Old Wineskins

The other day I fell off my bike — landing gently in soft grass, thank God. The earth’s bump hiding in the grass kissed my head, causing a bump of my own. It was a humbling reminder of a slowly aging body — less flexible with a diminishing aptitude for quick reaction and good balance. The physical changes are ever so subtle yet ever so poignant. And I began to wonder if sometimes an aging body parallels an aging mind, less flexible and struggling to integrate new realities around us.

As if the good Lord overheard my grumbling over the fall, not soon after the Gospel in my morning prayer time was Luke 5:36–39 in which Jesus tells this parable: “No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins.”

Without giving in to defeatism, I began to wonder. I know plenty of inspiring and robust elders who possess an puzzling amount of physical energy, a healthy constitution, and a quick wit to boot. These old wineskins have no trouble storing , and even generating, new wine. On the other hand, I know elders who diminish sooner than their chronological age would suggest, becoming old wineskins before their time without much capacity to accommodate the new wine of change and transformation. But often such diminishment is beyond our control.

Many cultures, including our Indigenous people, convey great respect towards their elders. Drawing from a lifetime of living, learning hard lessons through trials and challenges, elders are considered a source of wisdom and advice, tradition and knowledge. In some cultures, grandparents live with their children’s families, contributing to the household as they are able. All this assumes of course that the old have lived a virtuous life that is worth emulating. This also assumes that grandparents are in reasonable health, remain of sound mind, and have learnt to love generously without being possessive or authoritarian. In other words, old wineskins need to maintain a certain “souplesse” and grace. But if the physical and mental faculties of elders no longer function in healthy ways, trouble can arise when families insist on maintaining ancient traditions of inter-generational care, however noble this may be. Then the old wineskins of tradition or rigidity can burst, causing heartache and desolation.

While all cultures include many dutiful and loving children who will do almost anything to help their parents and other seniors, growing old in western cultures sometimes does not come with this type of respect and honour, quite the contrary. An article published last year claims that people who associate old age with uselessness or senility are more likely to develop dementia than people who associate it with positive attributes, such as wisdom and respect.

So where do I find myself? The line between senility and wisdom seems thin some days. I feel like an old wineskin unable to contain new wine when I struggle to grasp new concepts and realities, the kind that the young embrace without much effort. I admire the idealism and passion of youth — hey, I was there once –, but worry about its occasional naivete and arrogance (I was there too!). I feel there’s still some good wisdom wine in my wineskin, seasoned through years of living and laughing and suffering. I crave quality time with my children and their loved ones, but cringe at the thought of permanently moving in with any of them. Sometimes I wonder whether my wisdom wine is still relevant and meaningful and wanted in a world where elders are parked in nursing homes and often dismissed, judged or belittled for their clinging to deeply cherished values and beliefs. And yet, when walking closely with others in their seasons of pain and transition, the seasoned, sacred wine of compassion, caring and understanding flows richly from my heart. So old age does not automatically equal old and cracked wineskins. There is still much wine left in my heart, seasoned in six decades of life lessons, eager to be poured out for another’s healing and consolation, guidance and admonishment.

But I’ll be honest; I worry. I worry about so much tradition, wisdom and history being ignored or outright considered useless by the new generation. The young possess an enviable zeal and passion for what is noble and right and just — I remember the season well. But sometimes the young also suffer a certain over-confidence in their own right, thus risking to dismiss the wisdom of age — been there, done that, the shoe’s on the other foot now. The world’s enthusiasm for all things new can come with a loss of honour and respect for elders, in both secular and religious spheres. God may be doing a new thing in the young (Isaiah 43:19), but to then make an absolute claim “out with the old, in with the new” is a stretch too far, me thinks.

I derive a deep sense of belonging by being part of God’s story throughout time and space. The most meaningful and life-giving story is Jesus Christ. I feel part of the universe through Christ, I look to him as a pattern for how to live each day, how to engage relationships in love and mercy, and I seek Christ in times of uncertainty and struggle. I also need the fellowship of the church, the family of faith, to help and guide me on this path of discipleship and mission.

But this kind of deep connection to faith, spirituality and community seems to become a rarity, and that concerns me. How and where will future generations anchor their existence in a source beyond themselves? For sure, new wine belongs in new wineskins, but please, beloved young ones, be gentle and slow in discarding any old wineskin. God might be doing a new thing through you, but God also graced this brave new world with elders to love, to cherish and to learn from. And who knows, some of these elders might still contain some seasoned wine of wisdom and affection you might need along the way, even from those who are not as steady on two wheels anymore as they used to be.

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