Older people in society and the church
‘The righteous will flourish like a palm tree … they will flourish in the courts of our God. They will still bear fruit in old age’ (Psalm 92:12-14).
Psalm 90:10 is a familiar verse to all those over 60: ‘The length of our days is seventy years – or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away’.
Well apparently, today we do have strength. In London back in the 19th century, the average lifespan of a professional man was 45; of a tradesman, 27, and a labourer, 22. We had not improved on that since the Romans left.
Today it’s different. Now on average a woman can expect to live to 82 and a man to 76. There are currently more 80 year olds in our society than 18 year olds, so it’s actually the young people who are dying out, not the older ones. By 2020, 5% of the population will be over 80.
Some two or three decades ago, St Paul’s Methodist Seminary in Kansas City was probably the first in the world to establish a professorship of gerontology (the study of old age). The professorship was instituted because, even then, many of the ministerial students could find themselves pastoring churches where most of the congregation were over 65.
In many resorts around Britain’s coast, 80% of the population is retired. It is said of such towns that the elderly move there to die and, having arrived, forget why they came!
The blessings of old age
Old age can be a blessing to all and a particular blessing to some. It is a blessing to all because it serves as a reminder of the frailty of life and awakens us to what Job points out – ‘only a few years will pass before I go on the journey of no return’.
What if we all remained in the full bloom of youth until suddenly one day, we dropped dead? If we were given no warning, no evidence that life runs out after four-score years or so? Then there would be neither motivation nor time for us to prepare for eternity!
The fact that ageing often hardens the heart and closes the mind to the reality of eternity and accountability rather than the opposite, simply demonstrates one of the sad ravages of sin. It is the work of Satan to blind the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the glory of the gospel of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4).
T. S. Eliot wrote: ‘All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance; all our ignorance nearer to death, but nearness to death brings us no nearer to God’. Sadly, for many in our nation, nearness to death does not bring them nearer to God. But Eliot was right in the sense that since the Fall, old age is meant to act as a kind of aide-memoir.
Ageing is one of the more useful penalties of the Fall. It says, ‘You are moving closer, closer, closer to giving an account to your Creator’. In that sense it is a blessing to all, though they don’t all realise it.
But it is, of course, a particular blessing to some. To the people of God it is a reminder that there is something glorious to look forward to. Proverbs 4:18 declares: ‘The path of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, shining ever brighter till the full light of day’. And if we are the children of God, then we are heading for the full light of day.
Psalm 68:4-6 describes for us a very important aspect of the character of God, one too often overlooked, namely, his compassion. ‘Sing to God, sing praise to his name, extol him who rides on the clouds – his name is the Lord – and rejoice before him’.
Now see how it continues: ‘A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling. God sets the lonely in families, he leads forth prisoners with singing; but the rebellious live in a sun-scorched land’.
Now the ‘family’ in which God sets believers is usually the local fellowship of Christians. Because of our spiritually ‘sun-scorched’ land, the care of the elderly in the nation as a whole will not get better. Why do I say that?
For one reason, because of the scattered nature of our natural families. And also because too few want the job of caring for the elderly.
Then there is the relentless pressure of the euthanasia lobby which seeks to convince us, perhaps unintentionally, that the elderly who are sick or frail are really not worth their place. Because our society is driven by economic values, it will conclude that caring for the elderly is not sufficiently productive.
And care for the elderly will not improve because respect for age is diminishing in our society and because evolutionary philosophy teaches that you should not care for the old, worn out or disabled nag, but simply send it to the knacker’s yard.
Is that too strong? Well it is precisely what the popular eugenics lobby argued in the earlier part of the 20th century – until a German dictator applied its tortured logic to a whole race that he didn’t like. Nevertheless, the spirit of eugenics lives on; it’s just the name that is no longer used.
Evangelical Christians have consistently shown the way for compassionate care, particularly in recent history. In the 18th century it was largely (though not exclusively) evangelical Christians who drove the demand for the abolition of the slave trade and eventually of slavery itself in Britain.
In the 19th century, whatever you may think about the Victorians, it is a simple fact that three-quarters of all philanthropic work was undertaken by evangelical Christians.
In our own generation, Christians are leading the way in care for those with serious learning disabilities and for the cast-offs from society. And we have a fantastic opportunity to show that evangelical Christians can be significant once again – this time in caring for the elderly. This conference could become a catalyst for something very special – so long as we don’t just listen and talk, but listen, talk, and then act.
In what way, then, is God a father to the fatherless and a defender of widows? How does God set the lonely in families? He does it all through his people. The Victorian preacher C. H. Spurgeon commented on Psalm 68:
‘As the generation which came out of Egypt gradually died away, there were many widows and fatherless in the camp but they suffered no want or wrong, for the righteous laws and just administrators whom God appointed looked well to the interests of the needy.
‘The tabernacle was the palace of justice and the ark was the seat of the great King. This was the cause of great joy for Israel, that they were ruled by One who would not suffer the poor and needy to be oppressed. To this day and forever, God is and will be the peculiar guardian of the defenceless’.
Among the benevolent societies that were represented at the Memorial Service for Lord Shaftesbury (the 7th Earl) on 8 October 1885 was one called The Aged Pilgrims Friends Society – just like today’s Pilgrim Homes with old clothes on.
What motivated Shaftesbury in his seminal and multitudinous works of care and compassion? It was unquestionably his faith. Listen to him:
‘My religious views are not popular but they are the views which have sustained and comforted me all through my life. They have never been disguised, nor have I ever sought to disguise them. I think a man’s religion, if it is worth anything, should enter into every sphere of life and rule his conduct in every relation.
‘I have always been, and please God always will be, an Evangelical of the Evangelicals. And no biography can represent me that does not fully and emphatically represent my religious views’.
Shaftesbury claimed: ‘Christianity is not a state of opinion or speculation; Christianity is essentially practical and I will maintain this; that practical Christianity is the greatest curer of corrupt speculative Christianity. Therefore I say to you again and again; let your Christianity be practical’.
So spake Lord Shaftesbury, the Lord of the great unwashed, as he was known. And that’s why we’re meeting here today. I hope that future generations of Christians will be both grateful and proud of what we accomplish today, for otherwise we shall be wasting our time.
To be continued
An edited extract from Brian Edwards’ address to a Pilgrim Homes conference.