Celebrating old age
Over the last year it has been my absolute pleasure and privilege to minister to some very special, and very old, people. Each week I lead a very simple act of worship at Greville House residential care home in Queens Road for the residents, staff and often visitors and family members who pop in to join us on a Thursday afternoon. I say simple but actually whilst the liturgy may be simple, the atmosphere, the sense of reverence, love and devotion is deep and awesome; every week I come away feeling blessed and humbled; the residents minister to me as much, if not more, than I minister to them. For the residents at Greville their weekly act of worship is hugely valued because it connects them to us, to those of us who are still physically and mentally able to come to this temple and worship alongside one another, who are still able to learn together, pray together, sing together, and support and uphold one another through the ups and downs of life. It is said that you don’t value what you have until it’s gone, and it’s true in the case of these beautiful people who are coming to the end of their lives, coping with challenging diseases like dementia, or the misery of living in bodies which are frankly worn out. They miss what they used to have: the freedom to come to Church and meet with their friends whenever they liked.
Of the residents who attend our little service about half used to attend church regularly, and the rest remember school assemblies, and going to church at Xmas and Easter and for weddings and funerals. Even those who didn’t connect with church regularly, if at all, will tell you they felt a sense of belonging because they knew the Vicar, or they had been married in church, and their children had been christened and went to Sunday School. But now, as they near the end of their earthly lives they are recognising God’s presence in their lives, and our conversations – and questioning – is honest, sincere and heartfelt. They know their need for God now more than ever, and it can be quite distressing for people who are no longer able to live independently, to worry that they have been forgotten not only by the Church, but also by God. Relatives of those with dementia are especially anxious to know that even though their relative has lost memory, identity and sense of being, God has not forgotten them or stopped loving them.
Every week I keep a record of the theme of our worship – the readings, the resources I use, the hymns we sing and how we pray. I also make a note of the things which have surprised me, those moments when the Holy Spirit’s presence is palpable and powerfully felt. One week, feeling the need to address in some helpful way this sense of being forgotten, I took along a mirror, and after reading some words of psalm 139 (God knowing us better than we know ourselves, and holding us and loving us whether we fly with angels or fall with dust), I invited each resident to look in to the mirror. What did they see? Who did they see? Well, not themselves of course (people with dementia are not usually living in the here and now, in their minds eye they are still a child, or a young adult) but they smiled and the person in the mirror smiled back. And they smiled some more, and really liked the person who was smiling back at them. I told them that God loved the person they could see, and they agreed that that person was beautiful, and they were happy that God loved them. And then I told them that God loved them, and they looked surprised for a moment and then when the news registered they beamed with joy. And as I struggled to keep the tears at bay, I looked around me and found the carers and the family members who’d joined us, weeping, not just out of sadness for what their loved ones had lost, but for what they had found, a recognition that they are indeed loved, valued, cherished, and known by and to God. And that God will never forsake or forget them. The sense of Christ’s presence in the room that afternoon was overwhelming. I tell you this story because we all need to hear that even in our old age we are cherished for who we are, not for who or what we used to be and do.
So, this week, as we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple – Candlemas – at a time when the Church is pre-occupied with how it relates to the young, I rejoice that today we focus our attention for once on those of more advanced years. Our worship today is a great celebration of the grace that age and life experience brings. From the very beginning of his gospel Luke emphasises to his friend Theophilus the heart of what he is trying to say: that God is doing something new, something outrageous, something which will turn not just the Jewish nation upside down, but the gentile world – the whole world – too. And he begins by working with and through, not the energetic bright young things, but the older generation, those ‘getting on in years’ as Luke delicately describes them.
Luke’s Gospel opens with the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth who were the parents of John the Baptist, and for them the news of their son’s birth, brought to Zechariah by the angel Gabriel while he was carrying out his priestly duties in the temple, came as a terrible shock. Surely they were far too old to be pregnant! There are echoes in this story of that of Abraham and Sarah who also became parents well into their old age. Sarah laughed at the prospect of God doing something impossible through her old and worn out body, and yet it was through Abraham and Sarah ‘in their old age’ that a whole nation was born when their son Isaac entered the world.
Candlemas is a celebration of the faith of the older generation, when we remember that God works in and through those people society generally disregards. Simeon and Anna, like Sarah, Abraham, Zachariah and Elizabeth were also way passed the first flush of youth, in fact Luke tells us that Anna was of a great age. They had waited quietly, patiently and prayerfully in the background for the day when new light would dawn and God’s Messiah would finally come in to the world. They were each in their own way prepared to accept and work with, whatever God was about to reveal to them. And when the infant Jesus was brought in to the temple to be dedicated to the Lord their moment arrived and they shared with the whole congregation what the Holy Spirit had revealed to them through their life of prayer and devotion. Once again, those ‘getting on in years’ are at the heart of the Gospel.
I remember a bishop telling me about the impact his aged Aunt Doris had on him as he grew up, and I think lots of us have had this kind of influence in our lives. He spoke of his Aunt Doris, who was an ardent 8 o’clocker, she was a quiet and reserved old lady, she didn’t attend any other service in church, didn’t get involved in her church’s social life or its politics, didn’t belong to a bible study or prayer group, she just quietly sat in the pew on a Sunday morning, said her prayers through the familiar words of the Book of Common Prayer, said good morning to the vicar and left. She wasn’t evangelistic, wouldn’t even have known what that meant, and yet through her quiet devotion and the way her Christian faith gently informed and shaped her life she did little acts of kindness, she helped her neighbour when she saw a need, she loved her family, and went about her daily business with a quiet confidence. And it was that quiet grace-filled witness that shaped a future bishop and led him to faith in a God who works in ways we often miss because we are looking in the wrong place.
Candlemas is a day to celebrate our Aunt Dorises, for the residents of Greville House, for all our congregation members whose sense of duty and service has sustained our churches over recent decades and who often feel forgotten, especially as they become less able to ‘do their bit’ in more visible ways. Candlemas is a festival which reminds us to say thank you to the generation of people brought up, not in the all singing, all dancing, social-media tweeting, coffee drinking fresh expressions of today’s church, but in the church rooted in the 1662 prayer book, the psalms and the King James Bible.
The generation who faithfully pay their way and live quiet lives of devotion without fuss or favour make up a good proportion of our congregations, they help to keep our Anglican traditions alive, and are an important reminder today to the rest of the church, along with Simeon and Anna, that age, experience and gentle trust, along with quiet witnessing, faithful praying and patient waiting are important ingredients in God’s church.
It’s right and good that we express our faith afresh in and to each new generation – the Church encourages us to do that, and fresh expressions and new ways of communication and engagement are vital if we are to speak to an unchurched generation – but in the process we need to recognise and cherish what’s gone before, and not to forget those who have forgotten themselves. Because it’s upon those firm foundations, on the love and devotion to Christ shown by the generation who have lived through some great moments of history, who have survived the challenges of war and deprivation, and adapted and been changed by the incredible advances which science and technology have brought to the world through their life-times – it’s this courageous, faithful generation, for whom duty and service has been at the centre of their witness to God and to the Church, that tomorrow’s church will be built. When God does something new, it’s usually born out of the old.