Questions from the Sixties

The title does not refer to the famous decade of the 20th Century, but of the advanced decade of a human life. We are considering the kinds of questions that various decades of life force upon us, as suggested by Gordon MacDonald in his book A Resilient Life.

The sixty-year-old then is asking questions which reflect the fact that some whom he loves have died and his accomplishments are fading farther into the background.

When do I stop doing the things that have always defined me?
Why do I feel ignored by a large part of the younger population?
Do I have enough time to do all the things I’ve dreamed about doing?

Life and death issues loom:

Why am I curious about who is listed in the obituaries?
Who will be around me when I die?
Which one of us (if married) will go first?
What is it like to say goodbye?

And again, end of life issues push the buttons of doubt and fear:

Are the things I’ve believed in capable of taking me to the end?
Is there really life after death?
What do I regret?
What have I done that will outlive me?

We invest a great deal of effort in trying to form our messages to be comprehended by youth. We need to take these questions to heart as we seek to speak to those who are older as well.

Reaching Fifty

The questions we ask at various stages in life are not bound to the age we actually inhabit, but more to the life situations those ages thrust upon us. So, some may ask questions at 45 that others are not asking until 65, and vise versa. But these generalizations do help us who teach and preach to consider how we might better connect with the real concerns of our audience.

As we ‘reach’ the fifties, Gordon MacDonald, from whose book A Resilient Life these observations come, says that having moved past life’s middle, we have reached a point for sober thinking. The questions that arise include:

Why is time moving so fast?
Why is my body becoming unreliable?
How do I deal with my failures and successes?
How can my spouse and I reinvigorate our relationship now that the children are gone?
Who are these young people who want to replace me?
Will we have enough money for our retirement years?

And, perhaps more than before, this one:

What do I do with my doubts and fears?

In the Forties

We are pondering the questions that people in various stages of life might be asking so that we might better communicate with them. Perhaps these suggestions from Gordon MacDonald are accurate, perhaps not, but they seem to me to be a good place to begin the conversation.

Those in their forties realize that they are beyond the place where they can protest that their mistakes are the product of youthful ignorance. They are mature, and are beginning to realize that they will not live forever. We wonder what has made us what we are and we wonder what we have yet to become. Some questions:

Who was I as a child, and what powers back then influence the kind of person I am today?
Why do some people seem to be doing better than I?
Why am I often disappointed in myself and others?
Why are limitations beginning to outnumber options?

The forties are times of great change. Bodies, children, marriage, financial standing, all change and create uncertainty. Questions can hinge toward hope or despair:

Why do I seem to face so many uncertainties?
What can I do to make a greater contribution to my generation?
What would it take to pick up a whole new calling in life and do the thing I’ve always wanted to do?

Though the word ‘trapped’ does come up more often than we wish it would, the forties can be a time when people are encouraged to focus their energies in a whole new way for good.

Questions of a ‘ThirtySomething’

Continuing to consider the questions that people in various stages of life are asking, Gordon MacDonald considers those in their thirties.

How do I prioritize the demands being made on my life?
How far can I go in fulfilling my sense of purpose?
Who are the people with whom I know I walk through life?

This last question is one of loneliness. With increased demands on time and responsibilities, old friendships drift into the distance, and there often is not the time to build and deepen new friendships.

This increased time demand raises a spiritual component. There is no longer much time for retreats and conferences and times of hanging out. Words like ’empty’, ‘tired’, ‘confused’, and ‘drifting’ come up frequently. And so does the question

What does my spiritual life look like? Do I even have time for one?

And this is complicated by the sense of failure that may begin to peek over the horizon, leading to the question:

Why am I not a better person?

If these thoughts are anywhere near the mark, it speaks of fertile ground for the Gospel.

“20-ish” Questions

In reference to this goal, then, what are the questions that those in their twenties are asking? I summarize MacDonald here:

What kind of a man or woman am I becoming?
How am I different from my mother or father?
Where can I find a few friends who will welcome me as I am and who will offer the familylike connections that I need [or never had]?
Can I love, and am I lovable?

MacDonald finds fear of rejection, loneliness, and the feeling that one might not fit.

Other questions include

What will I do with my life?
What is it that I really want in exchange for my life’s labors?
What parts of me and my life need correction?
Around what person or conviction will I organize my life?

Do you agree with these? What would you add or take away?

The Questions of Life

I’ve read about 40% of Gordon MacDonald’s book A Resilient Life and can only commend it with one SERIOUS reservation which, while not stripping the book of all value, places it in a category in which I could not give it to anyone without some explanation. I’ll comment on that when I have the opportunity to finish it.

I draw attention to the book at this point in order to extract from it something that MacDonald very well and which many should find useful. I refer to a portion of the book in which MacDonald helps us understand the questions that people are asking at various stages of their lives. This has value to me as a preacher but can be useful as well to any who are involved in teaching or leading adults.

Preachers, for example, have a message that they want to be heard. It is not merely an intellectual message appealing to intellectuals interested in discussing all the latest ideas. It is a practical message regarding a person’s place in this world and the purpose of his life. If I can preach Jesus in such a way that intersects the questions a listener is already asking, he is far more likely to give the message attention than if what I am saying appears to be ethereal and unrelated to the life he, or she, is living. In preparing a sermon or a lesson, it is good to ponder the questions the listener brings to the table so that one might address the content in such a way that it answers those questions. Do that, and we will be heard.

But getting a handle on what those questions are can be the tricky part. MacDonald has asked representative people from each decade of life to share with him the questions which most concern their peers. He asked this of twenty-somethings, those in their thirties, and each decade thereafter. His read on these questions seems to me to be highly accurate. I would like to share those with the readers of this blog.

But before I do that, I encourage those of you who are reading this and are interested to ponder what you think those questions might be. What questions are those in YOUR decade asking? What troubles them? What do they worry about? What occupies their innermost thoughts? What matters most to them?

The Offense of the Off-handed Comment

Recently I had an occasion to hear a prominent and respected evangelical leader speak to about 400 gathered people. In his message, which was full of worthwhile and thought-provoking content, he referred to his reading of the New York Times “with his nose plugged”. He almost apologized for reading the Times, saying he had to do it because of his radio program.

I can guess the audience that “nose plug” comment was intended for, but it, like many off-handed comments we make, was neither necessary nor wise.

First of all, I think one SHOULD read the New York Times. It IS one of the primary media of our day and its reach is broad. We should not apologize for doing so as if we are doing something shameful.

But, secondly, when we speak, to four-hundred, to four-thousand, or even to four, we ought never to assume that our inside ‘jokes’ will be uniformly appreciated. I merely lost respect for the man. But suppose there was someone there who had just ended a five year stint writing for the Times. How would he have taken that snide dismissal of his work? Or if someone there was simply wrestling with the claims of Christ, he may (unnecessarily) leave thinking either 1) he must, in addition to coming to trust Christ, come to mistrust the New York Times, in order to be a Christian, or 2) that he has no more taste for Christian things because of the “Christian” take on something he holds dear. In either scenario, the offense is not the cross, but the carelessness of the speaker.

David Bisgrove, Associated Pastor of New York City’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, stressed this point in an extremely helpful presentation to the Gospel Coalition in 2007. He said

In most (even thriving) churches, the whole service usually assumes: 1) a lot of Biblical knowledge, 2) a ‘we-them’ mentality (we Christians vs. the big, bad world), 3) much evangelical terminology. Thus most Christians, even when they are edified in church, know intuitively that their non-Christian friends would not appreciate the service.

He illustrated this point by noting a time that he was preparing to preach and saw Robin Williams sitting in the middle of the congregation. He was glad, as his mind scanned his notes, that he was making no disparaging comments about Hollywood.

People misunderstand me every time I talk in this way. My plea is simply this: The cross will be offensive. Let us not, therefore, find other ways to offend with the result that those who need to hear the cross never can.

Common Public Courtesy

I’m not sure why the following counsel (complete content here) appeals to me. There is a part of me that wants to point fingers at those who fail to heed it. But there is another part of me that knows I am the one who needs to have such wisdom always before me.

In short, the wisdom is as follows:

1. Don’t write things about people you’d be afraid to tell them in person.

This is, of course, particularly true in the digital age. It is just as wise to assume that anything you might say publicly will eventually end up in the hands of the one about whom you have spoken or written.

Related is this:

2. Be willing to encounter people you’ve criticized.

If we keep this in mind, we will seek to keep our criticism at a level that is rational, temperate, and respectful.

That this latter piece of advice comes from a young Ralph Nadar should take nothing away from it.

Once early in my ministry, a difficult letter had to be written to a person in the church. One of the elders wisely counseled me to write the letter but to not send it. Rather, he said, deliver it. Speak its content face to face. To hide behind the typewriter was a coward’s way of dealing with conflict.

Digital communication makes it easier for me to be a coward. Loving our neighbor does not mean that we must be silent unless we are face to face with them – face-on communication is not always possible. But love for neighbor does mean that we should never speak about someone in a way that we would not be willing to speak were they sitting across the table from us.