Dignity in growing old
Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 is a magnificent statement and a poetic masterpiece. It begins: ‘Remember your creator in the days of your youth, before the days of trouble come and the years approach when you will say, “I find no pleasure in them”…’
But we are so familiar with this passage that we often forget how it ends: ‘Meaningless! Meaningless!’ says the Teacher. ‘Everything is meaningless!’ There’s something very negative about that – it’s the old-age syndrome! It’s Solomon viewing old age without God.
We can’t avoid the ageing process but we can resist the fear of getting old. We experience the creaking joints, deafness, failing eyesight or mental confusion. Friends and loved ones depart this life like autumn leaves. But the value and dignity of old age is as great as that of a newborn child.
Caring for the carers
Paul writes: ‘If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord’ (Romans 14:8). We belong to the Lord at every point between birth and death.
John Wesley claimed for his Methodists: ‘Our people die well’. There is dignity in dying well and our people need to be taught this. Somerset Maugham said famously, ‘Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. My advice to you is to have nothing whatsoever to do with it’. But in the UK alone, 2000 people a day ignore his advice.
The Christian church must demonstrate to the world the value of life in a society that has steadily devalued life. Certainly, those who treat unborn children like pieces of unwanted meat can’t be trusted to provide dignity to a 96 year old feeble in mind and body.
But if we believe in the dignity of all human life, we must be guardians and guarantors of that dignity. As churches we may have limited opportunity to care for the old and infirm, but that is precisely why we must develop a strategy of caring for the carers.
Teaching the young
Then, further, we must teach our young people that there is dignity in old age. We must not wait till folk are ‘old’ before we start preparing them for old age. Caring churches must somehow attract young people to the task – teaching them about the dignity of old age because that’s what the Bible teaches.
We must teach a new generation of Christian young people that there is a theology of old age – that (in their own jargon) it’s biblically cool to care for the old folk. It’s exciting to work among children and young people and do missions and camps, but do our young people know what old age is like? Or even who the old people in the church are?
Are they aware of James 1:27 – ‘Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world’. We dwell on that last bit. Do we also tell them about the first bit?
When have any of us preachers taken Leviticus 19:32 on a Sunday morning? ‘Rise up in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord’. The Old Testament honours grey hairs not only because of past service and accrued wisdom but also for the sake of age itself. It is worthy of honour.
The New Testament encourages the elders to be an example and to give wise counsel (Titus 2), and the younger men and women to listen to them (1 Peter 5). In fact, according to Isaiah 3, it’s a mark of a godless society, when ‘the young … rise up against the old, the base against the honourable’. And sadly, that is a description, generally, of our society.
We must help our young people to respect old age. Does your church seek to enthuse and excite young people with a ministry of respect and care for the elderly? After all, God himself is a Father to the fatherless and a defender of widows. Any systematic theology of God must include that.
Growing old gracefully
Thirdly, we must teach our people to grow old with dignity. We each grow old at different times and different rates, but we all grow old.
Moses seems to have died in full health, and he was certainly leading Israel right till the very end: ‘Moses was 120 years old when he died, yet his eyes were not weak nor his strength gone’ (Deuteronomy 34:7).
On the other hand, King David thought he was still fit enough at 60 to fight the Philistines but became utterly exhausted and only avoided death through the timely intervention of Abishai. His men decided there and then – ‘Never again will you go out with us to battle’ (2 Samuel 21). He was too old for this sort of thing.
However, he went home and wrote Psalm 18 – which has been of more value to both old and new Israel than the victory over Goliath. ‘The righteous will still bear fruit in old age’.
Spurgeon on this psalm says: ‘Nature decays but grace thrives’. Now if that isn’t true of the majority of older folk in our churches, it’s the fault of our leaders. We are not teaching our people how to grow old.
Why do so many of our older people talk about little else when we visit than their arthritis, varicose veins and grandchildren? Because we’ve allowed them to lose their vision. Their hearing aid may have a ‘T mode’ but their ‘G mode’ has been silenced – they’re no longer listening to God.
Of course, this isn’t true of all. I have often visited an elderly saint seeking to bring them some spiritual blessing, only to realise that whatever I have left, I have carried more away.
Just maybe, we should provide some set prayers for those growing older. Like the supposed 17th century nun’s prayer that went as follows:
‘Lord thou knowest … that I am growing older; keep me from thinking I must say something on every subject on every occasion. Release me from the craving to straighten out everybody’s affairs. Make me thoughtful but not moody, helpful but not bossy.
‘With my vast store of wisdom it seems a pity not to use it all, but I do want a few friends at the end. Keep my mind free from the endless recital of details. Give me wings to get to the point…
‘I dare not ask for improved memory but for a growing humility … when my memory seems to clash with the memories of others. Teach me with the glorious lesson that occasionally I may be mistaken. Keep me reasonably sweet. I do not want to be a saint; some of them are so hard to live with. But a sour old person is one of the crowning works of the devil. Give me the ability to see good things in unexpected places and talent in unexpected people – and give me, Lord, the grace to tell them so. Amen’.
Teaching the elderly to grow old gracefully starts now. And what a wonderful witness godly elderly are to all who care for them.
Growing old with purpose
Finally, we must teach our people to grow old with purpose.
The Bible is realistic about old age. In the Old Testament, neither the very young not the very old rank highly in economic terms. Thus in Leviticus 27 we have a list of ‘redemption prices’. The value of a child under five is five shekels of silver. That of a young person aged five to 20 is twenty shekels. For those in the prime of life (20 to 60) it is 50 shekels. But it falls to 15 shekels for those over 60. That is biblical realism in an agricultural society.
But remember Leviticus 19:32: ‘Rise in the presence of the aged, show respect for the elderly and revere your God. I am the Lord’. That is the other side of the shekel. As people’s economic value decreases, so the honour accorded to them increases.
William Carey was 60 when he built his college at Serampore in India. At 86 John Wesley could still preach to a congregation of 25,000. John Newton, in spite of claiming that he was ‘packed and sealed and ready for the post’, was still preaching at 80.
God said very kindly to Joshua (13:1): ‘you are very old’. But then he added: ‘and there are very large areas of lands to be taken over’. Joshua was nigh-on 100, and he was still at it. His brother Caleb could boast: ‘I am … 85 years old and still as strong today as the day Moses sent me out’.
We’re not all like that, of course. But at 84 and 82 respectively, Peggy and Christine Smith – one blind and the other crippled with arthritis – prayed for revival on the Isle of Lewis in the 1940s until it came. That was just as much ‘gospel work’ as the labours of Carey, Newton and Wesley.
Enlisting the elderly
When we visit elderly Christians it should never be just in ‘maintenance mode’ – to keep them feeling wanted until we cross them off the list. I suggest a biblical alternative is not to merely list them, but to enlist them.
That surely is what Psalm 92:14 is about; the righteous ‘will still bear fruit in old age’. There is a timeless principle in what John wrote to Gaius in 3 John: ‘Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well’. You’ll notice John’s priority – whatever your health, I’m interested in your soul, your walk with God.
I know Christians in their 90s who are as fresh and alive in Christ as ever they were. But our task is not simply to provide nice homes and caring environments for the elderly Christians to while away the last few years of their lives. Those latter years can be eminently fruitful. Our task is more than maintenance until departure.
Whenever I travel by plane, I go equipped for work, so that – having passed through security and while waiting for my flight – I ensure that my time is well spent. Perhaps our very elderly are in the departure lounge waiting for the onward flight. But what are they doing?
What a powerhouse of prayer and positive interest in the Lord’s work our older people could be. Are we making full use of this rich resource of those who know how to pray and still have a mind to pray?
Ministering by prayer
For years I provided a regular confidential prayer list for elderly saints in my church. It listed unbelievers attending, those recently converted, and Christians who joined the congregation but were not members. As my elderly friends prayed, they could watch people move from one category to the next until they came into membership of the church.
A visit meant we talked about these people. It turned their minds away for a while from their painful joints and aching muscles. In most of our churches the young are too busy to attend the prayer meeting, or so they say. So it’s left to the older part of the congregation, right?
But when they can no longer attend, we forget that they may still be our best prayer partners. It’s not just what we do for them that matters, but what they can continue to do for the church. Remember Peggy and Christine Smith on the Isle of Lewis!
When the prophet told King Hezekiah that he would recover from his illness and live another 15 years, his immediate response was to write a psalm (it’s in Isaiah 38): ‘The grave cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise, those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness. The living, the living – they praise you, as I am doing today; fathers tell their children about your faithfulness’.
I’ve got a bit more time, says Hezekiah, so I’m going to use it wisely.
Leaving a legacy
Beside that secret ministry of prayer, the elderly can exercise a quiet ministry of encouragement, with a rich store of experience to share. Psalm 37:25: ‘I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken, nor their children begging bread’. What a wonderful witness.
Our seniors have great potential for service in a hundred ways if we will only open our minds and use wisdom and imagination. Then, indeed, ‘the memory of the righteous will be a blessing’ (Proverbs 10:7).
What will that memory be? What is our real legacy going to be? I think of gracious saints who have influenced my life and I’ve prayed ‘Lord let me grow old like them’. They may be forgotten, but their influence – their ministry – lives on through me.
From a lecture delivered at a Pilgrim Homes Conference.