Being old, being Christian

A sermon by Rod Benson

Proverbs 16:31-33

Time. Time is what keeps the light from reaching us. Time is of the essence. Time is the life of the soul. Time is the great physician. It’s high time we did something. Have you got the time? I don’t have enough time. When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound, and time shall be no more…

Without exception, we’re all having the time of our lives. Each of us is growing older every moment, and that means – for those of us fortunate to escape an untimely death by disease, accident or intent – the experience of growing old.

Those who are ‘younger’ may too easily dismiss or marginalise older people.  But they have a great deal to offer.  Consider this poem by Jean Thompson:

White hair: relegation.
Instant dismissal.  Just one of those oldies.
Past action or thought.

White hair: anonymity.
Faceless old nuisance to put into care.
One more for the file.

But white hair is freedom.
Release from convention.  At last unrestricted.
To act as you please.

Yes, white hair’s a distinction.
It shines in the sunshine like snowfall in winter,
A badge of experience.
One who survives.

Although age-related changes occur throughout the life cycle, ageing may be defined as the process of change after maturity is reached. Ageing is culturally assumed to onset between about the ages of 55 and 65 years, often coinciding with retirement from fulltime work. Life experiences, attitude and psychospiritual factors all have a bearing on one’s outlook as retirement age passes and the existential ‘autumn’ and ‘winter’ of life set in.

In contrast, Scripture accepts the transitoriness of youth and reflects realism regarding the problems and issues of old age.  Yet it presents ageing people as dignified, venerable and wise. In Scripture longevity is considered a reward for a virtuous life, and advanced age is a gift from God.

Jewish and Christian communities were led by elders – older women and men possessing a wealth of knowledge and skill built over a lifetime of experience. Special respect and care were given to ageing members of Christian communities, and developing leaders were educated and trained in pastoral care of older persons.

Throughout Scripture, while finitude and other effects of ageing are clearly experienced by elders, the concept of permanent retirement from vocation or profession is unknown. From a biblical perspective, human life involves development and change rather than stasis; ageing is divinely intentional and part of what it means to be a human person; and the capacity to ‘do’ is not the definitive measure for determining the worth or value of a human person.

To reflect on verses such as Genesis 3:19, Exodus 20:12, Proverbs 3:1-2 and 16:31 is to recognise how far we have drifted culturally from the image of ageing as a sign of wisdom, long life as a symbol of divine blessing, grey hair as glorious, and the unequivocal care of those who can no longer independently care for themselves.

With this awareness, Christians are well placed to provide professional yet personal pastoral care to elders, to train lay pastoral carers, and to assist elders in finding the specialised care they require.

It can be difficult to affirm eternity in the face of frailty and temporality, and to celebrate stability when transitoriness seems pervasive.  It can be difficult to offer effective, theologically nuanced pastoral care in such circumstances.

Some older persons ask anguished questions about theodicy such as, ‘Why can I not die when it is time to die?  What kind of life is this?”

In his Introduction to Pastoral Care, Charles Gerkin bravely responds by saying that “Any answer is hidden within the mystery of God, a mystery that at times seems to be more cruel than loving … pastoral theological thinking must ask the hardest questions about God and God’s justice.”

Someone has said, “If you want to know what it is like to be old, you should smear dirt on your glasses, stuff cotton in your ears, put on heavy shoes that are too big for you, and wear gloves, then try to spend the day in a normal way.”

Admitted to hospital a few years ago, I found myself in a ward of older men and discovered that my burst appendix, though life-threatening, was a relatively insignificant illness compared to those others were fighting.

One octogenarian patient said, “Both my children work, and have families.  They have their own lives to deal with without being burdened by someone like me.”

“I have nothing to live for,” another reflected.  “My wife’s gone, my kids have their own lives to lead.  What have I got to live for?  I live in my own home, but [the doctors] won’t let me go there.  I can’t walk.  I don’t care.  I just don’t care any more.”

Then, with tears filling his eyes, he confided to me, “I prayed last night that God would take me away.”

Australian society is rapidly greying.  Soon one in four Australians will be over 60 years old.  Younger adults will feel increasing pressure to care for them through church-based and other services, as well as to fund their health and other needs through taxes.

Politicians and policy makers will feel the strongest pressures as they listen to the perspectives and desires of ageing people and respond accordingly.

To be old is not necessarily to feel unviable.  Some things are not ordinarily graspable except as the result of experience in extended lives. Affirmation of the richness and dignity of elderhood, informed by a biblical theology of ageing, offers an excellent starting point for effective pastoral care of elders.

A multitude of issues confront older persons, presenting problems associated with impairment, change and loss.  Issues may be physical, intellectual, emotional, spiritual and social – or a combination of these. The longer one lives, the greater the likelihood of experiencing physical disability.

In the intellectual realm, the most acute problem is short term memory loss. Perhaps the next most common problem is depression. Senile confusion also affects some elders.  Symptoms may include severe memory loss, disorientation, emotional instability, and significant impairment of mental and physical functioning.

Many elders today live alone or are isolated from social interaction by various impairments.  Some experience uncaring and possessive intimate relationships.

Grief is a reality for all elders. They may suffer multiple losses in a relatively brief period, which can result in a telescoped and chronic grief reaction.

Spiritual needs are deeply felt and increasingly central to the experience of many elders – desires for meaning, purpose and hope, to transcend circumstances, for support in dealing with loss, for continuity, for validation and support of religious behaviours, to engage in religious behaviours, for personal dignity and a sense of worthiness, for unconditional love, to express anger and doubt, to feel that God is on their side, to love and serve others, to be thankful, to forgive and be forgiven, and to prepare for death and dying.

In my experience, the happiest and healthiest elders are those who attend church most often, and poor adjustment is found in those with low or declining attendance.

John Wesley, the great seventeenth-century preacher and pastor, lived to 88, and many of his most productive years came after age 60.

On his 85th birthday in 1788 Wesley wrote in his diary: “I am not so agile as I was in time past. I have daily some pain … I find likewise some decay in my memory in regard to names and things lately passed.”

Then he moved from prose to poetry, revealing the philosophy of life that inspired and focused his extraordinary achievement:

My remnant of days
I spend to his praise
Who died the whole world to redeem:
Be they many or few,
My days are his due,
And they all are devoted to him.

Remember that Jesus is not only the Ancient of Days but has conquered death and risen in the power of an endless life, and that those who faithfully follow Jesus are “in Christ” and share that life.

Don’t waste time with unnecessary trivia and superficialities. Live for God! Focus on the good! Do what you can to make your world a better place.

“Do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Cor 4:16-18).

Sermon 654 copyright © 2016 Rod Benson. Preached at Lithgow Baptist Church, Australia, on Sunday 31 January 2016. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011).

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