One of the great joys and privileges of my life have been elderly folks who I can call friends and mentors and kin. These are the sorts of people who I have turned to for insight and perspective and to express my own frustrations knowing that they have probably, in the course of their life, experienced some taste of the same disappointment and seen the other side of it. These are also people who have blessed my life simply by who they have become to me personally.
Given the news regarding COVID-19, I have been anxious. Not so much for myself, but for folks who are at high-risk for such a virus, for older friends, family, and mentors of mine, spiritual mothers and fathers of mine that I know and love.
Frankly, the thought of losing them has filled me with fear.
Before college, I did not have many friends of an older generation than my own, and it wasn’t until I became an active member of a local church during my Junior year of college that these sorts of relationships started developing in my life. I can think specifically of my former pastors, members of small groups, elderly women who have hugged and encouraged me on Sunday mornings, and elderly men who have consistently prayed for me and welcomed me into their homes for lunch. These are folks I got to know regularly, and I owe it to the church for helping me see what life can look like relating to other people outside my own age range.
There seems to me to be a great dearth of opportunity for intergenerational friendships and communities in our culture. I can’t give you a reason for why (perhaps there are a multitude of reasons), but what I can tell you is that without these relationships, I would not be as worried as I am right now. And I consider that worry an appropriate response simply because I see within it a compassion that has not always been there. It is the sort of compassion that has been birthed through relationship and partaking of the means of grace together. It’s a gift provided to me by the church and a gift that I hope many more might come to know and receive.
A recent piece in The Atlantic, titled “The Staggering, Heartless Cruelty Toward the Elderly” argues that crises (like COVID-19 specifically) often “elicit compassion, but they can also evoke callousness” resulting in the “dehumanization” of the elderly. The author mentions that in this rhetoric, the elderly are robbed of “a distinctive face and voice, each with hopes and dreams, memories and regrets, friendships and marriages, loves lost and loves sustained” providing examples of real life exchanges of such degradation. The elderly have worth, as the author mentioned, not because of what they can offer economically but simply because they are “created in the image of God”—each distinct and each worthy of our time, love, and deep respect.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the relatively young Timothy saying, “Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father. Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters…” (1 Tim 5:1-2). John Calvin commented on this point of compassionate exhortation mentioning “It is impossible not to be moved with reverence, when we place before our eyes our father or our mother.” I don’t believe this is a simple rhetorical device that Paul is using given (among other broader theological themes) the parental (Rom 16:13), fraternal, and filial relationships he had including Timothy at the start of his letter who he refers to as his “own child in the faith” (1:2). In this family, there are certain blind-spots that we need addressed in both directions for our own edification, and I believe one reason for this lack of compassion (as evidenced in the aforementioned article) is due to a lack of intergenerational communities to place us in conversation and proximity with people unlike ourselves—to see that these are specific people with specific stories just like our own flesh and blood parents.
Unlikely friendships are opportunities for empathy, and by its nature, the church is highly conducive for such unlikely friendships. I firmly believe the church is a place where Millennial “snow-flakes” and Baby-“OK-Boomer”s can live together in mutual encouragement of one another given their union in Christ and adoption into the family of God. Of course families bicker and argue, but that does not make us any less family. Alan Jacob’s wrote yesterday that “If you don’t care what happens to people, then you are unlikely to seek out more knowledge of their condition; and the less you know about their condition, the less you will feel called to compassion for that condition.” I believe friendship can produce both. Because as we come to know each other’s lives, often we come to know compassion for one another as well. And as we come to grow in compassion, perhaps we may come to know their condition more.
Where our society is often lacking in providing venues for intergenerational friendships (and thus empathy), the church is uniquely capable for helping produce such relationships and compassion. And now is a good time for us to demonstrate this compassion by taking seriously the reality of this virus’s effects and the folks that are at serious risk, as the Apostle Paul also said, “Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone—especially to those in the family of faith” (Gal 6:10).
I am no expert on this virus, but I trust much wiser folks like Andy Crouch on this. And I would urge you to read this piece “Love in the Time of Coronavirus” for more, especially pertaining to this: “The reason to alter our practices, especially the way we gather (see below), is not self-protection. For one thing, in the case of this particular virus, if individuals are young and healthy, infection may pose not much more threat than the ordinary seasonal flu. The change is needed because our vulnerable neighbors — those of any age with compromised immune systems, and those over 70 years old — are at grave risk. One of the basic axioms of the Christian life is that the “strong” must consider the “weak” (see Rom. 15). We are making these choices not to minimize our own risk, but to protect others from risk.”
Stay safe friends.
 Calvin, J., & Pringle, W. (2010). Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon (p. 119). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.