Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Wisdom of Our Elders

This is the sermon I preached on June 14th, 2015 at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist in Charlottesville, Virginia.  You can listen to the podcast.

Thinking about Alex’s ordination this afternoon has had me in something of a nostalgic mood for my own.  I watched the video of it the other night and was reminded of the charge given to me by my friend, mentor, and minister, the Rev. Ed Lane.  Now … Ed could easily have looked and sounded at home in a colonial Unitarian or Universalist church, and would be an easy casting choice for a movie company looking for a Captain Ahab.  Wonderful man.  Great minister.  And O what a voice!  On that afternoon twenty years ago, he ascended to the pulpit and said that he had been in the parish ministry for forty-eight years – with a twinkle in his eye he noted that that was a year longer than the preacher of the day had been alive.  Then looked directly at me to say:

“My first bit of advice to you, Erik, is this:  don’t try to be an old curmudgeon until you are one.”

I have tried to live my life by that advice.

I’ll admit that in general sermons are kind of difficult for me to write and to preach.  I often step up here and look out at a room of people whose collective wisdom astonishes me, and I think of the hubris it takes to say a word.  So many know so much more than me.  And none have lived any less; learned any less about what it means to be alive.  And as I sit before my blank piece of digital paper my mind often goes blank as well, thinking how challenging a task it is to try to mine my little life for a glimpse of wisdom when what I really want to do is sit down and listen to you.  Many of you do not realize this, of course, and will probably even want to disagree with me, but you have lived such lives!

This sermon, in particular, has been difficult knwoing that this is a topic that Arthur has thought about for a long, long time.  He has a real passion for it – elders and wisdom.  In fact, he even wrote a draft of a sermon for this morning, something I hope you’ll all stop by the church’s blog to read.  It’s worth it.  Go to thetalkoftjmc (all one word) at  Look for it on Tuesday.

I think if I had to boil Arthur’s sermon down to one sentence it would be this –  “We treat elders as objects when they are our greatest untapped resource.”  This is key to understanding not only his sermon, but, I think, perhaps Arthur himself.  So let me say that again, “We treat elders as objects when they are our greatest untapped resource.”

Think about that.  Really think about that.  In the dominant culture of the United States it is thought that once you have reached your euphemistically called “golden years” you’ve really done just about all that you’re going to do.  We measure meaning by how productive one is, and one’s productive years are assumed to be long gone as our hair color, or the hair itself, begins to go.  So we treat elders, as Arthur says, as objects because the culture’s focus has turned to trying to satisfy the physical needs of old age.  Geezerhood, as several of you call it, is a time for you to settle back from all the hard work of your earlier years and to now receive – by which we mean receive help with a seemingly ever-increasing list of ailments and afflictions.  (You know, they say that the short term memory is the first thing to go … and so is the short term memory.)

That may be what the prevailing culture says, but I meet every other week or so with our incredible Active Minds group – the group of “over 65” folk who meet in the church parlor on Thursdays at 1:00 to talk about … well … to talk about all sorts of things.  Let me tell you, there absolutely are some active minds in that crowd and our conversations can become quite … wide-ranging in scope.  No mere objects in that room.  Or in this.

Would those of you who are over 65, and willing to do this sort of thing, please rise in body or spirit?  (This is something Arthur thought we should do today, and I agree.)  Now, will those of you still sitting look at those who are standing and ask yourself what you see … who you see.  And now will those of you who are standing look at those who are sitting … who do you see, and how do you think you’re seen?  (Thanks.  Y’all can sit.)

Arthur told me that he experiences our community as counter-cultural.  Most of us younger folks (and even those who see people like me as old) actually recognize the importance of the elders in our midst; recognize the gifts they have to offer; recognize the lessons one learns over the course of a lifetime and the perspective the long view offers.  (And perhaps that’s a pretty good definition of wisdom – lessons learned over a lifetime seen through a long-view perspective.)

Yet even here the ageist bias can rear its ugly head.  I remember meeting with the Active Minds group early on in my ministry because a group of church leaders was worried that perhaps we weren’t doing enough to support the church’s elders and that we were not providing real opportunities for their meaningful involvement in church life.  I was sent to ask the group what it thought – always a good idea when you’re thinking of doing something for someone – and the almost universal response was:  we’re okay.  They said, essentially, we were “meaningfully involved” for years and now we’re happy to leave all that hectic activity to the younger folks.  Yet with all the passion of someone who’s not really listening I kept trying, “but … but … but … you have so much to offer!”  Their response was, pretty much, to gently pat my hand and say, “that’s nice dear.”

I still wonder if we could be doing something differently.  I do wonder if there’s some way to tap what Arthur calls, “our greatest untapped resource.”  He’s thinking nationally, perhaps, but it’s certainly true at the local level to.  And yet within the last couple of weeks at an Active Minds meeting part of the conversation is how hard it is to even try to keep up with the announcements of all that’s going on here, much less overcome the myriad of obstacles to getting “meaningfully” involved.  It’s something to keep thinking about.

And part of what makes me want to keep thinking about it is an international project that always inspires me when I think of it.  It’s called, quite simply and quite appropriately for this morning’s sermon: “The Elders.”  Let me quote from their website:

The concept originates from a conversation between the entrepreneur Richard Branson and the musician Peter Gabriel. The idea they discussed was simple: many communities look to their elders for guidance, or to help resolve disputes. In an increasingly interdependent world - a ‘global village’ - could a small, dedicated group of individuals use their collective experience and influence to help tackle some of the most pressing problems facing the world today?

Richard Branson and Peter Gabriel took their idea of a group of ‘global elders’ to Nelson Mandela, who agreed to support it. With the help of Gra├ža Machel [former Minister of Education and Culture in Mozambique] and Desmond Tutu [who needs no introduction], Mandela set about bringing The Elders together and formally launched the group in Johannesburg, July 2007.

And what a group they are.  In addition to the aforementioned Mandela, Machel, and Tutu, the Elders consists of:
  • Former President of Finland and Nobel Peace Laureate  Martti Ahtisaari;
  • Former member of the Indian Parliament and founder of India’s first women’s bank (sometimes called the “gentle revolutionary”), Ela Bhatt;
  • Former UN Secretary-General, Nobel Peace Laureate and current Chair of The Elders, Kofi Annan;
  • Former Algerian freedom fighter, Foreign Minister, conflict mediator and UN diploma, Lahkdar Brahimi;
  • First woman Prime Minister of Norway and current Deputy Chair of The Elders, Gro Harlem Brundtland;
  • Former President of Brazil, Fernando Cardoso;
  • Former President of Mexico, Ernesto Zedillo
  • Former President of the United States, Jimmy Carter;
  • Pioneering lawyer, pro-democracy campaigner, and a leading activist in Pakistan's women's movement, Hina Jilani; and
  • First woman President of Ireland and former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson.
 Hardly a group of mere objects.  Hardly people put out to pasture.  Most definitely a powerful, global resource.  We don’t hear about their work much, but they are out there, all over the place, doing all sorts of great things.  (Google them.  You’ll be amazed.)  None hold political office now, yet they each have the experience, the connections, and the earned respect that lets them be in those places where we need … well … where we need the wisdom of an elder.  We don’t hear much about their work, which is a shame and probably a result of the prevailing culture of dismissiveness toward elders … even elders such as these.

Given the history of so many societies having councils of elders as an important and integrated part of their culture and practices, one can only wonder why this one group hasn’t spawned offspring everywhere.  Ageism is a prevalent aspect of modern societies through the globe; it’s not just here. 
And that may bring us right back around to the point that I think both Arthur and I want to make today, a point that perhaps can go without saying and which therefore may all the more need to be said:

Our inherent worth and dignity is not limited to the time of life when our hearing was good; usefulness and productivity are not synonyms; just because someone has lived a long life doesn’t mean that there isn’t life left to live.  The wisdom I see when I look around this room – and I would dare say especially looking at the white and greying hair in this room – is astounding to me. When I walked around schmoozing during our recent Elder’s Dinner I was truly in awe.  And you who were there, being looked at in awe by me and by the others who were serving, probably had no idea that you could engender such feelings.  But you did.  You do.

So … non-elders … when you look at those who are, wherever and whenever you encounter them, remember to open your eyes, your ears, your heart to their wisdom and the contributions they are still making and have still to make.  And you … elders … I encourage you to take the chance and the opportunity to share who you are and what you are.  The rest of us need what only you can offer.

Pas tecum,


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