“They make us sound so expendable,” was a comment made a few months ago by several people in my congregation and in my family/friend circle. What did they mean? These elderly people were repeating the sentiment they have read or heard that they are old and that their potential deaths from COVID-19 are just part of how we, as a global community, will get through the pandemic. This all made me think about my reaction to the 2015 film, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a follow-up to the 2011 Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. First, let me say that I love the all-star cast. Who would not? From a film-critic perspective, I also appreciated that the film is set in India and mostly shot outdoors. Many scenes are set in the daytime, so the screen is saturated with sunlight and all colors of the spectrum. The film also has a vibrant musical score.
As a pastor I would say that the films, together or apart, are a gift to the church. When I read practical theology articles, I see a tendency to limit the role of seniors in the life of the congregation. (The church seems to have followed the culture’s fascination with, if not obsession, with youthfulness.) Worst is when the elderly in a congregation are seen as people who only need to be served or when they are seen as less-than: “We have a lot of gray hair in our congregation.” Better is when they are called on to be mentors because someone has taken the time to listen and discovered that this group has wisdom to share. (I personally have found their collective and individual stories particularly helpful to gain the long view in the spring and summer of 2020). Best of all, and this is what we are reminded of by the Marigold films, is that people ages 70-100 are as diverse as any other demographic in our communities of faith. Many of them are innovative, creative and eager to give their time, skills, and passion to congregations, local communities, and the world. Evelyn and Douglas have joined the Jaipur workforce; the former is more competent than the latter. Murial is co-manager of the hotel. Everyone is exploring new relationships, business and/or personal. These are wonderful individuals living interesting lives who are ready to share the knowledge they have gained over a lifetime. They are also curious about the world around them. And though their new joys, heartaches, adventures have common threads, each character is unique, as are so many members of my congregation. They are absolutely not expendable. They are essential to the life of our congregations.
It has been interesting to watch the indigenous peoples around the American West protect their elders, from the Tulalip north of Seattle, the Navajo in Arizona, the Shoshone and Paiute on the Duck Valley Reservation on the Idaho/Neveda border and so many others. Elder is not a simple adjective but often a formal title. It is one thing to value the elderly in my own life, the people I have relationships. It is quite another thing and quite inspiring to watch an entire people value all the Elders in their community. What is more, they value the elderly not at the expense of other age groups.
Turning to my own tradition and our cannon of scripture, I have been thinking about Anna, the prophet in the beginning of Luke’s Gospel.
Something would be missing without Anna’s presence, her ministry, and her example. She and the priest Zechariah are the bridge, to be sure, between what was and what will be. Anna also exemplify what faithfulness and witnessing look like. Anna, because of or in spite of her old age, also shows what it looks like to continue the ancient in a new context. She continues the ancient practices of fasting and prayer. But with the birth of Immanuel she quickly becomes a witness. The elderly were, are, and will be essential to our communal life of faith and work of ministry.