Forerunner, May 26, 2006

Most of us have favorite memories of events and people that have left a lasting impression in our minds. One individual from my family's past was a man named Mr. Finnegan. I had not thought about him for years, but he came to mind a few years back when he became a focal point for a sermonette. I had forgotten how much of an impression he made on me until I concluded the message with a few memories of him. As happens at the most inopportune times, tears welled up in my eyes.

When I first met him, I was a young, new-to-the-church, impressionable 14-year-old. Mr. Finnegan was not a handsome individual—in fact, he was a rather skinny, homely man, with his most obvious feature being eyes that bugged out in an unusual manner. Also memorable was the food he would cook, which was often seasoned by an unusual assortment and quantity of spices, none of which he could taste, since his ability to smell and taste were seriously impaired. He loved to make wine and mead out of many things, his favorites being potatoes and dandelions.

I remember thinking at the time that, as an older man, he had his fair share of "ancient" and eccentric ways—not exactly someone a young person would consider cool or would want to hang around. Yet, looking back at that time in my life, Mr. Finnegan made a lifelong impression on me in a way that each of us can have on others, if we follow certain instructions given within the pages of the Bible.

Willing To Share

Paul instructs the much younger Timothy in I Timothy 6:17-19:

Command those who are rich in this present age not to be haughty, nor to trust in uncertain riches but in the living God, who gives us richly all things to enjoy. Let them do good that they be rich in good works, ready to give, willing to share, storing up for themselves a good foundation for the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life.

In my memories of Mr. Finnegan, these words seem to apply to his life and legacy. By no stretch of the imagination was he a wealthy man in terms of goods or money. His richness, especially to a young person, was in his willingness and ability to share of the one thing he had the most of: himself.

The word share in this passage comes from the word koinonikos, which actually means "to be liberal or generous" or "apt or ready to communicate." From these definitions, Paul's teaching would include doing good works, willingly giving of what we are and what we have become, and sharing our lives through deeds and words. This is where Mr. Finnegan had the most impact on my life, and where we can learn a great lesson.

Even though Mr. Finnegan had very little in common with a 14-year-old, he did have the time and desire to share experiences with one. Many an outing included Mr. Finnegan, from cutting and selling firewood for our youth group to staying with me at various times when needed. We had many discussions about bookbinding (he used to bind the church publications together for people), wine making, and his past, both good and bad experiences. While he was not spending money on me, he was sharing what he had—time, effort, stories, and wisdom, imparting a part of himself as a member of one generation to another.

Hebrews 13:15-16 reads, "Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name. But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased." For many of us, the ability, opportunity, desire, and obligation to follow the first half of this admonition occurs without question in our lives. After all, praising and giving thanks to God is a Christian's duty. For some, the harder part is taking Christianity one step further, sacrificing ourselves in service, fellowship, and communication with others, especially those outside our "community," be it a group designated by age, experience, likes or dislikes, location, or any other boundary that applies to us personally.

As we will see later, this willingness to give of ourselves must be a key piece in linking one generation to another. It is and must be a dual obligation: the older teaching the younger, as well as sharing experiences widely, not just with those we are most comfortable with.

Throw-Away Generation

In many ways, my experiences with Mr. Finnegan have aided me in showing respect for older people. While we did not always have "current" things in common, his time and effort with me have helped me to see the benefits in the time and effort I spend with those both older and younger than me. Since becoming a grandfather, it has been greatly emphasized to me, especially as I realize how malleable children are, what an impact I can have on their lives.

It is easy to see how readily we can influence beautiful, eager children, but it is far more difficult to see others as worthy of our time and efforts. Mr. Finnegan had no family, so many of us in the area became his surrogate family. In this way, he also gained from those he spent time with, who were willing to give of themselves to him. The reality for many of us, however, is that we usually have family, which takes a great deal of our time and effort, leaving little time for others. In the bigger scheme of things, as God is building His Family through the church, every person is important to the equation, as Paul exhorts us in Ephesians 4:16.

Contrast this to the way things have become in today's world where we throw a thing away when we have finished with it. In some ways, that is how many see those of the older generation, as people who are not as "useful" or necessary as they once were. This dismissive way of thinking can—and unfortunately, often does—become a reality for the older generation. Many of them feel that society is saying, "Get out of the way so younger people can take over."

Today, there is a wide gulf between generations. Respect and honor, well-deserved by the older generation from the younger, has been replaced with an attitude of indifference. Too often, seniors are considered to be castoffs and perceived to be in the way rather than as invaluable assets to teach and nurture the younger and less-experienced among us. Due to their perception of this attitude, many older people seem to recede into a shell either because they no longer feel like a part of "the young people's world" or because it becomes too much of a struggle to remain productive, purposeful, and focused. Thus, they do not impart their experience to the younger generations. Much is lost.

God is very specific on how He feels about the worth of older people. He commands in Leviticus 19:32, "You shall rise before the gray headed and honor the presence of an old man, and fear your God: I am the Lord." Proverbs 16:31 teaches, "The silver-haired head is a crown of glory, if it is found in the way of righteousness." Job 12:12 adds, "Wisdom is with aged men, and with length of days, understanding."

Conversely, Psalm 71:9-17 shows how many older people can feel and think, especially in a world where family, loyalty, experience, knowledge, understanding, and wisdom are not held in as high esteem as they should be.

Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength fails. For my enemies speak against me; and those who lie in wait for my life take counsel together, saying, "God has forsaken him; pursue and take him, for there is none to deliver him." O God, do not be far from me; O my God, make haste to help me! Let them be confounded and consumed who are adversaries of my life; let them be covered with reproach and dishonor who seek my hurt. But I will hope continually, and will praise You yet more and more. My mouth shall tell of Your righteousness and Your salvation all the day, for I do not know their limits. I will go in the strength of the Lord God; I will make mention of Your righteousness, of Yours only. O God, You have taught me from my youth; and to this day I declare Your wondrous works.

For our younger people, these are words that each should take to heart, before many of our older people are no longer around to share their lives and experiences with us. We should take it as a personal responsibility to make room for the elderly to remain an integral part of our lives, so we can learn from their deeds and experiences, even when it may not seem convenient in our fast-paced lives. An older man once reminded me that slowing down often produces superior results, as I in my furious pace to shovel sand lost most of it—while each of his scoops never lost a grain.

A Shared Responsibility

Psalm 71:18 continues with the old person's plea and desire to do what he should: "Now also when I am old and gray headed, O God, do not forsake me, until I declare Your strength to this generation, Your power to everyone who is to come." This individual felt a personal responsibility. It was not specific just to family, friends, or acquaintances, but to everyone to come.

As is usually the case with God, due respect and honor also includes increased responsibility and accountability. Any minister will agree that with "double honor" (I Timothy 5:17) goes "double responsibility" (James 3:1). The same is true for the older members of the church, as discussed in Titus 2:1-5, which is preceded by Paul's admonition to Titus on the need for faithful elders in the various congregations. It is probably no coincidence that Paul first speaks of the qualifications for an elder (presbuteros, meaning one who is either older or senior in rank), only to follow up with the "qualifications" needed by the older people within the church.

But as for you, speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine: that the older men be sober, reverent, temperate, sound in faith, in love, in patience; the older women likewise, that they be reverent in behavior, not slanderers, not given to much wine, teachers of good things—that they admonish the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, homemakers, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be blasphemed. (Titus 2:1-5)

God obviously saw the ongoing need within the church to have clear leadership and education, not only from ordained elders, but also from the older, more experienced, God-fearing people in the church, who should lead by example and exhortation. It is a major responsibility that God expects from all involved, both from those teaching as well as from those being taught.

While Mr. Finnegan, who has since died, was far from perfect, he did leave a big impression where it counted. He took it upon himself to get involved in a new church family's life and to give us something of himself. It did not matter if it was offering us his latest wine concoction, coming to stay with me while my family went out of town to attend a funeral, making us some of his horrible Irish stew, or helping our youth group sell and stack firewood, he gave of himself. Once a person got past the "not so pretty exterior" that made up his outward appearance, or his somewhat cantankerous personality in his later years, it became plain that Mr. Finnegan was a gem. He left a positive legacy because he was not afraid to get involved, to give of his time, and to apply what the Bible says an older person should do for the younger generation.

The real questions for us are fairly simple: Are we allowing our older generation to be and remain a valuable tool as God has ordained? Do we recognize them as a key to the ongoing development of God's Family, or have we fallen prey to the hustle-and-bustle approach of this world? Do we really regard those with years, wrinkles, gray hair, and aches and pains as precious human treasures, or have we relegated these wonderful assets to the trash bin of society?

God says in Proverbs 20:29, "[T]he splendor of old men is their gray head," and then He says in Proverbs 23:22, "Listen to your father who begot you, and do not despise your mother when she is old." This is good advice for all of us.