The older woman" is the target of a twin cultural broadside: the stereotyped battle-ax of a whole industry of mother-in-law greeting cards, and the taboo seductress. Mammy Yokum of L'il Abner or Mrs. Robinson of The Graduate.
The Bible takes a different view. Older women are to "train the young women" (Titus 2:4). There is an expectation of progress in the Christian life, not just a treading of water till Christ returns: "And we . . . beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another" (2 Corinthians 3:18). "Grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord" (2 Peter 3:18).
Someday, in spite of all your tummy tucks, liposuction, organic food offensives, and fitness workouts, someone will walk up to you and say, as a woman said to me last Sunday: "Would you be willing to mentor me?" And then you will realize that the jig is up: You are officially an "older woman." When that happens, I hope you will have better things to say than the stuttering disclaimers I use to recuse myself. You will not want to be one of those "fruitless trees in late autumn" (Jude 12).
For in that late autumn, you are meant to bloom still. The orchard of God wants ancient sequoias whose "leaves remain green, and [are] not anxious in the year of the drought, for [they do] not cease to bear fruit" (Jeremiah 17:8; Psalm 92:14). Where is the permission to dye your hair blue and grab a free senior-citizen bus pass to the Showboat Casino in Atlantic City?
Jesus came upon a tree that, from a distance, had great promise, its tussled head of greenery bespeaking nourishment. On closer view, it had no figs. "And He said to it, 'May no one ever eat fruit from you again'" (Mark 11:12-14). The vineyard owner came and found no grapes three years straight, and in exasperation said to the vinedresser: "Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?" (Luke 13:7). These tales are no more about trees than "you shall not muzzle an ox" (1 Corinthians 9:9) is about oxen.
There is something jarring about a hoary pate where no wisdom is found. "Like a gold ring in a pig's snout" (Proverbs 11:22), like a fool living in luxury, or a slave ruling over princes (Proverbs 19:10), it is disturbingly unnatural, an upset of the created order. During my college-day summers I worked in a nursing home, and it was a great disappointment-like coming to an oasis and finding it a mirage.
In a land where the sons of Ponce de Leon still seek the fountain of eternal adolescence, where pearls are marked down for quick sale while baubles are inflated, who will embrace the last of the great rolling spheres, where Anna's prayers saw no surcease, and Jacob worshipped over his staff?
A child asks in Children's Letters to God, "Dear God, Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones why don't you just keep the ones you got now? Jane." I venture an answer to Jane: God's big idea in constituting the world with babies, teens, middle-agers, and seniors is that as we navigate the different rings, we glorify God in the manner fitting to that peculiar stage: "The glory of young men is their strength, but the splendor of old men is their gray hair" (Proverbs 20:29).
The plan is that as the woman's first beauty wanes, a ripening comes that is the second beauty. It is by this that men may still love their wives, even as the bridal dowry of physical allure is exchanged, over time, for the better dowry of an inner glow.
Twentysomethings, you are headed my way. The message of Proverbs is that destinations are reached one step at a time. Maturity does not come stapled to your AARP membership. Some day, only turn around, and suddenly a younger woman will tap you on the shoulder and say, "Will you mentor me?" Be ready. You will not want to wonder if the husbandman would say about you, "Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?"