Tuesday, March 5, 2024

The tree or the insect: differing views of old age

 I love it when the Bible presents differing views of a single subject, sometimes so different they seem contradictory. These can often be solved by understanding the cultural-historical context. Other times the different views become resolved as a paradox, two apparently opposites that prove to both be true. That’s the playground of the poet.

Take old age. The Hebrew culture of the Old Testament revered the elders among them. The Patriarchs—the grandfathers of the faith—became the ground from which succeeding generations arose to build the Hebrew faith. Not that daily experience in Israelite families was all roses and respect; growing old has always been hard and families complicated. But in general, respect was the rule of the day.

Several biblical passages especially interest me. The first, from Psalm 92, I’ve taken as a theme for this blog site: “The righteous will flourish like a palm tree [I mistakenly wrote “psalm tree”]; they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon…. They will still bear fruit in old age; they will stay fresh and green.” This refers to a “righteous” old person which, hopefully, describes many of us. Semi-righteous, at least. I don’t look good in the color green, but even so, I love this description and would love to grow into it.

The seeming contradiction is found in Ecclesiastes 12 where the cynical teacher recites a series of wonderfully creative metaphors describing the horrors of old age. It’s skillful and terrifying poetry. First, the sun, moon, and stars black out—blindness. Then the “keepers of the house” tremble—the trunk of the body? The skeleton? The legs? I’m not sure which body part is referenced here, but when it starts to tremble that’s bad news. “The grinders cease because they are few”—toothlessness! (False teeth help.) The songs of birds grow faint—time for hearing aids. After “the grasshopper drags itself along” for a time, the old person dies. What a dim view of the adventure of aging!

Take Your Choice
Ecclesiastes 12:1-8; Psalm 92:12-14

Who am I to believe?
The psalmist has one view of old age,
the teacher, another. Poets both.

The sweet psalmist sings for joy
and flourishes like a cherry tree in spring.
Fresh, green, productive,
ever strong and full of the Holy Spirit
right up to the end, something
to look forward to. Peaceful sleep
followed by unending bliss.
It makes one want to grow old.

The teacher, on the other hand
(why is there always another hand?),
calls the final stage of life
the days of trouble.
I find no pleasure in them,

he grumbles. Rightly so.
Blind, deaf, toothless, and full of fear,
the old lady drags herself
along the floor of the nursing home
like a grasshopper with a broken wing.
Meaningless. The teacher again
uses his favorite word.

So which is it—
the blooming tree or the injured insect?
I choose the tree
(but I have my suspicions).

These conflicting viewpoints are both true. The psalmist gives the positive picture of faith, what can happen to one who follows God all her life (although some of it may be reserved for after her death). It underscores the truth that whatever happens to us, we are surrounded and carried by the love of God. All things will work together for the best.

The teacher brings us back to reality. Faithful followers of Christ or not, old age is hard and inevitably brings with it illness, diminishment, loss, and death. It’s important that we look this reality straight in the face. Believing that Heaven is around the corner is important, but so is our situation here and now. We need courage to walk this path.

The challenge is to hold onto both a faith-filled picture of old age and an open-eyed realism. Not either/or. Both/and. That can be tricky, even when we know which side will ultimately win.

St. Paul brings together realism and faith when he writes, “Though outwardly we are wasting away (Ecclesiastes), yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day (Psalms)” (2 Corinthians 4:16).

Another Paul, French poet Paul Claudel, puts it this way: “Eighty years old… No eyes left, no teeth, no legs, no wind! And when all is said and done, how astonishingly well one does without them!”

Absolutely astonishing.

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