Walking with older saints

As the wife of a newly-appointed assistant pastor, I was nervous the first time I was asked to meet with an older lady from our church who knew she was going to die soon from cancer. What if I’m insensitive? Out of my depth? Wasn’t there someone more qualified?  

Thankfully, the Lord is kind and works despite and through our limitations. There was no-one else available and I stepped up. The months we met together were a surprising and beautiful place for me to learn to listen, love, and cherish the hope we shared. Needless to say, the Bible study guide on Hebrews that I had planned to use didn’t feature much. However, the hope in a mighty and compassionate Saviour who has gone ahead, even through death, and opened the way for us to come to God with confidence shone brighter for me than ever before, and more importantly (I trust) for her. 

What does ministry to seniors in your church look like?

Can I ask, what does ministry with senior saints in our churches look like? Beyond the socially / evangelistically-oriented coffee mornings, lunch clubs and the like (valuable though they are). In my experience, we don’t talk enough about death – in the concrete and personal, rather than just the theological and abstract. I suspect that if we aren’t growing in this – especially with older saints who are nearing the end of their lives, we all miss out on something really important. Are we practising connecting the gospel with the experience of our elderly brothers and sisters in ways that are in tune with their particular challenges and opportunities?  

Here are some reflections from my experience. I hope you will be able to add more from yours. I pray some of you may take the next step with someone the Lord has placed in your church family.  

Love demands my presence. It starts by moving towards the older person in my congregation with the expectation of mutual encouragement and friendship, not just care-giving. It requires time, planning and making sure I have a stock of lateral flow tests. With all the demands of the week, I need to be willing to slow down and really see this person as Christ sees her. Recently, I had the privilege of holding another friend’s hand while she briefly felt sorry for herself. She had had another bad fall, was bruised and sore, and worst of all, no-one in her care home had seemed to notice her that morning. “It was as if I was invisible.” Not to the Lord, of course, but how much better to receive that reminder with a physical hug. We drew strength from Psalm 27 that morning – calling to mind the Lord who is our light, salvation and stronghold and who never forsakes his children.  

Knowing another person is a truly unique gift, and a reflection of the God who is wonderfully personal. My friend is writing a poem about a believer who recently died. “No-one really remembers her as she was before” … before Alzheimer’s took its cruel toll. What makes my friend truly anxious, I suspect, is the thought that her mind could be so affected that she loses her sense of God. Others will have different fears, often unspoken unless we have taken time to really listen to the heart.  

To speak words of life that will encourage the weary soul – isn’t that our desire as biblical counsellors and as Christian friends? I can only speak personally into those fears that chip away at faith if I have listened well. Facing down the physical realities of ageing, frailty and dying, my friend needs to know with certainty that her life “is hidden with Christ in God” – eternally safe, heading for glory (Col 3:3-4). As we rub ointment into bruises, we can know the encouragement that “though our outward self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Cor 4:16).  

Your older friend will need different reminders and nudges to faithful living. They may need to be simple to remember, perhaps using visual prompts, a cherished hymn or a favourite Bible verse. These have real power to spur our friends on through the last (maybe gruelling) miles of the race – to keep persevering, turning and trusting. Let’s remind one another that home is in sight – that what is coming is life in all its technicolour wonder, as they finally see Jesus face-to-face (John 17:3).  

Times with an elderly saint who has walked with Jesus through the years are a rare privilege to be savoured. Being able to face death with the confidence of someone who knows Jesus is profoundly challenging to those of us who tend to keep it somewhere over the horizon of our daily consciousness. My friend is living day-to-day consciously on mission in her ‘rest home.’ As she deals with increasing frailty and limitations, she is letting gospel hope shine through the cracks. I love to encourage her in her calling and, as I do, I see Jesus more clearly as the ultimate treasure that cannot be taken away. She is getting ready to see our beloved bridegroom at last, face to face. The wait is nearly over. I can sense that excitement. It’s infectious!