There is one “-ism” that seems to receive less attention than the others: ageism.
In her book Another Country: Navigating the Emotional Terrain of Our Elders, Mary Pipher suggests a connection between ageism and xenophobia, writing: “In America, we are xenophobic toward our old people.” This is true, even though this prejudice is also toward our own future selves.
Ageism exists in the church as well, even though, on the average, the elderly offer churches more loyalty, enthusiasm, financial support and (when asked) leadership than younger generations.
I addressed this issue and urged religious leaders to tap this elder resource when I wrote Celebrating the Graying Church: Mutual Ministries Today, Legacies Tomorrow (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020). However, there is one window through this wall of ageism: grandparenting.
To quote Pipher once more, “For the most part, grandparents are not about power, fame, money, or sex, but rather about love – perhaps the purest and least exploitable love – that humans can feel for one another.”
Children and youth who may ignore other old people still treasure, enjoy and listen to their own grandparents, and they may be profoundly influenced by them. Grandparents who may feel excluded by much of the rest of society, offer lavish love to their grandchildren and are loved by them in return.
Years ago, when my first grandchild was born, I was overwhelmed with ecstasy, awe and love. I was launched on a new journey, identity and calling. Grandparent became an important part of how I viewed myself from that day on. There has been the birth of five other grandchildren and four great grandchildren. In those 38 years, that perspective has grown.
I have come to understand that the birth (or other arrival) of a grandchild provides a calling, a vocation for the afternoon and evening of life. This leads to responsibilities and to concerns and actions. These are not only for my own grandchildren, but also for other people’s as well.
Further, this expands to caring for the creation and the climate in which future generations will live. I must admit, I cared more for the future of the world after my grandchildren were born!
This calling may lead grandparents to volunteer in various ways on behalf of their own and others’ grandchildren. For some, it may lead to parenting responsibilities, part time or full time, for children who might otherwise be lost in the welfare system.
The grandparent vocation may occasion mutual conversations about religion, faith, life’s purposes, and surviving and thriving in the world. It may also lead to shared social action and to community service.
We elders are moved to consider what sorts of legacies – tangible and intangible – we want to leave our grandchildren. Further, we may discover that being a grandparent leads to spiritual growth and joy for us.
Of course, there is also fun, laughter, surprises and celebrations. We grow closer together through the play and giggles. This prepares us to be there for each other when deeper needs and issues arise.
For the last few years, I have been researching these many dimensions of grandparenthood. I have continued to reflect on my experience, interviewed dozens of grandparents and read widely.
This culminated in the publication of a book that provides reflection on this journey. The Grandparent Vocation: Wisdom, Legacies, and Spiritual Growth was released by Rowman & Littlefield in mid-October.
There is a one sentence grandparent story in the Bible that I want to mention in closing. Second Timothy 1:5 says, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you.”
There is nothing more known about Lois – absolutely nothing. I don’t know about you, but if there were to be a one sentence story about my life, and if it were this sentence, that would be enough.
Following 40 years in parish ministry, he taught for 18 years at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas where he retired in 2016 as distinguished professor of pastoral theology. Olson is the author or co-author of 21 books, including The Grandparent Vocation: Wisdom, Legacies, and Spiritual Growth.