I distinctly remember the day I turned twenty-one. I was pastoring a small church near my family’s home in Florida, and several members of my congregation joked that they now had an “adult” minister at their church. That’s right; I served as a minister before my twenty-first birthday.
There are several anecdotes from to this time in my life that I now find interesting and even humorous. When I was first hired as a minister, I could not tie my own tie. So, before driving down to my congregation for the morning worship service, I would stop at the church across the street from my home where my grandfather served as a deacon. He would sneak out of his Sunday School class and put my tie on for me. I was once stopped by a hospital nurse because she thought that I was a church member’s grandson; she was upset that I was in her patient’s room after visiting hours. When I told her that I was a minister who had come to offer prayer she thought I was lying.
Yes, becoming a minister at a young age created awkward social situations, and in my inexperience I made many mistakes and did not always know what to do or say. It is indeed best for a young adult to serve as an apprentice or a staff member before jumping straight into the role of lead minister. Still, entering the ministry in my early twenties taught me valuable lessons about aging and death that I will always appreciate.
When I first became a minister, all the members of my immediate family possessed good health. All of my friends were healthy. I was a skinny and active student who seemed to have a boundless supply of energy. I could stay up almost all night reading or watching movies and still do well in college the next day. My morning breakfast usually consisted of several honey buns that I bought in a hurry from the local gas station on my way to school. I was usually running late and needed a quick energy boost; buying junk food did not bother me because the sugar seemed not to affect my high metabolism. In all honesty, I had no concept of what it meant to age or to die.
Pastoral ministry is not primarily about speaking or writing; in terms of time commitments, most of a minister’s life is spent talking with people—hurting people. There were people in my church who were facing cancer. There were people who had incurable diseases, diseases that confined them to chairs or beds for the rest of their lives. There were people who were aging and who were starting to recognize—or whose family members were starting to recognize—the early signs of dementia. There were people who were once strong who now had to learn to rely on others. There were people who lived alone because all friends had passed away and all family members had moved to a new town; they seemed to spend each day living in old memories and photo albums.
Serving in this environment taught me the realities of aging and death at a deeply personal level. From what I have seen, most people in their twenties do not appreciate life’s fragility and brevity. I know I that once did not.
I learned, though, that aging strips away all vanity and sense of self-sufficiency. When we are young, we might seek divine grace when we are nervous over a test or want to date a girl (at least I did!) or are anxious about finding a job. I saw people in my church who prayed simply for the ability to walk a few feet so that the hospital could discharge them. I met people who asked for food because their Social Security checks did not arrive on time. I knew people who wept and cried over departed friends and who could make no new acquaintances because most people give little time to someone who is older in life.
The truth is that we are all much weaker than we imagine, and we are all in need of divine grace more than we realize. Watching the aging process unfold is ultimately good because it teaches us that all of life is contingent upon God’s good favor—even its most basic aspects such as eating or socializing or walking.
I also learned that God is indeed present to provide grace and meet the most basic of needs. Many people in my church were forgotten by neighbors who lived busy lives and could not notice the senior adults around them and even sometimes by family members who moved away for new jobs in bigger towns. Still, God was present with the people in our church. Few of them experienced physical healing or a sudden change in fortune—indeed, I preached many of their funeral services at the local cemetery—but each one of them could testify how Christ encouraged them when they were lonely, strengthened them when they received a poor doctor’s report, and reminded them that (in their words) “this world ain’t my home.”
I now try to take nothing for granted. All of my life—who I am, what I have accomplished, what I possess—are a result of grace. All of the things that I value—my possessions, acclaim from peers, a name in the community—are in the end fleeting. God has been with me through my youth and will continue to be with me when I am old and weak, and all of my life will simply the story of a fragile person who has experienced mercy from a benevolent and faithful Father. Most people do not learn this truth until the end of their life; I hope that I started to learn it at the beginning of mine.
When I became pastor of this small church, a local newspaper ran a list of all of the ministers in our town. The paper’s editor placed the title “Senior Pastor” beside each minister’s name. Several friends and even many church members thought this article was hilarious; I was in my twenties but was now called a senior pastor. I do not know how much the people in my church learned from me while I was their senior pastor. But, I can say that I learned much from the seniors in my church. For them I am grateful.