It all happened so quickly.
The elderly congressman of Massachusetts, two years removed from a debilitating stroke that left him partially paralyzed, rose slowly to his feet to answer a question from the Speaker. Crowded inside the United States Capitol’s House chamber, the representative suddenly convulsed and then stumbled, eliciting a loud gasp from those gathered. The octogenarian then fell back into the arms of his colleague, Ohio Rep. David Fisher. A reporter who was there that day wrote, “His face [was] covered with a deathlike pallor, [and] water streamed from his eyes and nose.”
Another unfortunate incident in a recent string of health emergencies related to aging Washington leadership?
It was on February 21, 1848, that John Quincy Adams, 80, suffered a major and ultimately fatal stroke on the House floor. As you’ll remember from your history classes, the former president happily served in the House of Representatives for nearly 17 years after he lost his bid for reelection as president in 1829.
At the time, the life expectancy of a male in the United States hovered just above 38 years of age. When Rep. Adams returned to the House following his first stroke in 1846, fellow members stood and cheered. That the former president was still alive at all at 78, let alone actively serving in elected office with a disability, was something of an absolute marvel.
Debates over age and work are nothing new, of course, though as the average life expectancy has soared, so has the number of people working in all kinds of professions, even deep into their 70s, 80s, and even 90s.
Both Republicans and Democrats have high-ranking representatives in their ranks in their 70s and 80s. Two members of the Senate are one year shy of 90. And who can forget Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who served until he was 100.
Charges of a “Gerontocracy” overtaking Washington are increasing these days, and such a debate begs the question: Are men and women ever too old for public service?
The Bible may not be overly helpful in answering this specific question since many of the Old Testament patriarchs were reported to be hundreds of years old. We know that Moses was 120, and we’re told that even at that age “His eye was undimmed, and his vigor unabated” (Deut. 34:7).
This clearly isn’t the case for many serving in Washington. But while the Bible may not provide guidance relevant to specific ages and service, it does provide perspective on aging with grace and wisdom.
We read in Proverbs that “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life” (16:31). Job said, “Wisdom belongs to the aged, and understanding to the old” (12:12). The Psalmist seems to echo the lament of those who may feel ignored and irrelevant: “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; forsake me not when my strength is spent” (71:9).
But how to reconcile wisdom and age with elderly representatives who are committed to legalizing abortion, trampling on religious freedom, and upending and ignoring God’s design for human sexuality? Scripture is not suggesting that advancing age automatically makes one wise, but rather a person whose heart is open to God’s Word will benefit from the added years of soaking in His teaching.
There’s no question the Lord uses people of all ages and in all stages of life to accomplish His purposes. Whether young or old, it seems we be should be first seeking the Lord’s direction, and examining our motivation for serving at all. If a representative is serving or holding on because they’re addicted to power and prestige, even one day in elected office is too many.
It should also go without saying that mental competency for public service is critically important. The American people deserve and should demand leaders who are of sound mind.
This discussion also brings to mind a beautiful metaphor that a longtime friend of mine has held for many years. As he tells the story, he found himself at an amusement park one day with his children, waiting in line to ride the Ferris wheel. The air was warm and soft, the music was playing, the lights were blinking, and the squeals of delight were echoing out from the patrons as they made their way up and around.
My friend said it struck him that the only way for someone to get on the ride was for someone else to get off. Isn’t that a bit like leadership and life, he mused. If we want to develop a new generation of leaders, there comes a time when previous leadership must unbuckle and step off. They enjoyed their ride – now it’s time for someone else to assume their seat.
Voters sometimes serve as Ferris wheel operators who order riders on and off, but the safety of some seats often demand that certain politicians step off on their own volition, too.
As Rep. Adams’ fellow members carried him off the House floor and to the Speaker’s office, where he would die two days later, reporters followed closely behind, recording what would come to be the former president’s last words.
“This is the last of earth,” he mumbled. “But I am composed.”
“Old Man Eloquent,” as he was nicknamed, was articulate to the end, just maybe not as composed as his office demands.
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