Facing old age

By David Helyar

old‘Is it a mistake that you are still alive?’ Perhaps not the kind of question you expect to face when you attend a Synod residential retreat! But a real and a searching question, nevertheless. Should you dare to respond that ‘it certainly is no mistake!’, then the next question is just as searching, ‘So, what are you alive for?’

For two days at the Emmaus Centre in West Wickham, we were challenged to consider what it means for us to grow old. Using Bible passages, poems, stories, music, videos and plenty of silence, we were enabled, in a down-to-earth but spiritually uplifting way, to face the reality of old age. Admittedly, most of us were old already, so it was a fitting and challenging theme which even the one or two slightly younger members found to be an enriching and stimulating focus for reflection.

The questions continued, and every one of them addressed the reality of the ageing process:

‘What frightens me about getting old?’ For me it was the thought of losing control and independence, of having to rely on others and perhaps become a nuisance and a burden. These thoughts, and many others, came to me in the silence. Yet they also led me to the Psalms and to the comforting words that, even in old age, God will not forsake me and will still allow my life to bear fruit. I reflected also on how God placed Jesus into human hands at his birth and again in his suffering and death. It is in our vulnerability that we experience God’s grace and in dying that we are raised to eternal life.

‘What are the good things about growing old?’ Being free to say ‘No’, enjoying concessions, reminiscing with peers, getting up when you like, having a free television licence, experiencing a greater appreciation of simple things and more time to reflect and pray. The list of good things seemed endless!

But the next session brought me back to earth. We were reminded that ‘a Christian never retires.’ So some of the ‘good things’ I had listed were obviously rather selfish and I needed to do some rethinking as well as some confessing. We were also challenged to confess if there were elements of being rigid in our thinking, pessimistic about the future whilst living in the past, always knowing best.

‘And what about the challenge of having experience to share when no one wants to hear it?’ I was left with mixed feelings but also with gratitude to family and friends for their patience and understanding, and to God for being a faithful friend to me in Jesus, to whom I can take everything in prayer.

If, as Christians, we never retire, does God have a new calling for me? Is it time that I changed my methods, recognising that old age makes different demands on my time? Certainly for me, retirement from full-time ministry has allowed more time for the family and the opportunity to do new things like operating the till in an Oxfam shop.

So, is it a mistake that I am still alive? Only God can answer that question because only he knows me better than I know myself. And in his mercy and by his grace ‘I am alive to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever.’