Preaching Up: Applying the Word of God to Midlife and Beyond
Maybe you are like me. I am 29 years old, yet every Sunday I preach to people decades older than me. They’re worlds apart from me. I live in the casual world of Generation X, preferring sandals and shorts and t-shirts – even in Sunday morning worship. But I preach to people who prefer dress pants, shiny shoes, and a tie. I breathe Google, YouTube, iPods, and MP3s. But I preach to people who need their grandchildren at the remote in order even to operate the DVD player. I’m healthy and strong – relatively speaking. But I preach to people who wonder if they will see another birthday. I’m at the beginning of my career and dream about possibilities as big as the Montana sky. But I preach to people who have been there, done that, and now look back.
I want to bridge a gap. I want to connect the Bible to their world. I want to get into their lives, respond to their needs, feed them in a way appropriate to their life situation, admonish and encourage them with patient, loving force. How, though, can I do this as a 29-year-old “kid”?
Thank God for Paul David Tripp and Deborah Howard. Their insightful books carry me as in a time machine into what are to me the foreign worlds of midlife and beyond. What I discovered there was strangely familiar.
MIDLIFE AND THE GRACE OF GOD
Paul David Tripp knows about the challenges of midlife. The reality that “I am not young anymore” has already hit him in the face and changed him forever. With illuminating vulnerability, Tripp opens up his life as an example in how to navigate the middle age years. Flowing from his experience as a veteran pastor, counselor, and speaker, Tripp’s God-centered, Bible-saturated, culturally-aware reflection on his own experience gives credibility and power to his diagnosis of and solution for midlife issues. First, he anchors his readers in the reality of God’s great story of redemption displayed in the pages of Scripture. Then, with plenty of real-life examples, he walks them through midlife crisis: what it is, why it happens, and how to respond to its challenges.
LIFE’S FINAL JOURNEY
Traveling through time with Deborah Howard to life’s final days was equally illuminating. Howard is a hospice nurse, so death is an everyday reality for her. She is also a biblically-grounded, thoughtful, unapologetically Reformed Christian. In a captivatingly conversational style, Howard shows in great detail from Scripture that God is sovereign over creation, salvation, and suffering. Discussion of the eternal state fills the final section of her book, dispelling misconceptions about the afterlife and painting a picture of where death leads for the believer and unbeliever. Vivid case studies emphasize the importance of embracing these realities and describe the process by which a person comes to experience eternal life and the transforming truth of God’s sovereignty in all things. She also draws on her medical training to help the reader become familiar with the physical symptoms of dying, legal considerations surrounding death, and the world of hospice care.
PREACHING UP THE AGE LADDER
But what does this all have to do with preaching? At the end of the day, after I’ve read the books, I still have sermons to prepare. How can I as a 29 year old apply God’s Word in a way that ministers to those in my congregation who are in the middle and end of their life?
Maybe the answer is not as difficult as I once thought. When I entered the unique worlds of midlife and beyond, I was struck not as much by the differences as by the similarities of people’s experiences across the age spectrum. The six themes that Tripp and Howard directed toward middle-aged and senior adults apply to everyone at any stage of life. That’s why I’m convinced that I need to keep preaching about those themes week after week. (By the way, book-by-book expository preaching will likely touch upon one of those themes each Sunday, since every text in the Bible arguably addresses one of them. Just a thought.)
First, I need to keep preaching about the sovereignty of God. As Tripp explains, only when a believer embraces God’s sovereignty over the tiniest details of life will he walk in the rest and joy that God intends for him to experience. Howard concurs. Even though she is surrounded by tragic suffering and death every day, she emphasizes one truth more than any other: God controls everything in the universe, even “whether the traffic light turns green or red as I approach an intersection.”
Second, I need to keep preaching about suffering. Aging intensifies the suffering we feel and see, whether the pain of regret, aching joints, or the loss of loved ones. Reminding each other of God’s refining purpose in suffering is therefore critical. Both Tripp and Howard devote large amounts of space to this issue. Brothers, we must preach the blessings of suffering to our people – for the sake of their souls. Suffering is a terrible evil which we must detest and fight, but which we must also embrace as one of God’s most powerful tools in shaping us into the image of Christ.
Third, I need to keep preaching about idolatry. Although most Americans don’t consciously bow down to idols, the heinous sin of idolatry still abounds – often under the guise of spirituality. Midlife, Tripp notes, tears away the façade that hides the golden calf in our hearts. As a young preacher, I can apply the Word to those in higher age brackets by shining the light of God’s law onto their idols: health, youth, riches, appearance, possessions, relationships, children, status, neighborhood, career, food, applause, houses, cars, adventures, vacations, and the delusion of control. Because aging exposes the inability of these idols to deliver on their promises and reveals the continuing presence of indwelling sin even in the long-time believer, preaching about idolatry to people in midlife and beyond can pack an especially transformative punch.
Fourth, as a young preacher ministering to those older than me, I need to keep preaching about death. Most mortals try to ignore thoughts of death. Instead, we distract ourselves from reality with “delusions of invincibility,” as Tripp puts it. Jonathan Edwards recognized this destructive tendency and as a result famously resolved to “think much on all occasions of my own dying, and of the common circumstances which attend death.” Deborah Howard would certainly consider death a fruitful topic of meditation. She writes, “It is of vital importance that we prepare spiritually before we get sick, before we are in a car wreck or an explosion that takes our life, before we pass through that door that leads to eternity—either an eternity in hell or in heaven.”
I need, however, to preach not only about the moment of death, but also about the process of dying. Both ignorance about the physical symptoms of dying and the overrealized eschatology of the health and wealth gospel have made dying difficult for some Christians to accept. Instead of embracing the dying process, they cling to earthly life with idolatrous force. Mark Dever puts his finger on this problem in a recent blog: “Our reluctance to sing about the grave in church on Sunday only reveals how much our hopes have been entrusted to this life—and we do not wish to conceive of them being lost. Our treasures have been put too much in this world.”
Fifth, I need to keep preaching about the hope of heaven. Howard reminds us that as Christians we should be consumed with thoughts of and yearnings for heaven. When we are preoccupied with heavenly things the dissatisfaction, discouragement, regret, and disorientation of our later years yield to joy. Furthermore, looking forward to our eternal inheritance will keep us walking on the pathway that leads to life.
Finally, I need to keep preaching about the new identity found in Christ. Tripp’s counsel shows that preaching about a believer’s identity in Christ isn’t just for baby Christians. He observes that midlife crisis often stems from “identity amnesia” or worse “identity replacement.” A middle-aged mother, for instance, becomes depressed and disoriented because her teen children rebel against the mold in which she tried to shape them. Or a businessman in his upper forties lives for the success he’s achieved in the marketplace, staying so busy that he neglects his family and spiritual life. We who are in Christ easily forget that our identity does not come from our job, place of residence, title, gender, age, family, or appearance. It’s not just new Christians who need frequent reminders that they are new creations, that they no longer live, and that Christ lives in them. Finding one’s identity in Christ will relieve the pain of regret, cut the root of pride, dry up the miry pit of despondency, clear up midlife confusion, and produce fruit that will last for eternity.
So, I’m 29 years old. Can I apply the Scriptures effectively to the lives of people twice my age who live in a world without YouTube and iPods and dreams as big as the Montana sky? Yes. The worlds aren’t so different after all. Whether 29 or 49 or 89, the root problems are the same and so is the solution. Die to self. Die to your dreams. Die to the lies of your culture. Die to the illusion of your control. Die to the pernicious idolatry of success, appearance, and applause. Live to God. Live for his glory. Live in the light of his Word. Live by the power of his Spirit. Live submissively under his control and according to his will. Live for the delight of his eternal presence. Brothers, that’ll preach—to anyone of any age!
1. Howard, Sunsets, 72.
2. Tripp, Lost, 81-82.
3. Howard, Sunsets, 182.
4. Mark Dever, http://blog.t4g.org/, “Completely Unavoidable Optimism,” posted on Feb. 22, 2007, accessed Mar 01, 2007.
5. Howard, Sunsets, 183.
6. Tripp, Lost, 268.
7. 2 Corinthians 5:17 and Galatians 2:20.