Most of us don’t have any regular contact with the Aged. Maybe you make a semi-regular visit to a relative, maybe you come across elderly people in your line of work, and for most of us that’s probably about it. I’m reasonably sure that there aren’t too many people of my age and cultural background who seek out the company of Older People. We know this means they are likely to be lonely and feel neglected, and I think it makes us feel a little guilty, but the truth is, being with Old People is hard.
I’ve been on a mission team, either with Uni students or Moore College, every year now for the past 13 years. And every mission trip has involved ministry to Seniors. I’ve sung, preached, talked, and held hands with people in nursing homes all up and down the coast of New South Wales. It doesn’t get any easier, but nearly always it has been a beautiful experience: beautiful and unsettling.
It was so again yesterday when we visited Buckland Village with our team. The crowd had already been gathered when we arrived, about 20 people, nearly all with walking-frames parked by the wall. They were listening to a lady playing the piano. so I sat and listened with them as her music flowed. She was wonderful, she must have been astonishingly good when she was younger. But when the music stopped, I watched her struggle to get up from the piano stool, and then, with obvious pain, lower herself onto a chair for the rest of the session.
Older people embody our personal eschatology. Not the final point, obviously, but a stage through which many of us will pass. Yet often frailty and the accelerating power of death over a person’s body can be entirely absent from eschatological conceptions, whether secular or Christian. (By ‘eschatology’ I mean ‘the end toward which all things move’). Secular eschatology falls damningly silent after setting forth the glories of a well-supported retirement. Christian eschatology tends to skip a track between ‘Hale and Hearty Middle Age’ and ‘Bodily Resurrection’. I even wonder whether squeamishness about age contributes to the emphasis on more ‘Rapturous’ type eschatology in some Christian circles. After all, getting swept up into the air is far more glamorous than grinding out your final years in a nursing home.
Contrast that with Jesus, talking about his personal eschatology:
“I assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop. (John 12:24 HCSB)
Now look at how Paul takes up this metaphor and works with it:
So it is with the resurrection of the dead:
Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption; sown in dishonor, raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power; sown a natural body, raised a spiritual body.
(1Corinthians 15:42-44 HCSB)
For the vast majority of us, the way to The Future lies through death. It will involve the loss of function, the loss of dignity, the loss of power. At the end, all you will have left is either the knowledge that you are dust, or that you are a seed (1Cor 15:47-48).
Dust or Seed, when you plant them it makes a difference. But you can’t avoid being planted.
Thus the Aged unsettle us.
But for the Christian, the more death seems to take, the more God works through this to restore the true image of his Son. In the Christian Aged, God’s power is made perfect in weakness because there is nothing more essentially human than to be utterly dependant upon God. Theirs is an inalienable dignity.
I remember watching my Grandma Joy die like this. (you can read about it here)
The more Death takes – the greater the frailty, the blindness, the pain – the more he does another’s work.
O Death, where is your victory?
O Death, where is your sting?
And thus the Aged are beautiful.
Sure, they can be crotchety and difficult, but the best kinds of beauty are difficult to appreciate at first. We must pray that God would give us Good Taste.
Later I talked with the lady at the piano and told her how much I enjoyed her playing. She told me that the morphine had stolen large chunks of her memory, and cataracts made it difficult for her to see the sheet music, so when she plays the music comes from her ears and her heart. That’s the kind of music that echoes the life which is welling up inside her, a little testimony to the One who, everything he touches comes alive.