It Takes a Long Time to Become Young

Somewhere in this vast assemblage of articles I’ve written over these years of blogging is one with this same title. The difference is that the earlier one was written before I knew what I was talking about. Only at the age of 70 and above is one legally entitled to speak of “growing old.”

I’m now entitled.

In his book by this title, Garson Kanin, a well-known playwright, told how Pablo Picasso walked into a hall where a massive display of his paintings was being exhibited. The artist strode into the gathering with a beautiful young woman on each arm and a smile on his countenance.

Someone approached him and after the greeting, said, “Sire, I have a question. There is something about your painting that puzzles me.”

The man pointed out that in Picasso’s first paintings, done when he was a young man, the scenes are dark and formal and according to all the standards. But, he said, “The paintings of your latter years are alive and colorful and so youthful! How do you explain that?”

Picasso said, “Oh, it takes a long time to become young.”

And that, as I say, was the title of Kanin’s book (which incidentally, I heartily recommend. It’s been around for some years so can be bought online for a pittance at any used book source. My favorite is www.alibris.com.)

What started me thinking of this today was that an online friend said, “You seem to be 30 or 40 years old,” and not the proverbial three-score-and-ten.

Now, I know flattery when I hear it and eat it up with gusto! But still. I look back at my life and realize that in many respects I have become younger than when I was in my 20s and 30s.

How does that happen?

The 92nd Psalm has the answer.


The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree,

He shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.

Those who are planted in the house of the Lord

Shall flourish in the courts of our God.

They shall still bear fruit in old age;

They shall be fresh and flourishing,

To declare that the Lord is upright;

He is my Rock and there is no unrighteousness in Him.

(Psalm 92:12-15)

A few comments on the text, then I’ll share my own story.

I’ve heard that the palm tree grows from the inside, and that this is the point of verse 12, as to how the righteous grow. None of the commentaries in my office mention that, so we’ll not pursue it here.

Derek Kidner writesof the dual metaphor of trees: The palm tree is the embodiment of graceful erectness; the cedar of strength and majesty. Their natural dignity and stability are enhanced here by the honored place they are pictured as occupying and the protection they accordingly enjoy.

Then, the metaphor over, the psalmist says clearly they are planted in the house of the Lord and therefore they flourish in the courts of our God.

Where are you planted? Wherever it is, the soil of that place provides the nutrients for your very existence. One reason so many Christians are weak and emaciated these days is we have cut ourselves off from the house of the Lord. We no longer flourish in His courts because we no longer feed on His presence in worship.

So, what kind of believer does this kind of “long obedience in the same direction” produce? Answer: one that is fruitful, youthful, beautiful, and truthful.

Fruitful. “They will still bear fruit in old age.”

Youthful. “They shall be fresh and flourishing.” The word “fresh” is literally “full of sap.” I like that. It sounds to me a little like our expression “full of vinegar,” meaning there is a sassiness about that person, a liveliness.

Beautiful. The word “flourishing” is literally “fat.” This is a word our culture has come to despise, but we must be the first generation in history of whom this is true. For most of this planet’s existence, the rare overweight person was living a life of plenty and luxury. People had to scramble for their daily bread, and few were overweight. Today, obesity is an epidemic in this country. “Fatness,” therefore, referred to abundance and beauty.

Truthful. “To declare that the Lord is upright; He is my Rock, an there is no unrighteousness in Him.” It’s always interesting to hear old people talk. They usually take one of two approaches: some are negative about everything around them and long for the good old days, which of course, never really existed; and others, however, have glowing testimonies of the faithfulness of God.

The righteous old person is one who is well planted in the Lord, still active in His work, still glowing in His love, still blessing those around him, and continuing to bear fruit in the lives of all he encounters.

Who wouldn’t want to be like that in their senior years?

I sure do.

My story. Here is what I am discovering as I enter the “youth of old age.”

1) There’s a lot to be said for a long obedience in the same direction.

You might recognize that as a reference to a Nietzsche quote which formed the title for a Eugene Peterson book on the Psalms.

I read a psalm or a chapter of the New Testament and sometimes smile at a memory from my first year of pastoring. I would sit at my desk in Tarrant City, Alabama, during lunch hour, reading my Bible and trying to find a sermon for the next Sunday. While supporting my young family as secretary to the production manager of a cast iron pipe company, I was also trying to pastor Unity Baptist Church in nearby Kimberly, Alabama. I’d not been to seminary and had no training whatever in scripture or sermon building other than what every other young person gets in church.

It was a closed book for the most part. I felt like I was walking around the castle trying to find a window or cranny I could squeeze through. The door, however, was locked shut and the drawbridge raised. To get a glimpse inside this holy book with its great treasures was my greatest heart’s desire. Sometimes I saw just enough through a window pane to form the basis for a sermon. The sermons weren’t much, I sadly confess, and I have frequently given thanks for those 30 or 40 souls at Kimberly who endured patiently my attempts at feeding the family.

These days, with a background of almost half a century of pastoral ministry, it’s a different story. I do love this wonderful old book. Most of the books, I have preached through several times and many I have taught again and again. Doubtless, there is a wealth of scriptural insights I have not yet discovered, and nothing I say here should imply that I know it all.

But I do know a lot and am so enthralled by this Word of God. What a precious, living, exciting, edifying, insightful, joy-producing book.

Mark Buchanan says he met a fellow who told him he was a skeptic, that he did not believe the Bible. Mark said, “Have you read it?”

The man said, “Of course not. I told you I don’t believe it. I’m a skeptic.”

Mark pointed out to him that the word skeptic means “one who inquires and seeks,” not one who grabs a quick excuse to get out of asking the hard questions.

I’ve just finished reading “God’s Samurai,” the biography of Japanese bomber pilot Mitsuo Fuchida who led the raid on Pearl Harbor and later became an outstanding Christian and world evangelist. After the war, when his faith in the old system was languishing and he kept encountering Christians sharing their faith, someone gave him a New Testament.

They challenged him to read any 30 pages in it, then to decide for themselves what they believed about it. After 30 pages, Fuchida was hooked.

Find any godly Christian who is growing more and more radiant for the Lord in old age and serving Him with great effectiveness, and I guarantee, you will find someone who lives in the Word of God on a daily basis. That’s my own experience.

2) There’s a great deal to be said for taking care of your health.

I owe a lot to two people whom I have probably never adequately thanked. When I was a teenager on the Alabama farm, my big brother Glenn came home from football practice and showed me the exercises the team was using. Since I was pitifully skinny and wished to build up my body, I began doing that routine faithfully.

Some years later, I discovered that the jumping jacks and other calisthenics were designed not to build up the body so much as to make it leaner. So, while I never bulked up, I received a thin and muscular body as a result. Of course, walking miles every day behind a mule named Toby also did wonders for my health.

When I was 35 years old and settling in to the sedentary life of a pastor, a medical doctor in my town, a member of my church, paid all the expenses for me to go through the Cooper Aerobics Clinic in Dallas. The report was about what I figured: I was healthy but turning to flab quickly and needed to get on a program of jogging. So, I began jogging.

Before long I was down to 175 pounds, an ideal weight for everyone except Kenneth Cooper who thought a person my height (nearly 5’11”) ought to weigh 155 pounds, if you can believe that. For years I jogged, and then in my mid-40s I transitioned to walking several miles a day.

I’ve not stayed with the program consistently, although I did for years at the time. And, as soon as I get lazy, the pounds come back on and the belt strains. You’d think I’d figure this thing out. Anyway, I’m still walking, still doing my daily 15 min regimen of exercise (with a 10 pound weight; no jumping jacks!) twice a day, and trying to eat right. I no longer weigh 175 pounds (200 is closer to it!), but all the reports from the doctors–stress tests, treadmill, bloodwork–come back with glowing numbers.

So, I’m 70 and feel great. Recently, on this blog, I spoke just a little on this, using Paul’s statement to King Agrippa as the basis: “I wish that everyone were as I am, except for these chains.” (Acts 26:29)

I tell young pastors, “Right now, you take care of your body as an investment in the future. However, I’m now at the point where I’m taking care of mine for immediate benefits.”

I can tell the difference the same day if I have done my exercises, walked my 3 miles, and eaten right. My clothes fit better, my mind is clearer, my energy is greater, my attitude is straighter.

I do recommend this, pastor. And remember, you’ll never be younger than you are at this moment. Sure, you wish you’d started years ago. But don’t let that slow you down. Get started today.

One word of advice, pastor: don’t overdo it at first. Anything you do is better than nothing. Gradually ease your body and mind into this new way of life.

A friend emailed me the other day that she has joined a gym and within 5 months expects to lose fifty pounds. I replied, “NO! Don’t do that! It’s too much too quickly. Take your time. A pound a week is plenty!”

I’m a preacher and not a doctor, but I know without question the body has a hard time acclimating itself to great and rapid weight loss. Better to lose 20 pounds in a year than a hundred.

3) There are few things more healthful than laughter.

Nothing is more youthful than laughing. This means you’ll want to surround yourself with happy people. And where can you find a lot of them? in a church where Jesus Christ is loved and served and taken seriously.

There is not a lot of laughter in a worship service, and there shouldn’t be. Some is all right, especially as it occurs spontaneously. But laughter at church happens in those in-between times of fellowship, greeting old friends, hugging one you’ve not seen in a while, reminiscing about something from ages ago.

Go where children are. You’ll find a lot of laughter there. Bob Anderson once said, “We know Jesus was a happy person because children loved Him. And children do not like to be around unhappy people.”

Sometimes when I minister to senior adults, I’ll lead them in some laughter exercises. For 45 seconds, I tell them to laugh. Not about anything in particular, but just to make themselves laugh. It’s easy to do.

Throughout the 45 seconds, I’ll make monkey faces at them and encourage them to poke fun at their neighbors. Anything to get laughter. At the end, I ask them, “How does this feel?” I already know the answer: it feels great to laugh.

Scientists say deep belly laughter signals the brain to release endorphins into the blood stream. They are called “nature’s healers” and they give a natural high. That’s why we feel so good after an evening with friends at which we laughed a lot. Our bodies are reacting to the shot of medicine we’ve just received.

4) No one can bear more and better fruit than the veteran believer.

When you are young, peer pressure never quits trying to stop you from taking the stand for the Lord you’d like to. When you’re old, most of that drops away and you feel a freedom, an exuberance, to be who you are without worrying how people are taking it.

When you’re older, people expect you to say what’s on your mind. They’ll even let you get by with offensive stuff if you’re old enough! (This is the place to insert a smiley-face.) They mark it down to senility. Or at least to the eccentricity of old age.

What an opportunity this gives us to make a difference in people’s lives.

That’s one of the joys of blogging. Sometimes, whether on the website or on Facebook, when I’ve put something out there that is particularly provocative, some friend will comment on my courage. I reply, “No courage necessary. I’m retired and I have no constituency. No one gets mad any more at what I say and if they do, tough cookies!”

I have written on this blog about my disgust at Rush Limbaugh’s antics, my wish for churches to love the homosexuals and not allow extremists to tarnish us with their hatred, and a thousand other “hot potatoes” which many pastors might be hesitant to touch.

Pastors email me, call me, or message me on Facebook. Some need a word of counsel, guidance, advice, or comfort. Sometimes they just need a friendly ear. I love this. No pastor who ever contacts me for this is interrupting my day. I live for it.

I often pray the Lord will let me live long and to serve Him every day of my life. No one wants to stumble toward the finish line or worse, to be carried across it.

To stride confidently across with my head held high, arms outstretched in victory, a cheer going up from my exhausted lungs–and then to fall into the arms of loved ones who are proud of the old man, as I finish the race–that is the plan.

That’s my heart’s desire.

You too? Good. Then let’s get started, friend.

One thought on “It Takes a Long Time to Become Young

  1. A comment on your reference to being ‘fat’ in earlier times. E. W. Grove (as in Grove Park Inn) made a fortune in the early part of the 20th Century selling a ‘tasteless chill’ tonic. Basically a sweetened quinine tonic. During that time if you were thin and darkly tanned you were a ditch digger so one of his ads for the tonic said “you’ll be as fat as a pig…” apparently, a desired and attractive style for that time.