Old Dogs, New Tricks
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I have a dog named Enzo. He is an Australian Shepherd/Border Collie mix, so he thrives on learning new things. For Enzo, the joy is not in the treat that he receives upon completing a new task. His joy is in our reaction; he watches us, waiting eagerly for the moment that we will turn to him and exclaim those two magical words, good dog! I do not know if Enzo will continue to learn new tricks into his old age, but I do know that he will always look for ways to seek our love and affection. It’s who he is. He is loyal and loving, always ready to build up our relationship. He wakes up every morning anticipating a new adventure. Every game of fetch is better than the last. I wonder what it would take for me to build my relationship with God and the church with even half that vigor. I am relatively young. In fact, I appear to be so young that recently a fellow educator at Abilene Christian University mistook me for a student. The implicit warning of the idiom mentioned above is that we should build healthy disciplines and important skills while we are young, before old age robs us of our ability to strive. However, I would argue from the many innovative seniors I have known throughout my life that this pithy proverb glosses over their astounding adaptability, creating an excuse for those who would rather not continue to strive in their older age. Yes, older generations are often ridiculed for their resistance to acclimate or conform to the shifting culture that surrounds them. However, some people defy the generalizations made about old age. What is the difference between the elderly person in your church who refuses to welcome new practices, and the elderly person who spearheads the new project? What is the difference between the older man or woman who throws himself or herself into new experiences of God, and the older man or woman who relies exclusively on the experience they had in their youth? I think the difference is in the person’s disposition.
I used to preach for a small congregation in Abilene, Texas, called Wisteria Place Chapel. The chapel was owned by a retirement and assisted living home, so all of my congregants were over the age of 65. I had a lot of adapting to do, as I learned to worship under the leadership of Edna, our 92-year-old worship leader, and as I learned to preach relevant sermons for a context that was not my own. Most of the time my mission was to conform to their culture. However, one woman was determined to adapt to mine.
After I completed my first Sunday service at Wisteria Place, I shook hands with my new congregants as they emerged from the pews to go home. Waiting for me at the end of the aisle was Wanda. With a grin that could have stretched across the whole state of Texas, she excitedly embraced me. She affirmed my preaching, and added, “Don’t you ever hold back from us, preacher. I know we look old and frail, but we’re ready to move.” As I grew to know Wanda I learned of her incredible resilience, her contagious joy, and her unyielding desire to know God. Her desire for God was unquenchable, and she was not going to let anything prevent her from seeking God in new ways. She would often travel from room to room in the nursing home like an itinerant missionary, urging her neighbors to see the new work that God was doing in their community.
Many Sundays I greeted the morning with a tired mind and a cynical heart. As I would drive up to Wisteria, I would wonder how ministry is ever sustainable when life is so exhausting. With keys in hand to unlock the chapel, I would find Wanda waiting eagerly outside, basking in the sun, eager to embark on a new adventure.
Wanda learns new things all the time, because it is in her disposition to do so. In fact, this “old dog” has taught this young pup more about leaning into new practices than I could have ever learned on my own. So how do I become this adventurous? How do I greet each day with anticipation? It has less to do with age, and more to do with love. It is love that drives my dog Enzo to celebrate every morning. It was love that caused Wanda’s heart to swell for God. Perhaps my taking God for granted and taking church for granted is what leaves me less adventurous. When I show up to every new day expecting the world to come to me, I will be disappointed by the masses, the generations to follow, who do not cater to my desires. However, if I were to fall in love with God—if I were to be truly captivated by God’s mercy and grace, if I were to lean into my identity as a reconciled child of the Divine, if I were to see every day as a gift of love, I might be more daring to experience God in new contexts and new practices. My hope is that I will develop this disposition in my youth so that I can learn new things into my old age. I want to be a Wanda for somebody else. When I am old, and the new preacher or new worship leader or new pup comes along, may I be eager to learn, or in the words of Wanda, may I be eager to move.