A rather beautiful Muslim lady sat nearby. She smiled up at me, and then stood, uttering a sentence that froze my soul. ‘Please, sir, do please sit down. Have my seat.’ What? I checked behind me to make sure that she was not being charitable to a slight, bandy-legged 97-year-old who must surely be lurking close by. But she was speaking to me. In a millisecond, the horror of the moment broke over me. Apparently I have become the frail geezer that younger people might offer a seat to. I stammered my thanks, but added a polite refusal. Not only was I perfectly able to stand, but this was a woman offering her seat to me, a man. I’m not ancient, but I am old enough to remember a time when decent chaps offered their train seats to ladies, although I’m never sure if that’s culturally kosher these days. In our enlightened era, if a gentleman tries to be gentlemanly, he may risk being slapped around the head with a copy of a large book by Germaine Greer.
Having muttered ‘thanks but no thanks’, I discovered the lady was determined in her politeness. ‘No, please. I insist, have my seat.’ And with that she moved away, down the carriage. Further refusal would be churlish. I sat down, feeling 20 years older. Looking across the carriage at my own reflection in the window, I realised that an aging man was staring back at me. I used to have a lot of hair. Now grey has driven the brown away, and what’s left of my hair forms a token, stranded peninsula. ‘It’s jet lag,’ I told myself. ‘That’s why I look older today.’ But my last flight had been more than a week earlier, so that explanation wouldn’t fly, literally. I wondered if her faith had anything to do with her offer. Was there something in the Koran about giving up a seat on a train for strangers?
In the end, I decided to just be grateful. A big city like London can be an emotional wasteland, where thoughtfulness and kindness are as scarce as oxygen on the moon. Her gracious action was lovely – and thought-provoking. And as I sat there musing, I realised that fighting aging is useless. It’s where all of us are headed, if we’re spared to live long enough to see that season. So why not celebrate it, rather than dread it? As Christians, we hold a Bible that honours the elderly, and never dismisses them. Yet ageism still rears its ugly head in the Church. My flesh crawls as I remember making disparaging remarks about one church during a sermon, insisting that there were only ‘three old ladies and a dead cat’ in the congregation. Stunningly, it didn’t occur to me that lining up elderly females with a deceased feline was hardly respectful, and obviously hurtful.
So I made a decision, one I’ll surely have to reaffirm again and again: getting older is something I’ll try to embrace, not fight. I’ll neither hanker for the past, nor dread the future, but endeavour to live fully in the now. We who follow Jesus live in the paradox of being a people committed to live one day at a time, yet with an eternity that has no horizon stretching before us. Unwittingly, the polite lady had given me more than a seat for five minutes – she had nudged me towards a helpful shift in attitude. And it was then that I glanced across at my own reflection in the window again. That same aging chap stared back at me still.
But now, he was smiling.
Jeff Lucas is teaching pastor at Timberline Church, Colorado. He is an international speaker, author and broadcaster
Follow Jeff @jeffreylucas