Some people think of folks over 50 as past the prime of life and ready to slow down or phase out, but I’ll have to disagree. The prime of life can extend well beyond the day when you start enjoying senior discounts on your movie tickets.
This week I attended the Messianic Leadership Roundtable in Phoenix, along with hundreds of other leaders from all across the Messianic Jewish community. We owe a special thanks to Jonathan Bernis and Jewish Voice Ministries for generously hosting this event, which was first-class in every way. While there I had the opportunity to lead a roundtable discussion for men aged 50+ on the topic, “Extending your Prime.”
One way we extend the prime of life is by maintaining our influence as we get older, instead of withdrawing or becoming isolated. Influence isn’t control or (direct) responsibility, but something even more powerful, and potentially more beneficial to our community.
Rabbi and family therapist Edwin Friedman, in his classic book Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: The Guilford Press, 1985) contrasts what he calls leadership through self-differentiation with both charismatic leadership and consensus leadership. Self-differentiation shouldn’t be confused with selfishness or hyper-individualism. Instead it is “the capacity and willingness of the leader to take nonreactive, clearly conceived, and clearly defined positions.” This alone isn’t enough, though; the key is to accomplish this self-differentiation and at the same time remain connected to your family, congregation or community. It means being motivated by vision and a clear sense of biblical principle and calling, rather than reacting to the needs, demands, competitions of others . . . and staying in touch at the same time.
This union of self-definition and deep connection creates tremendous influence, whether or not we’re official leaders.
Age is more of an asset than a liability in this kind of influence, but it’s not just for older men and women. It’s for all who want to serve others in the name and power of Messiah Yeshua. Our effectiveness doesn’t depend on knowing all the right things, or saying the right words, but on being present with the people around us, especially as they walk through life’s difficult transition points. Rabbi Friedman wrote his book over a quarter-century ago, and noted even then that no one could keep up with the rising flood of information and techniques, which has become a deluge in our day.
No, influence doesn’t depend on know-how or technique (although both, of course, have their place), but on the power of presence; knowing who we are in the Lord and staying connected with our community. This simple presence becomes more powerful as we get older, as our ancestor Jacob exemplifies.
And Joseph brought in Jacob his father, and set him before Pharaoh; and Jacob blessed Pharaoh. And Pharaoh said to Jacob, How old are you?
And Jacob said to Pharaoh, The days of the years of my pilgrimage are a hundred and thirty years; few and evil have the days of the years of my life been, and have not attained to the days of the years of the life of my fathers in the days of their pilgrimage.
And Jacob blessed Pharaoh, and went out from before Pharaoh. (Gen. 47:7-10)
Note what is done here, apart from what is said. Joseph, the one who saved Egypt, sets his father before Pharaoh. He’d already presented his brothers as servants and supplicants (Gen. 47:3-4), but now he honors his father by presenting him alone. Joseph implies that Egypt, personified by Pharaoh, is ultimately indebted to Jacob more than to him. Jacob highlights this reality by blessing Pharaoh, both coming in and going out, and, “It is beyond dispute that the lesser is blessed by the greater” (Heb. 7:7).
Between the two blessings, Jacob makes a statement that is a model of humble transparency—illustrating the power of simple presence with no need for frills and fancy talk. Pharaoh asks Jacob’s age, because longevity was highly prized by the Egyptians, who counted 110 as the ideal life span. Jacob has lived well beyond 110 years, elevating him above Pharaoh, but he shifts the focus to his fathers’ life spans, thus honoring them above himself (and also, perhaps, diverting Pharaoh’s envy). The power of presence doesn’t depend on self-assertion or flashy branding. Pharaoh wields the power and glory of Egypt, but our fathers, by their simple presence as recipients of abundant life from Hashem, display a greater glory. Although his days have been “few and evil,” Jacob is still able to speak blessing because he has lived out those days with God, because through it all he has remained the heir of the patriarchs and the father of Joseph.
The power of presence isn’t diminished by transparency or enhanced by boasting, and it doesn’t derive from information or technique. Rather, it derives from our connection to God and grows through a lifetime of walking with him, even a lifetime as filled with struggle as Jacob’s, which nonetheless culminated in blessing.