Titled The Ambassadors, the large oil on oak in London’s national gallery features two wealthy, educated young men dressed in period robes and furs, leaning on a table bedecked with globes, quadrant, sundial and other instruments linking them to the theme of exploration. As my wife, sons and I stared, an older man suggested we stand to the far right of the picture and look at it again. Viewed from this acute perspective, a curious milky shape at the bottom centre of the painting morphed into a skull. Experts disagree over what this visual puzzle, an invention of the early Renaissance, symbolises. Many think it was designed to remind the observer of their mortality, while some argue it was included to demonstrate Holbein’s special ability to help promote his paintings and attract new and expensive commissions.
We thanked the old gentleman for bringing it to our attention and carried on discussing the painting over a drink at the gallery café. Without his intervention we would have missed something very special. It is not the first time I have been fooled into thinking that my perspective is the best or the only one there is. Moving a few steps to one side in the gallery was easy. It is much more difficult to trust another view when it means critiquing my theology, my lifestyle or my ideas.
Every generation thinks it has a unique advantage and perspective on wisdom. And with that comes the tendency to dismiss the views of other generations – the very young for example, or the very old.
The elderly in our society are typically herded into seaside resorts or sheltered accommodation, rather than living in multigenerational households. Thus younger generations miss out on the advantages that 70-plus years of life experience can bring, while older people miss the energising impact of living with the young.
Notable among the old and wise in the Christian community is John Stott. Many of us have been nourished and challenged by his preaching, writing and practical theology over the years. Happily, unlike some others from his generation, Stott’s contribution to the worldwide community of faith has been acknowledged by many, both within and outside the Church. This recognition includes Time magazine, which in 2005 included him in a list of the 100 most influential people in the world. Being placed alongside Nelson Mandela and Condoleezza Rice apparently bemused this humble man, but it underlined just how influential this Anglican clergyman is.
Now in his twilight years and increasingly frail, having preached for the last time, he recently completed what he has declared will be his last book. He chose to write on what being a radical disciple of Jesus looks like.
While his body may be fading away, his writing retains a muscular strength. I’m delighted that this month, Christianity magazine is the only periodical to be granted an extract from this precious book ahead of its publication in mid-January. John writes with personal candour about a range of topics but mostly notably on the frailty of age, the restrictions on independence this brings, and the lessons about discipleship that come with having to be dependent on others.
His call to embrace ‘being a burden on each other’ is a truly counter cultural and unique perspective, not just because of who he is but also because of where he is in his life.
Thank God for him, but also for the many hundreds of thousands of our parents and grandparents who are entering their twilight years. As we enter a new decade they have much to teach us, as long as we let them.