to and learn from their stories. That can be hard. Sometimes the stories they tell seem so divorced from life today, or so nostalgic, or so oft-repeated. Lyman Bryson says that the error of age is to believe that experience is a substitute for intelligence; but the error of youth is to believe that intelligence is a substitute for experience. Both are so sorely needed. God plainly commands us to give our elders the benefit of the doubt on the intelligence end. The Book of Proverbs says, "Listen to your father, who gave you life, and do not despise your mother when she is old. Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise" (Prov. 19:20; 23:22).
You see, the words our elders pass along are often like the inscriptions on the silver pitcher my grandmother gave me. They are links across time to saints who sailed a good race and whose example can teach us. They display the values and truths that once-upon-a-time truly worked—and might still work—to bring forth something really significant in this world. To the studious person, these stories will often reveal themselves as the etching of God's wisdom upon the silver of a soul—and though the tarnish may make reading difficult, there's a message there for you and me.
I've learned a lot from my grandmother's gifts. The psalmist must have had things he wanted the grandchildren to know too. "Since my youth, O God, you have taught me, and to this day I declare your marvelous deeds. Even when I am old and gray, do not forsake me, O God, till I declare your power to the next generation, your might to all who are to come" (Psalm 71:17-18). You'll know one day. One day, you'll be most everybody's elder and you'll be aching to pass on the wisdom you've gained. Wouldn't it be something if we could listen and learn now, humbly and patiently, as we'll be wishing others did more then?
Validate the golden years
Fourthly, we show honor to our elders when we validate with compassion the dents and tarnish that come with age. I know that some people cast old age as the "golden years" of life. There is something to that, as I'll touch on in closing, but we ought to be wary of getting overly romantic about this. For many people, the older years feel like a time when their gold is taken from them in a progressive process of robbery. Many older people feel they are being "stripped, beaten, and left alone, half-dead" (Luke 10:30), like the man on the road to Jericho in Christ's famous parable. Do you understand this? Ask an elder whether they can relate to that image at all and see what you learn.
Then, be the Good Samaritan that is unafraid to come close to someone at a tough time like this—and extend some practical assistance. Jesus had that vision for elders. Even while pinned to the cross, Jesus made it a point to line up resources to make sure his mother would have the practical and personal assistance she needed. "Son, behold thy mother … " he said to the Apostle John, and the Bible says that "from that time on, this disciple took [Mary] into his home" (John 19:27).
Maybe you could take an elder into your home. Perhaps you could volunteer your time in one of the senior adult ministries of your church or community. Maybe you might start by doing something as simple as being more careful about parking sacrificially, holding open doors, or inviting someone to share a meal with you. Perhaps you could make a grocery run, cut the lawn, or shovel the snow for an elderly neighbor. Remember, says Jesus, "Whatever you do for one of these [vulnerable people], you do for me" (Matt 25:40).
If you want to show appropriate honor to your elders then: Say thank you. Invest time with them. Listen and learn from them. Validate with compassion the dents and difficulties of life. Extend practical assistance where you can. Remind them of the good purpose of God.
A group of people once visited a silversmith, eager to understand more of his art. The craftsman explained how he subjected the silver to great heat at the end of the manufacturing process. He said: "I do this in order to purify it and make it ready for its final shaping into something beautiful." One of the observers asked: "How do you know when it's ready?" And the master replied: "I sit in front of the furnace and watch very carefully. I know the refining is complete, when I can see my reflection in the silver."
The prophet Malachi wrote: "God will sit as a refiner of silver" (Malachi 3:3). Maybe you know someone who is undergoing refinement now, someone who is feeling the heat and pressure of age and wondering how anything good could come from it. Remind him or her that the Maker's eye is still upon them. "Listen to me … " said God through the prophet Isaiah, "Listen, you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth. Even to your old age and gray hairs I am he, I am he who will sustain you. I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you" (Isaiah 46:3-4).
Someone wise once observed that: "Beautiful young people are acts of nature; but beautiful old people are works of art." That is so true. So, when we meet an elder, let's keep in mind the note God sent us in Deuteronomy chapter 5. "Take good care of this pitcher," God tells us. "It is very valuable."
MOMENT OF REMEMBRANCE We did not bring ourselves into existence.
We did not die on the cross that won our forgiveness.
Many of us did not plant the church in which we sit.
We did not provide the hospital in which our children were born.
We did not establish the college where we were educated
or found this nation
or die to preserve the freedoms we now enjoy
or lose a loved one in war.
But some of our elders did.
In this moment of silence, lift before God and in remembrance of those who've left this world—a simple prayer. Say: "We haven't forgotten you. We honor you. Thank you for these gifts."
BENEDICTION Blessed are they …
• Who understand my faltering step and shaking hand.
• Who know my ears today must strain to catch the things they say.
• Who seem to know my eyes are dim and my mind is slow.
• Who look away when I spilled my tea on the cloth that day.
• Who with cherry smile stopped to chat for a little while.
• Who know the way to bring back memories from yesterday.
• Who never say 'you've told that story twice today'.
• Who make it known that I am loved and not alone.
• Who will ease the days of journey home in loving ways.
Thus in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit may you be a blessing and be blessed—this day and forevermore. Amen.
Dan Meyer is pastor of Christ Church.us, a nondenominational, multisite church with locations in Oak Brook and Lombard, Illinois.