I know a story about an older parent that makes me both smile and frown. It was told by a university teacher of mine, Sietze Buning. He wrote about growing up in a Dutch colony, in rural Iowa, just before the Second World War.
Sietze Buning tells us that it was Opa—that means “grandpa”—it was Opa Evert's ninetieth birthday. Opa Evert was healthy and active and so a big celebration was called for. Unfortunately, rain was in the forecast, and all his kids were busy on the farm, cutting hay before a forecast storm. As a result, none of his kids could get over to Opa’s house for a birthday visit, much less a big party.
So, to make up for it, one of Opa Evert’s sons young Sietze, ten years old, to town. Sietze was told to buy a Dutch book for Opa Evert's birthday at Hessel's bookstore. Opa Evert liked to Dutch books because Dutch was the language of his youth. And then Sietze was to go to the radio station and choose a birthday hymn request for Opa Evert to listen to.
At the bookstore, Sietze found only three Dutch books. Unfortunately, he didn’t know any Dutch himself. So, Sietze picked one of the three Dutch books, eenie, meenie, minie, moe. He had it wrapped and brought it over to old Opa Evert's house. Then, he dropped by the radio station, asked for his own favorite hymn to be played on Opa’s birthday, and finally, Sietze hurried back to the farm to help finish the haying.
All was well, until the next day, when Uncle Evert returned the book to Sietze’s parents, along with a note. Opa Evert said he appreciated the thought, given his ninetieth birthday and all. But he was returning the book all the same. You see, he wrote, at ninety years old he just wasn't much interested anymore in reading a book with the Dutch title, A Theological Exposition of the Marriage Vows.
In his note, Opa Evert also asked if there was any connection between that book on marriage vows and the song Sietze had arranged to be sung for him on the local radio. The song Sietze had chosen was, Yield Not to Temptation.
We all of us, eventually grow older. How do you like it, so far?
To be perfectly honest, many of us at LPCC—if not all—are protected from some of the traditional challenges of aging because we live in a country with mostly fine and affordable medical care, and most of us have financial resources to pay for extras, as well as loving families. But we were also reminded, this month, as these crosses outside of a Mississauga nursing home suggest, that all is not well in our long-term care facilities.
We were reminded by a 322-page report from Ontario’s Long-Term Care Commission noted that staff and residents of nursing homes were easy targets for COVID-19 because such homes have been poorly regulated and neglected for years. Moreover, the situation in nursing and long-term care homes was made even worse by the province’s, quote, “slow and reactive response when the virus arrived.” Almost 4,000 Ontario residents of these homes have died in the past year. The report suggests that our elderly are simply not a priority for us, and so we have a shortage of emergency supplies, updated plans, appropriately paid caregivers, and on and on. The report subsequently made 85 recommendations to our government.
By way of contrast, our scripture reading paints a lovely picture of what old age could and should be like. Here’s the background. The prophet Zechariah was speaking to Jews who were finally back in Jerusalem after a seventy-year exile in Babylon. The city, though, was in ruins. All of its homes and walls and public places were still rubble or burnt to the ground, like London or Dresden after World War II.
The Jews who returned starting rebuilding, but things soon ground to a halt because the they were just too few and too poor to do much more than focus on their own survival. Rebuilding the city and temple seemed impossible.
Zechariah, though, didn’t have much sympathy for this “no-can-do,” attitude. His letter to the returned exiles is full of threats and promises, carrots and sticks, all aimed at getting the Jerusalem-revitalization program back on track. Chapter eight, which we read, is a carrot chapter. In it Zechariah paints a picture of a lovely rebuilt New Jerusalem, one where boys and girls play in the streets outside a gorgeous new temple. And, says Zechariah, this New Jerusalem would be blessed with, quote, "men and women of ripe old age [who] will sit in the streets, each with a cane because of his age."
Amazing. In Zechariah's New Jerusalem happy grandparents are among the city’s biggest draws. Happy Opas and Omas are at the centre of things, sitting in in place of honor at the city gate. There, the citizens of Jerusalem turn to these elders for advice. The elderly are honored and adored by everyone who passes by.
Of course, the world has changed, and no one sits at the city gates anymore. In fact, elderly parents and children are as like to be separated by half a dozen provinces as they are to be living in the same town. But still, Zechariah’s vision for what it means to be elderly is lovely. They rule with wisdom, justice and compassion. They set the city’s direction. They are magnets for children playing. Why?
The best way to think of it is rooted in the fifth commandment, which states, “Honor your father and mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God is giving to you.”
“Honor your father and your mother.” The Hebrew word for “honor,” here, is kabod. The root of the word kabod means something like "weighty." So, the command means, “give weight—give honor—to your parents.”
But mostly the word kabod is used in the Old Testament to describe not parents, but God, as in “the glory of God.”
You see, to the Jewish way of thinking, both parents and God are supposed to carry a lot of weight in our lives. Parents have this weight because they participate in, they share God’s divine glory. Parents are God’s stand-ins. To glorify our parents is to put them at the center of our lives, as God should be at the center of our lives. You might put it this way. In ancient Jerusalem, they didn’t need a Mother’s Day, or a Father’s Day, because really, every day was Mother’s Day. It could not be otherwise, because mothers and fathers were crowned with the glory of God.
Anyway, that was then, thousands of years ago, in Zechariah’s dreams. And on this Mother’s Day we have a 322-page report from Ontario’s Long-Term Care Commission
In truth, our society only rarely honors the elderly as if they embody the glory of God, and then, usually only when they have a lot of money to spend. We have created a culture made up of many pockets of age-related isolation called marketing niches. And niches are artificially isolated from each other by corporate media-driven suggestions about what people in each niche should want. The music and travel industries, Facebook ads, banks, brands—all promise the happiness we crave if only we buy what everyone else in our niche is buying from them. I mean, when was the last time you saw an ad with seventy-year old’s guzzling beer on the beach, or twenty-year old’s winking at each other after taking blue pills? The messaging we are bombarded with is clear. Kids can have fun, but the elderly can have fun only with a bit of help.
Over time, we tend to slowly internalize these mass media messages, often without much reflection. And so, the elderly are marginalized while the younger folk get on with “real” life.
To be honest, I like Zechariah’s dreams for glorious old age much more than the reality described by Ontario’s Long-Term Care Commission’s. Of course, things are actually more complicated than that. Zechariah’s picture was all aspirational—not the reality. And the Long-Term Care Commission report isn’t painting a picture of what we will all face as we age. Many of us are protected from marginalization by loving children, or wealth, or excellent home care.
But the principle here—a shared dream that lies at the root of both Zechariah’s and the Commission’s writing—as well as the dream that animates our Mother’s and Father’s Day celebrations, that dream is worthy. Our old-growth people are glorious, and they don’t deserve to be cut down or marginalized for profit. Instead, our Old Growth people ought to be honored. And we ought to seek their counsel and advice as the canopy under which all of society can better thrive.
Look. I know that there are potential pitfalls here. Just as there is no shortage of young folk in short pants who think they know best in spite of their inexperience, so too there is no shortage of old fools. Some of us have had to struggle with parents who were less than honorable—who neglected us, or hurt us, or worse. Some of the elderly people we know are not wise, do not learn, or are trapped in cycles of anger and blaming that they can’t seem to escape. Speaking about all elderly people, generalizing about them, is going to be inaccurate in some particulars. I get all that.
Still, Zechariah’s dream for the elderly—his Theological Exposition of the Role and Duties of the Elderly—is both lovely and practical. And the dreams for a better society that inform our task force’s many recommendations are also lovely and practical and for that reason Biblical, too. The Bible, you see, is not just about divine glory but it is also about real people living gloriously good lives. We should take it to heart. Not just on Mother’s Day, but always.