English is a funny language. Someone once said that English does not borrow from other languages. It follows them down dark valley, beats them up and goes through their pockets for vocabulary and grammar.
In Greek, the leaders of a church are called presbēteroy (singular presbēterōs) and epēskōpoy (singular epēskōpōs). The latter word literally means “to see over” and eventually came into English as episcopal. The former word however means “the old men.”
The English words old and elder come from the same root eald. Since English has no method of uniform spelling, they split sometime before the Norman Conquest (1066) and have developed slightly different meanings over the past thousand years. Old is usually used generically, indicating determinative age. Elder tends to indicate a relative age, as in “the elder brother.” It also implies a sort of authority that is absent from the way we understand old.
(English did something similar to the words zealous and jealous, which are actually the same word but spelled differently. Over time, they have been given separate meanings. Other examples include ancient and antique, villain and village, and half a dozen other pairs.)
Why bring that little linguistic tidbit up?
As I was getting ready for our worship gathering this morning, I was reflecting on the nature of elders. In our congregation, we have several men who are elders by biblical qualification. While I am the vocational elder, we all share the role of leadership and care for the congregation. Right now, three of these men serve in the leadership community, but there are a number of others we seek out for guidance and wisdom. Each of them is wonderful in a unique way and an encouragement to everyone they know. Whether they are our current elders Bob, Greg and Tom or men who served as elders in the past like Doc, Lyn, Sean, Donald, or Ray – each of these men have enriched the life of our congregation in ways I don’t think they are even aware of right now.
On a personal level – beyond the congregational thing, I have tried to surround myself with another set of “old men” to whom I attempt to listen intently. Often I will be found having an animated discussion with one of them, trying to sort through what they are saying. They come from all walks of life, but each of them gives significant input into my life and most importantly, have remained faithful even in disagreement and disappointment.
Here are just a couple of the old men I listen to:
There is, of course, my dad. He and I don’t see eye to eye on a lot of things, and more than once I have gotten the ominous message, “So I read your post on ______.” There has never been someone else in my life who I hold in higher regard and he is the only person allowed to refer to me as “my sherpa.” (Long story involving a trip to the Northwest for my grandfather’s wedding. Ask me again sometime.) We have disagreed on a great many things over the years, but through all of that, he has said his piece and moved on. I don’t know whether he even thinks I’m listening, but I am and I process what he has to say for days and sometimes weeks after. To him, I am forever indebted for the basic tools to interpret and teach the Scriptures. He excites within me a desire to know, to learn and grow.
Then there is Leo, who is like my second father. A sometimes rough and tumble French Canadian with a heart of gold and a love for the Lord that amazes me, I see Leo as my musical mentor. He is a perfectionist – “a little OCD” as he would put it. But Leo and his wife Deb are faithful to the core – faithful to one another and faithful to the ministry God has placed them in. Leo teaches me every time we’re together – about passion for excellence, about temperance, about faith.
One of the newest in my life is Steve, who grew up on the mission field and then came home for college, married a beautiful woman named Sheryl, raised three sons, and along the way served for more than twenty years as an elder in a congregation. Steve speaks directly into my life, and I’ve given him permission to do it. He cuts to the quick and isn’t afraid of hurt feelings, especially if the Scriptures are part of the discussion. He brings balance and grounding to a guy who might otherwise get lost in the minutiae.
There are others of course, but you can only listen to so many voices at once and I have made a conscious decision to limit the number of men I allow to speak into my life. Among them, these three speak volumes – and never the same way. Leo would never say something my dad would say, and Steve would come to an issue with a different perspective than Leo.
When I am with these three men, I am not with my peers. I am with the “old men” of my life. There is something deep within me that needs to be around men who are more experienced, who are different from me who will awaken sleeping passions and change twisted thinking. That’s what these three do for me.
They don’t gather as a counsel. I don’t meet with any of them formally. But I draw tremendous strength from my conversations with all of them.
Who are the “old men” in your life? Or are you too good at what you do to listen to the old men? Do you want everything to be new and cool, and so the old doesn’t work for you?
If so, I feel sorry for you. If the only people you listen to are your peers, you are depriving yourself of a wealth and beauty that cannot be matched. And most likely, you’re going to wind up making mistakes that could have been avoided if you had a couple of men with grey hair hanging around and giving you what for.
And to all the “old men” in my life, thank you. I’ve thanked each of you personally time and again, but whether you are one of our congregational elders or my personal “old men”, what you do is absolutely essential. I know the young can be endlessly frustrating, and often our method of listening is not the same as you’re used to; but thanks anyway.