There was once an old man (according to a Grimms’ fairy tale) whose eyes were dim and whose hand trembled so much that he spilt his broth at table. His son and daughter-in-law were disgusted; they banished him to a corner behind the stove and gave him some food in a bowl. When he dropped the bowl and broke it, they bought him a cheap wooden one.
One day the father saw his young son collecting bits of stick and wood. “What are you doing?” he asked. “I’m going to make a wooden trough for you and Mama to eat from when you are old,” he replied. His parents’ eyes filled with tears. Gently they led the old man back to the table to eat with the family.
Breaking new ground
Perhaps old people are better understood now, but it’s still true that the next generation often have no idea of the pain and difficulties of the seriously old (as over 75s are described today). Of course they haven’t – they haven’t experienced it. We are able to empathise with childhood, teen years and midlife because we’ve experienced them ourselves. Now, in old age, we are breaking new ground and often we’re surprised at how hard it can be. Poet TS Eliot wrote that ‘old men should be explorers’ and it seems that we are forced to be, whether we like it or not.
Of course my Christian faith makes a difference – all the difference in the world. But maybe we – or others – try to plaster over our pain with Christian clichés. We feel guilty, as Christians, about the fears and doubts that trouble us and we reproach ourselves. Instead of adding to our unhappiness, we need, with God’s help, to admit to these new disturbers of our peace. Jesus often asked those who came to him for healing: ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ (Mark 10:36). Once we face our problems squarely, we shall know what to ask him to do for our healing
Bereavement: Perhaps the worst wounds time brings are caused by loss. Loss of a life partner – whether husband or wife, brother, sister or close friend – can be devastating. Anna, who is sad and lonely, told me that she now realises she remarried too soon after the death of her husband of nearly 40 years. She has since separated from her new husband. She believes that the pain and grief she is experiencing now are for the death of her first husband – emotions she repressed by a hasty remarriage. Barbara, by contrast, is still mourning the death of her older sister; they had lived together all 80 years of her life. Now, more than two and a half years later, Barbara seems unable to act without reference to her sister’s remembered wishes and their shared pattern of living.
Of course there is no ‘right’ time to stop mourning and move on with life; it varies from one person to another. But we need to recognise, sometimes with others’ help, when that forward move should take place.
Status: Perhaps losing status may seem a small loss by comparison but it’s another kind of bereavement. Robert admits that it took him a whole year to recover from the pain of retirement. He had a top-ranking job in industry with all the perks and scope for initiative that went with it. To be suddenly stripped of all these can hit hard. A sense of identity and self-worth often go with the job, whether we are conscious of it or not. Of course we know, in our heads, that our value rests in our standing in Christ alone, but that bit of encouragement isn’t going to go down well – not with the highflier or with the lowliest employee who feels he or she has been thrown on the scrap heap. Less money and less scope for using our skills and experience may make the changes even harder.
Health: Loss of health often accompanies old age. Advances in surgery and medication mean that many of us who would otherwise be housebound and seriously disabled can still get around. But however able-bodied we seem, we are the ‘walking wounded’, coping with invisible pain and tiredness much of the time. Even though, if we’re wise – and want to keep our friends – we don’t talk about it, we still have to come to terms with severe limitations. We need to learn how to strike the balance between attempting too much on one hand and retreating into passive inaction. I still study travel supplements and brochures enthusiastically – but when I read about ‘rough terrain’ or ‘cobbled streets’, reality kicks in. Mostly I enjoy travel by proxy. Independence: The Lord told Peter: ‘When you were young you dressed yourself and went wherever you wished, but when you get old you’ll have to stretch out your hands while someone else dresses you and takes you where you don’t want to go,’ (John 21:18). We fear similar loss of the independence we’ve probably taken for granted. How can I bear to return to a child’s dependence when I have the experience and maturity of a lifetime? But perhaps becoming childlike in humbleness and reliance on God – and others – are just the lessons I need to learn to feel at home in the Kingdom.
What are the answers?
When Jesus foretold Peter’s future, John comments, ‘Jesus said this to hint at the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God,’ (John 21:19). When Jesus faced the anguish and pain of his own forthcoming death, God the Father promised to glorify him in that very suffering and humiliation.
In old days Christians used to pray for a ‘good death’ – one that would bring glory to God. I used to pray that I wouldn’t become incontinent and helpless or die a long drawn-out death. Then I realised that God knows best what kind of ending will bring most glory to him. It may mean pain and indignity, as it did for the Lord. I dread both but can be certain that obedient trust will mean that my remaining life and death can bring praise and glory to him and be a blessing to others.
A prayer of willing acceptance of God’s way sounds risky, but we are only facing loss of this life’s treasures in the certain hope of something better to come. Paul wrote: ‘So we’re not giving up… Even though on the outside it looks like things are falling apart on us, on the inside, where God is making new life, not a day goes by without his unfolding grace… There’s far more here than meets the eye. The things we see now are here today, gone tomorrow. But the things we can’t see now will last forever,’ (2 Corinthians 4:16).
One benefit of growing old is that faith seems more certain and secure – true? Actually not, at least for some old people. Peggy (who is 84) told me that for the first time in her life she has doubts about her Christian faith. She was brought up in a Christian home and never wavered from the path. “I began to wonder how Christianity would look to me if I were an outsider and hadn’t grown up believing these things,” she told me. “I suppose I’d swallowed everything more or less whole until now.” It seems a surprising stage to begin to have doubts but I suspect it’s not uncommon. Of course we don’t admit to it because it’s sinful to doubt – isn’t it?
We tend to think of doubt as the opposite of faith, but wholesome doubt is a good antidote to ‘blind belief’. The main tenets of the Christian faith, based on Scripture, can stand up to rigorous examination; we need not be afraid. Some minor points of belief or practice that we’ve also accepted without question may turn out to be less valid in old age. We need to strip our faith down to its basics. For me, the essentials are.
- Whatever happens God will never leave or forsake me (Joshua 1:5)
- Nothing can or will separate me from the love of God in Christ (Romans 8:38-39)
- However bad the pain and loss I suffer, God can bring good out of it – for me or for others – when I hand it over to him (Romans 8:28)
These are my personal stripped-down, firm convictions – the rest of my secondhand knowledge of God can be left open for discussion
Peggy also admitted that during her time of doubt she had been feeling very tired and run-down. Tiredness may point to the need to cut down some of our activities for a while to restore strength.
Depression often leads to doubt and a sense that God is nowhere. Depression may be caused by bereavement, loneliness, constant pain, or weakness, and it is not sinful. Too many people won’t get medical help because they feel Christians should not be depressed. I have had depression requiring medication at periods throughout my life. Unfortunately in Christian circles – and secular ones too – there is often a stigma attached to it. I believe God expects us to use medical help for our depression as well as for our arthritis or high blood pressure.
Henry and Pam went through a time of doubt when one of their married children reneged on her Christian faith and left husband and children. What of all their prayers and Christian upbringing? Was God really in control? Many of us may look back at our mistakes and the bitter consequences that have followed and wonder the same. Our God is able to create something good even out of the bad things. When we repent and accept his forgiveness and grace, he is able to bring blessing out of the very worst mess we’ve made.
Preparing for death?
In Hindu faith, I’ve heard, old men spend the last period of their lives shedding their possessions and holding lightly to family ties.
Some leave home and live with nothing of their own. As a Christian, should I begin to shed some of my preoccupation with inessentials? Then I can fill the resulting vacuum with the things that really matter. Do I take time to be holy? To read the Scriptures and meditate on them? To use my less-pressured daily timetable to pray for others? There are always people in our church and family who need prayer; now we are older we have more time to bring their needs and problems to God.
Priest and author Henri Nouwen wrote about a near-death experience he had. During his time in hospital he put right any unresolved differences with others. A close friend took his messages to the people concerned. He recovered, but when he did die it was sudden and unexpected; he would have had no time then to put relationships right. The right time to do so is now.
Kevin had an outdoor job and decided to do a distance Bible course in his spare time to help him to serve and know God better. It was tough but he thoroughly enjoyed gaining new Bible knowledge. A few years later he was diagnosed with cancer and drastic surgery followed. It has left him frail, his future precarious. Yet he told me, “I’ve learned more these past months than I learned from my Bible course. I’ve known the Lord in a new way – sometimes his presence is so real that I feel I could reach out and touch him.”
Now is the time to grow in love – for God and for others. It’s possible to have an icy splinter in our hearts, to be critical, unaccepting and hardhearted.
How different from loving and gladly welcoming all because we ourselves have been accepted by God through Christ! Love is the fruit of the Holy Spirit; if we truly want him to, he can transform our cold hearts and give us hearts to love and praise God and one another. Love is the only thing that will endure. ‘In the evening of life,’ wrote St John of the Cross, ‘we shall be judged on our love.’