I saw him on television last week. He was walking across the farmyard carrying two buckets, showing little sign of his ninety-odd years.
A couple of weeks previously I had tried to call with him. Someone in his church thought that he might need a visit. Going to his door, I met a family member, ‘Is Billy around?’ I asked.
‘He’s not in the house. Try going up the yard and shouting for him. If you get no answer, I don’t know where he is’.
He’s keeping all right?’ I asked.
‘He’s keeping the best’.
His television appearance was part of a feature on the family business. Seeing him, I wondered about our attitudes to ageing. Being over 90 doesn’t mean you are not fit and well; it doesn’t mean that on the inside you are not the same person you always were?
Sometimes I think churches are patronising, if not downright rude to older people. I heard a youth worker complain that he had been to a church and that it had been ‘full of old people’. What is wrong with that? Aren’t older people just as important as younger people?
The churches sometimes seem to have got caught up with the idea that ‘youth’ is all that matters. Since being ordained twenty-five years ago, I have been told that there are no young people in church and that the church is going to die, yet the church in my area carries on much as it always has. There are not many of the old people from twenty-five years ago still left with us and the middle aged people we have in church now must have been younger people then.
Maybe there are two points that we miss. Our idea of youth as something different is quite a recent one; youth culture was something that appeared after the Second World War. Look at pictures of young people in the 1930s and they dressed in a way identical to their parents.
The other point is that there is no such thing as a single youth culture – there are many youth cultures. I have a son of 20 who is an engineering student in Dublin and a daughter who is approaching her 18th birthday and who is still at school. They live in entirely different cultures. Even within school, my daughter would regard those who were 14 or 15 as entirely different from those within her own year. The whole idea of ‘youth’ is something that is broken into so many fragments that the word probably doesn’t mean very much – do we really think that someone who is 15 and someone who is 25 have much in common with each other?
Perhaps it’s not what is on the outside that matters, but what is on the inside. But didn’t Christians always know that to be true?
Script of the ‘Letter from . . . ‘ column to be broadcast on the ‘First Day’ programme on Downtown Radio in Northern Ireland on Sunday, 10th April 2011