A Gospel for old people
Jesse was born early on Thursday 24th April. Anne brought him home late morning on the following day Friday 25th April. That afternoon I was due to speak at the Peel Moat Nursing Home. So at 1.30 pm, I left Anne in her mum’s capable care and headed over to Heaton Chapel. When I arrived, Rebecca and Charlotte were already there. They had caught the train in from Macclesfield to join us. A little later Linda and James Hart and Rose also arrived. (Other folk who would normally have been there couldn’t make it this time.)
We found more elderly folk waiting for us in the lounge than ever. I counted fifteen: all but one of them ladies. It was one of those occasions when everything went wrong, probably in part because I was so disorganised. I found I had left my carefully prepared notes at home. The electronic keyboard I had brought to accompany the singing didn’t work. And one dear lady insisted on reading through each hymn at the top of her voice, over and over again, regardless of what was going on around her. So I had to pray and read against the background of her chant, plus the equally distracting voices of the folk who were busy hushing her up. Then, the staff had to come in at one point to take out one lady whose visitors had arrived. And so it went on…
Whenever we hold services in nursing-homes, we face practical difficulties like these. But they’re not the greatest difficulties. Those problems can be overcome. Charlotte heroically volunteered to pitch our hymns and we sang unaccompanied. And there were no complaints! Our one gentleman resident took charge of the lady with the loud voice and persuaded her to hand back her hymn sheet at the end of each hymn. When the staff came in to take the other lady out, we just paused, waited, then restarted, taking it as an opportunity to remind them all of what we had already said. No, these things aren’t the real problems.
These folk are old. They suffer from the physical and mental disabilities that are part of old age. Some were asleep before the service began and were still asleep when it ended. Some are hard of hearing or profoundly deaf. I speak as loudly as I can without bawling but even so, I’m sure some don’t hear. Some are very confused. They look at me with eyes wide open, I think they’re drinking in every word – and then they interrupt with some completely irrelevant comment and I realise they’ve understood nothing.
The book of Ecclesiastes includes a powerful poetic picture of old age and its limitations. It compares a human being to a great house where the inhabitants one by one stop working.
“Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come and the years draw near in which you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in them’; before the sun and the light and the moon and the stars are darkened… when the keepers of the house (the hands) tremble, and the strong men (the legs) are bent, and the grinders (the teeth) cease because they are few, and those who look through the windows (the eyes) are dimmed, and when the doors on the street (the ears) are shut…” (Ch 12:1- 4) That’s old age – the trembling hands, the bowed legs, the teeth falling out, the dim eyes, the deaf ears. And the writer’s application is this: “Remember your Creator while you are still young, before those days come..”
Many of the elderly people we meet refused to remember their Creator when they were young. They put it off, assuming they’d have opportunity to get right with God in later life. But now they are old and their faculties are gone. What huge barriers there are preventing them from hearing and understanding the gospel now! They closed their ears; now they have no ears to hear.
We daren’t say it is impossible for them to be saved. Often we pray that just one sentence – a line from a hymn, a phrase from a sermon – will find its way past the barriers and penetrate the heart. When we chat with them afterwards, often we repeat a single Bible verse over and over again, in the hope that it will lodge in their mind. But we know that apart from a miracle, the truth will never get past the barriers age has created.
And if it does? Then there are still greater obstacles to be faced. All of these elderly folk think of themselves as Christians. Most of then have been church-goers at some time in their life. They went to Sunday-school as children; some became Sunday-school teachers themselves. They were taught that God accepts anyone who does his best. Be kind to everyone and you’ll get to heaven. They’ve never been taught that God is holy, and that nothing less than perfection will meet his standard. They’ve never been shown the horror of sin. Nor have they learned to see themselves as sinners. They’ve never understood that only the blood of a perfect sacrifice can atone for sin. They were never told to turn from their attempts to be good, to cling to Christ alone. They think they know what Christianity is but they know nothing of repentance or faith.
And now, whatever we say is put through the filter of their false religion. We say, “You can do nothing to save yourself”. And they say “Yes, I know, we must do our best, mustn’t we?” We talk of sin and death and judgement and hell and they say, “Thank you, that was lovely. Such a nice service”. Religiosity and self-righteousness is the greatest barrier of all to the message of salvation.
Yet Nicodemus was born again when he was old. He renounced his religion of good works and came to Christ (John 3:1-15; 7:50, 19:39). Will you pray that the same miracle will come to many of these elderly folk to whom we preach the gospel at Peel Moat and Reinbek? Come with us if you can to one of the services. You may not be able to come every month, but come once at least, meet the folk, stay and chat with them for a while. It’s easier to pray for people once you’ve met them face to face.
Paradoxically, meeting these elderly folk will stir you up to seek more urgently the salvation of children and young people. Now is the time for our children to hear God’s word – while they have their ears, their memories and their minds. Now is the time for the youngsters on the streets and in the Sunday-school to be confronted with the truth. We may think it’s hard to make them listen now – but at least they have their hearing! And most of them don’t imagine that they’re already Christians.
One day our child – or yours – may be a little old man in a nursing-home, deaf, confused, unable to remember his own name. We hope that there will be Christian people then who will visit him, read God’s word to him, sing hymns with him. But more important, we hope that he will have Christ in his heart then. We must bring our children to Christ now, while they are young.