A few years ago I read a book I truly enjoyed by a twenty-something author, a woman and a follower of Jesus. I liked it so much, in fact, that I gulped it down in two days. The writing was smart, engaging, and full of interesting stories and insights about her life and times. When I got to the end and closed the book, I thought, “That was good, really good, but wait until she gets some more years under her belt.” As the years add up, this woman will deepen and strengthen in her ties to God and people. She’ll have a lot to say and she’ll say it well. People will gain from her gifts and her willingness to share life honestly in her writing. She’ll be a mentor to many.
We all need inspiration. We need to see or read about people living the Jesus way. Books are one important way to receive someone’s insight and experience, and some of our most significant mentors are authors or historical figures we’ve never met. But we all desire the ongoing conversation of real relationships. We need to talk with people who’ve lived for a while and grappled with a range of topics and life passages.
Though mentoring is not a biblical word, it is a way of life modeled in the Bible. Jesus mentored the Twelve, Barnabus mentored Paul, Paul mentored Timothy, older women mentor younger women, and so on. In essence, mentoring is showing and telling, a lifestyle of receiving God’s gifts, learning to know, love, and live what is good, and passing on that knowledge to others. According to Paul D. Stanley and J. Robert Clinton in their book Connecting, the God-given resources we have to share with others include “wisdom, experiences, patterns, habits of obedience, and principles.” Through freely giving of these things, those who are more mature in the faith in age and/or experience become links in the covenant community, guarding the Word of God and passing down theology that’s connected to everyday life. Sometimes mentoring is intentional but often it’s happening whether we’re aware of it or not. The cares and commitments that shape our lives are evident. Since we know more than we can tell, and have ways of being and doing that can only be observed or copied, our lives are telling a story all the time.
Becoming “The Older Woman”
As I move into the decades of becoming an older woman, I’m paying increasing attention to the topic of mentoring. I know from experience that younger women have a hunger to hear from those who’ve walked the path a little ahead of them. For many years now, younger women have been coming to me in a slow trickle and asking me to mentor them. I’m always somewhat stumped by the question and have rarely felt qualified for the task. I don’t have any sort of mentoring program to follow, no methods and no curriculum. What I find is that most women don’t want something formal anyway. What they’re looking for is more organic—someone to share life with them and have conversations about things that matter, things that develop in importance as life is lived. The older I get, the more I realize the treasure of these relationships and consider them one of the great privileges and responsibilities of becoming an older woman.
Perhaps this begs the question for you as it did for a friend of mine who wonders, who is the “older woman” anyway? In a day when 50 is the new 40—what does older mean? I was born in the 1950s and belong to the Baby Boomer set. For women around my age, it’s a confusing time to be growing older. The message comes to us continually that we can slow the aging of our bodies with skin products, hair dyes, cosmetic surgeries, and the like. We’re encouraged to believe that if we give enough money and attention to the project, we can stay the same age for years, at least on the outside. But it’s an empty promise.
Eventually we have to come to terms with the fact that we can’t push back the clock. Time keeps moving on and taking us with it. Since this is our reality, we need a true perspective of aging that takes into account the fact that our bodies are wearing down, but breathes hope into the midst of it. As in all things, we need God’s thoughts in order to clear our heads. The Bible gives a much more compelling view of what it means to accumulate years. When I read in Job, “Is not wisdom found among the aged? Does not long life bring understanding?” (Job 12:12), I am more confident, not less, about what I have to offer as the years add up.
Passing Down Wisdom
For women in particular, the Scriptures attach value to our life experience.
By looking at two New Testament passages which focus on aging women, we know that it’s God’s will for women to have a history of doing good—to our families and beyond—and to pass on our gathered expertise and wisdom to younger generations (Titus 2:3-5 and 1 Timothy 5:9 -10). These Scriptures speak to women who’ve married and raised children, but they also speak to women whose lives haven’t included those relationships. Devoting ourselves to all kinds of good deeds in response to the call of Jesus is the mark of a disciple. Washing the feet of the saints, showing hospitality, and helping those in trouble is a kingdom life, one that simultaneously transcends and permeates all vocational paths.
However, for those who have married, raised children, and done the work of homemaking, there are specific instructions to pass on knowledge and wisdom gained from years of experience. Why? Because these are hard, demanding roles, and all along the way there are questions: What does it look like to love a particular man for the long haul? Are there stories of God’s grace coming into the most devastating passages of marriage and raising cold, dead, broken hearts to life? How do we care for the ongoing needs of our children—needs that are never ending and many times overwhelming? And what does it mean to create a home that enables a family to move out into the world with deep resources to draw upon?
We usually come to these places in life without a clue for what the years ahead will require. Caregiving can remain a mystery until we’re faced with the real needs of our own families and have to step up to the plate and get to work. When young couples marry, they give a great deal of thought and planning to their paid careers, but they are often shocked at the intricacies of bringing care and nurture to a home and family. We learn as we go that the creation of a home and the building of a family won’t happen magically. It’s an intentional labor, a long obedience in the same direction requiring our best thought and action. A woman who has been there can give this needed perspective, along with practical helps and inspiring ideas.
As a young mother I had two important mentors. One was the pastor’s wife of the first church I attended as a new Christian. On a series of Saturday mornings, she invited women to sit in her living room and discuss things like sex, marriage, motherhood, and household management. She passed on practical helps in all these areas. She wasn’t that much older than I was, but she was ahead of me in the faith and in taking seriously the work of family. She had philosophies and systems in place that I was lacking, and I gained from her willingness to share what she knew.
My second mentor, one whose influence is almost beyond telling, is Edith Schaeffer, co-founder with her husband Francis of L’Abri. I knew her only through her books, but because she wrote so personally and extensively about her life as she followed Christ, her writing was a close second to being with her in person. Mrs. Schaeffer’s books guided me into a theology of the art of people care. Her words enlarged my vision for the work and inspired me to imagine good stories in the life of my family, as well as others I would care for in the coming years. The Schaeffers were my first teachers in learning to think through the implications of the Lordship of Christ over all of life. They didn’t sort life into categories, naming some parts as spiritual and other parts as secular and not as important. They knew it all mattered to God. Since this is our Father’s world, and He’s redeeming and renewing all things, we should care about everything. From government, art, education, and business, to raising children, cooking, and interior design—our study of the Bible should inform our whole existence.
Bloom Where You’re Planted
As older women we all have important work to do in being generous with the knowledge we’ve gained as we’ve lived inside of God’s grace, studied his Word, and applied it to our lives and our understanding of the world. We have a responsibility to pass down things of worth, matters of love and justice and mercy. As we take stock of our life and the experience we have to offer, think things through in great detail. Work experience in all kinds of vocations, from homemaking to medicine, is a huge part of the body of knowledge we have to share. But what else does your experience hold? Have you lived with illness, suffering, or grief? Are you learning the ways of a grandmother? Have you passed through “empty nest,” sent family members off to war, or recovered from addictions? Perhaps you are a gifted athlete, a gardener, a lover of books, or a seamstress.
If we assess our life and take an inventory of what we know, the fields of knowledge we possess might surprise us. Each one of us has a unique story that’s weighty and full of God’s redemption. Out of the gifts, comfort, interests, and callings we’ve received, we give to others. Wherever our knowledge and experience intersects with someone else’s need, there is soil for a mentoring friendship to develop. I recently met a 74-year-old Mexican woman on a flight from San Diego to Sacramento who had lots of life experience to share. Her knowledge ranged from child rearing to the field of social work to making tortillas and tamales from scratch. She had cooking skills that were passed down through generations, and now she had grandchildren and students from a local community college who wanted to learn from her.
Connections with younger women come through many avenues: our families, churches, places of employment, and school campuses are just a few of the possibilities. The relationships I’ve known have come through leading small groups, writing and speaking, our family business in the music industry, and hosting people in our home. They’ve taken shape over meals and cups of coffee, walks, and email conversations. Along the way I’ve learned that hospitality has a lot to do with mentoring. At the very least, a welcoming, hospitable spirit as one goes about daily life invites others to engagement. In the formation of mentoring relationships, the younger person needs to have a sense that the potential mentor is approachable and might be accessible if asked.
Remember too that mentoring happens naturally in families. Belief and behavior passes from mothers to children, grandmothers to grandchildren, and aunts to their nieces and nephews. One way we can be intentional in caring for those who come behind us is through archiving. Our diaries and journals, photograph albums, scrapbooks, notes written in the margins of our Bibles, the cards and letters we save, and frequently used recipes—all of these become part of the family history we pass down. Our words and pictures will help those who come after us to know what we valued and to understand what it was like to be a woman of faith in our generation. They tell where we struggled, where we found joy and satisfaction, and they detail the evidence of God’s care. Family artifacts and written words passed down through generations help us all to see that our lives are lived in a larger context. We come from somewhere, we’re going somewhere, and what happens in between is significant.
In whatever way the relationships come, a lifestyle of “passing on” and giving ourselves away brings great meaning and significance to the back half of our lives. The young people I meet are hungry for a vision of life—one that is large and full of beauty and service, and one that connects faith, vocation, and culture—a seamless life lived all the way under the Lordship of Christ. I can’t think of a more important work than joining in the history of the saints and sharing with those God brings us, “not only the gospel of God but our lives as well” (1 Thessalonians 2:8).
Andi Ashworth is a grandmother and a seminary student. She’s the author of Real Love for Real Life: The Art and Work of Caring. Andi partners with her husband Charlie Peacock-Ashworth in the work of the Art House in Nashville, Tenn. (www.andiashworth.com).