During the month of April 2021, a blog to which I sometimes contribute (theperennialgen.com) hosted a series of essays on the topic of “relevance.” The underlying context was “relevance” from the point of view of and in the experience of “women of a certain age.” I found myself walking right up to the topic multiple times, and backing away on every occasion. It wasn’t just the busy-ness of a semester’s “crunch time” that kept me from writing; there was a thick inertia every time the topic came onto my radar. As I’m writing this, it is May 1, and the PerennGen folks are ready to move on to the next topic, but I decided it was time to examine my reluctance to engage with this month’s theme. In the process of that analysis, I discovered two distinct motives underlying my hesitation over the topic of relevance.
The first and most easily identifiable is grief. I have been filled with the nagging dread that, at this stage of life’s journey, relevance is a lost possibility, a thing, like so many other aspects of youth and mid-life, to be grieved but never retrieved. A couple experiences in the past week were painfully revelatory. A few days ago, during a visit to the zoo on a chilly day, I was bundled inside my bright purple hoodie, which has these words printed on the back: “Read the Syllabus!!” (That’s a whole other topic to pursue!) Twice within the space of an hour, two random strangers, both zoo volunteers and both older than I by at least a decade, asked me the same question after reading the words on the hoodie: “Did you use to be a teacher?” The obvious assumption: this white-haired woman (never mind the purple streak in her coif!) was too old to be teaching now. On this same vacation, we’ve been in various coffee shops in a couple different college towns and it is depressingly obvious that the ever-younger baristas look pityingly and with limited tolerance upon the “oldsters” who don’t order at warp speed or pay with their mobile devices!
I am enjoying many things about this stage of life and I have no desire to be one of those old poseurs, attempting with excruciating awkwardness to dress, speak, and act as if I were still thirty-something (or even forty-something). But in all honesty, these little moments of “age-ism” make relevance seem like an elusive and perhaps illusory target, and that seems like a loss to be grieved.
However, alongside this grief lies a different, deeper source of discomfort with the topic of relevance. Call it a theological or philosophical concern, but I wonder: when I ask if relevance is still possible at this stage of the game, am I asking the wrong question? (I intentionally express this in the first person singular, because it is my own personal musing, not a generalized reflection on any of my fellow travelers who wrote so beautifully on the topic last month.) I was hearing the question, “can I still be relevant at 59?”, as a very self-focused question. “Relevance” seemed to be code for feeling good about my supposed capacity to continue “connecting” with young people and within the confines of the current culture. Don’t get me wrong—as a missionary, I understand contextualization as an essential element of effective communication, but that is not synonymous with the conversation about relevance, at least in my perception. What if I were to refocus the question as something more kingdom-centered? What if ponderings on “relevance” gave way to serious engagement with my raison d’être at this stage of life? The capacity to live a “purpose-driven life” does not disappear when we leave mid-life behind, so staying prayerfully and intentionally in touch with that purpose should continue to shape my choices. My sense of personal purpose has always been best synthesized by Paul’s words to Timothy: “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others” (2 Tim. 2:2, NIV). Will I learn new ways to do this effectively? I hope so! I don’t want to drop the ball on effective, obedient disciple-making and teaching, because I am fully convinced that God did not drop his call on my life when I hit the big 5-0, nor will he do so when the looming 6-0 rolls around next year!
Relevant? I have no idea if that is possible, nor whether it is even a worthy goal to pursue. A gospel-shaped, kingdom-building raison d’être? That is a purpose fully worthy of pursuit, and fruitfulness will far outweigh any incidental (or accidental) relevance that occurs along the way.