The Pastor had much to say on this topic in the morning sermon of 10 February, especially in its relation to the process of dying, and could be listened to with profit again. It is a subject to be considered by all ages, so as to understand the experiences of older people.
Notice that we are considering not growing old graciously, but gracefully. Gracious, to me, has connotations of politeness, dignity, courtesy and like words; all very good in their place, but not specifically Christian things. We want to age gracefully, i.e. full of grace, fruitful, spiritual.
Are there problems?
Without a doubt! After all, aging and its end result, death, is a consequence of sin and the curse, and is therefore accompanied by difficulties. The Bible does not hide from this: Ecclesiastes 12:1-7 lists these – there is a loss generally of the ability to enjoy our pleasures, there are problems with sight, hearing, and taste; there is a loss of physical and emotional strength; fears, both rational and irrational overwhelm, and finally, we experience life itself ebbing away. And on top of it all, we may be tempted to feel that even God will leave us in our agedness: Psalm 71:9.
How important that pastors, elders, relatives, visitors and friends appreciate these weaknesses and temptations, and minister accordingly.
How do we respond?
Well, not by following the advice of the car sticker; do you remember it? “Pensioners, get your own back – move in with your children!” There is a serious point to consider – we must not give in to cynicism, resentment and feelings of uselessness. Here is a reminder of the resolutions made by Rev. John Piper on his retirement based on Psalm 71:
- I will remember with wonder and thanks the thousands of times I have leaned on God.
- I will take refuge in God rather than taking offence at my troubles.
- I will speak to God more and more (not less and less) of all His greatness until there is no room in my mouth for murmuring.
- I will hope (doggedly) and not give in to despair, even in the nursing home, and even if I outlive all my friends.
- I will find people to tell about God’s wonderful acts of salvation, and never run out, because they are innumerable.
- I will remember that there are great things about God above my imagination, and soon enough I will know these too.
- I will count all my pain and troubles as a gift from God and a path to glory.
- I will resist stereotypes of old people, and play and sing and shout for joy.
However, behind these things there is, I believe, the matter of the attitude of heart towards aging, a foundation upon which the resolutions made by Mr Piper can be built. Here are some points which can be drawn from the Scriptures and which will help to establish a graceful spirit.
An acceptance that things change, and that I cannot do the things I once could. Perhaps you can’t do camps anymore, or you can’t do hospitality as you used to do, and so on. It is good to accept this, to remember that none of us is indispensable, and to set about encouraging those who can still be active. Remember Exodus 17 and the battle with Amalek: Moses and his friends could not take part in the fight – but they could pray. What an encouragement to Joshua and the others to know that Moses was on the hilltop interceding. So, why not be an encourager? Tell the Sunday School teachers, the church secretary, the camps workers, the caretaker, etc., how much you appreciate them, and then pray for them. And by being in whatever meetings you can you bring encouragement to the rest of the congregation. This leads me to:
That there are things I can do: life is not over until God says – it’s nothing to do with ‘the fat lady’. Bear in mind some examples:
- In Joshua 14, Caleb asks for his mountain, and at the age of 85 he goes off to fight for it
- In Titus 2 the older women are told to teach and help the younger ones
- Paul is writing letters right up to the end of his life
- In Ashford in his second pastorate an elderly lady told Derek Swann that she could not come to church, but she could pray, and would he please call regularly with matters for prayer. So it was that Derek would end his weekly visiting on a Friday afternoon at her home.
- Some years ago David Morrish told Kate and me that he felt useless in his church in France because he was too busy to do anything there. We told him that by simply being there in his place on a Sunday with a spiritual attitude, he was being a blessing.
‘I am what I am by the grace of God.’
What do you make of the recent decision to allow women to have combat roles in our armed forces? I’m not sure what to make of it, given my age and experiences. But there would certainly be uproar if the Government announced its intention to send a brigade of pensioners to police Helmand Province; or if a cohort of octogenarians was sent to help against the insurgency in Mali.
But our warfare is spiritual, not carnal, and age and health is no barrier to the fight. Back to Exodus 17: it was those old men who trudged up the hill to pray; and it was two old men who helped the third to maintain his vital prayer ministry. Moses held the rod of God i.e. the rod of promise embracing His Word, His Name, His Spirit, and when he prayed, God worked for His people.
Now, I do not wish to beat us about the head with a metaphorical rod, and burden us with guilt about our prayer lives. Prayer can be a struggle for us physically, and we have an enemy who would oppose us, and we have less physical and emotional energy than we used to.
But we can adapt can’t we: we can pray little and often and work out how best to take advantage of our retirement years. Consider this quotation from ‘A Day’s March Nearer Home’
Retirement presents us with an overview of the seventy years of the life of the church through which we have providentially been led. This both informs our prayers and directs them. Our doctrine of the final triumph of Christ’s kingdom forbids melancholy. Old age need present no threat to the soul. Whoever else is absent from the church prayer meeting we shall not be. At home, if laid aside, we shall maintain the prayer-fires of the ‘two or three’ met together in Christ’s Name. In our private devotions we shall view the world scene with larger hope than ever before, because of the gift and ministry of intercession. We shall welcome themes for prayer from all over the face of the church, and matter for prayer from every situation.
Above all we shall concentrate our intercessions upon that point to which the risen Lord directs attention, namely that the Holy Spirit shall be much abroad in a work of conviction of sin and inward illumination, through the twin ministries of the preaching of the Word and unremitting devotion to prayer. In the extreme pragmatism of church life today these ministries have been brushed aside. Among professed evangelicals the intrusion of the methods of our ever-vocal secular society is increasingly evident. As these methods come to be espoused the prayer-fires are doused with indifference. Congregational, corporate and private prayer have receded from view, and been progressively weakened and forsaken.
Any hopeful view of the reformation of the church must take account of this prayer-vacuum in the life of the church of our day. If we, the old in years, must give the lead, we find our text in Luke 2:36-38: ‘And there was one Anna, a prophetess…she was of a great age…a widow of about fourscore and four years, who departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers, night and day; she, coming in at that hour, gave thanks…unto the Lord, and spoke of Him to all them who looked for redemption in Jerusalem.’
Finally, there is:
Recently, our new daughter-in-law had a birthday. To our pleasant surprise our son didn’t need us to remind him; he had bought her a week’s holiday abroad (in a few months’ time). We asked her, “Was it disappointing not having something to unwrap?” “No,” she said, “I’ve got something to look forward to.”
That’s it, is it not? As the years go by, ever quicker and as changes occur around us which we cannot easily adapt to, we may focus our minds on a glorious future, built on an unchanging promise.
Let us remind one another that the best is yet to be. The goal gleams invitingly in the distance. Then the shadows of time will fade into the glory of eternity. No diminished understanding, impetus or grace there! Instead the completeness of Christ’s work in each of us will bring joy to ourselves and to the whole body of the redeemed in the Eternal Home.
Our health grows poorer as our expectations grow richer. Please accept our affectionate remembrance as together we advance ‘a day’s march nearer home.’
In my work for the church I have visited many believers in their final journey, on the last lap, in the home straight. It has been such a privilege, and the ministry has been from them to me. So, let me finish with Psalm 92:12-15:
‘The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree,
He shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
Those who are planted in the house of the LORD
Shall flourish in the courts of our God.
They shall still bear fruit in old age;
They shall be fresh and flourishing,
To declare that the LORD is upright;
He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in Him.’
 Ed. Iain H Murray, A Day’s March Nearer Home: Autobiography of J Graham Miller (Banner of Truth, 2010), pp. 250-251.
 Ibid., p..