Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Age Matters

When someone says (or even implies) that I cannot do something (or do it well) because of my age, I get angry. In fact, I become furious--really filled with rage. There's something about hearing someone belittle me, discount me, write me off, because of who I am that sets me off. Not that long ago, parishioners often remarked at how surprised they were that I could be a successful rector despite my youth. With more gray in my beard, I notice that doesn't happen much anymore.

I am a person of remarkable privilege. By that I mean that my gender, race, ethnicity, physical and mental ability, sexuality, education, family of origin, economic status, religious identity, nationality, and career all give me advantages in this world. I didn't choose any of those. They were given to me. They aren't my fault, but whether I acknowledge them and how I use them is up to me. Other people don't have some of the privilege I have. Instead of giving them a "leg up" in the game of life, their identity--and more precisely how the world receives their identity--creates obstacles for them--obstacles that I don't have to climb in order to succeed, to reach my goals, to navigate the world freely and safely.

One common image used to describe privilege is a baseball game. Not everyone in life starts out in the same place. The thought that everyone has equal opportunity for success is a myth created by people like me--people of privilege. In fact, some of us were born on second base. We didn't cheat to get there. It's just where we started the game. The problem with privilege is not acknowledging it. It's like being born on second base and expecting everyone to celebrate the double you didn't hit. In the baseball game image, my long list of substantial privilege makes it more likely that I was born on second base the second time around--i.e., having already scored and then some. A few years ago, I completed a worksheet that helps individuals identity ways in which they are and are not privileged, and I checked zero boxes for lack of privilege. No, my parents were not wildly wealthy. No, I do not have extraordinary athletic ability. But, in all the reasonable, common ways, I am a unequivocally a product of privilege.

The ageism I have experienced has been a passing struggle, and, now that I'm approaching 40, it has gone away completely. In another 25 years, I may begin to encounter another form of age-based discrimination, but, for now, in the prime of my career, it's not an issue. What is an issue is that millions of other people experience that discrimination and other forms of discrimination yet have no way to express it, seek relief from it, or deal with it except to suffer and be filled with rage. Because of my privilege, I've had the luxury of moving on, letting it go, or even speaking out about it because I've known I'm secure in my job, in my relationships, in my place in society. Others can't simply move on and trust that time will fix it. Others can't speak out without risking everything.

This Sunday, Jeremiah responds to God's commission with a statement of his inadequacy: "Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy." Of course, Jeremiah is not to be the one to speak. God will give him words to say: "Do not say, 'I am only a boy'; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you." I don't know the extent to which Jeremiah's critical self-analysis was the product of a culture that devalued the contribution of young people, but I do recognize that same sentiment in my culture for that same reason. And the church, with its focus on tradition, continuity, and ancient expressions of the faith, is as bad at it as any institution.

God tells Jeremiah that he should not discount his youth because God will give him something to say. Not everyone is a Spirit-inspired prophet like Jeremiah, but why would we expect anything less from them? To discount the contributions of someone because of their age, gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, sexuality, etc. is to discount God. It's to say that someone is of less value as a human being, which is to say that someone is less than human. Age and experience are assets. They shape us and teach us. I wouldn't expect a sixteen-year-old to know what it feels like to be a grandparent, but I expect that God could use that sixteen-year-old to teach me something about unconditional love.

This Sunday's Track 1 Old Testament lesson is about more than God surprising a young prophet with a lofty commission. It's about God surprising us with the people God uses to teach us and lead us.

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