A couple of weeks back, after my “Heaven Bound for Singles” sermon, I mentioned to Bradley that my next sermon in the series would be directed at older Christians. “You’d better make it interesting, then,” he replied. “Otherwise, we’re likely to go to sleep on you.”
All humor aside, the reality is that old age is a very different stage of life. The boundaries of this time aren’t sharply defined—getting your AARP card in the mail doesn’t automatically age you 20 years—but most Christians sooner or later find themselves in a very different place. Their physical abilities are different. Their mental abilities are different. Their relationships with other Christians are different. Indeed, the ways they serve God are different. It can be extremely difficult to reconcile all of these changes with a sense of self that they established when they were 40.
At this point, I’m reasonably certain that some of you are thinking, “Yes, we know all this, but what do you know about it, o preacher who is 40 years younger than I am?” Admittedly, I haven’t gone through all of these things myself, but I did go through them with my dad. He and I were very close, particularly during the last years of his life, and I learned a lot from him about the experience of growing old and even dying.
Similarly, while I was writing this sermon, I did research. I called older Christian friends of mine, went through my outline with them, and asked them what they thought. My final product this morning reflects those things, so with much humility, and with some trepidation about outrunning my experience, I’d like to talk to you about what it means to be heaven bound for seniors.
In particular, I have five pieces of advice to dispense. The first of them is to STRIVE TO CONNECT. We see a reminder of the importance of connection with other Christians in Romans 1:11-12. Even so great a man as the apostle Paul still needed to be encouraged through contact with the faith of others.
I think that generally, we acknowledge the truth of this. After all, our need for spiritual support from others is why Christ founded the church—so that we can help each other get to heaven. However, I think that we pay less attention to the way that the onset of old age tends to isolate and separate older Christians.
Most obviously, health issues are a problem here. It’s hard to get up and do and be involved when your good days feel about like your bad days did 30 years ago! As a result, the older you get, the less likely you are to show up for showers and potlucks and Bible studies and even assemblies.
I think even more than that, though, social changes are responsible for isolation. As I’ve discussed before, our ideal Christian is somebody who is married and has kids still at home. We know right where to put somebody like that. However, once your kids are gone and maybe even your spouse dies, where once you used to find yourself in the center of things, now you’re on the outside looking in.
The only way to solve the problem is to be involved anyway. Show up for things, even if you aren’t feeling your best. Reach out to others. Above all, look for isolated people who need attention and welcome them. I understand how hard this can be. I had many, many conversations with my dad about it! However, contact with brethren will enrich our lives in the way that nothing else can.
Second, senior-citizen Christians should remember to DO WHAT THEY CAN. Look at Jesus’ words about Mary in Mark 14:6-8. What a compliment this is! If we will only do what we can, God will always be pleased with us.
However, over time, our capacities change, and for most older brethren, they diminish. That’s hard to deal with on its own, and I think it’s made even harder by the way that the service we offer God informs our sense of self. We say to ourselves, “I’m valuable in the kingdom because I do X, Y, and Z,” but if we can’t do those things anymore, then what good are we?
First, I think we must recognize that we serve a God who knows our frame, and He is often more compassionate toward us than we are toward ourselves. We don’t have to worry about Him being upset with us. He understands.
However, I think we must also remember that if we can’t do everything, nearly all of us can do something. Here, my great example is Lauren’s grandmother Dell Richardson. During her last years, she reached the point where she couldn’t even make it out to services anymore, but that didn’t stop her from serving. Instead, she wrote cards, thousands of cards, to everybody in a congregation twice as big as this one. If you had a birthday or an anniversary, if you were in the hospital, if you attracted notice in any way, you got a card from Dell. She had almost no opportunities for service left, but she used an opportunity she did have to brighten the lives of everybody in her church. Let’s all of us, young and old alike, learn from her to do what we can!
Third, older Christians must BE HONEST ABOUT DEPRESSION. Consider Solomon’s grim prediction in Ecclesiastes 12:1. The sad truth is that for most of us, these evil days and years without delight are coming. My father enjoyed 50 blissful years with my mother, but even though he lived for six years after she died, I don’t think he took delight in a single one of those days.
This is an common experience for older people, and one of its consequences is that although people of any age can suffer from depression, it is most prevalent among the elderly. That certainly was my dad’s experience. All through his adult life, he was competent, capable, and happy—a real man’s man. During those last years, though, he told me several times that he struggled with anxiety and depression.
Brethren, it is long past time for us to stop hiding these things in the shadows, as though there were something shameful about mental illness. It’s not the result of lack of faith. It’s not the result of weakness. It’s the result of brain chemistry and the sorrows of this present age bringing us to a point where we can’t hold our heads up anymore. When we deny this and insist that a good Christian will blow right through it with God’s help, we lead one another into great and needless suffering.
Instead, we need to treat mental illness like other forms of illness—something you tell your doctor about so you can get help. One of my great regrets in life is that my dad never did get that help. My friends, don’t be like that. Don’t be ashamed of going through evil days. Instead, be honest about where you are so others can help you.
Next, I encourage my older brothers and sisters to CONTINUE TO TRUST. Look at the sentiment of Psalm 37:25. God does not abandon His people. Not ever.
However, there are times in our lives when this is easier to appreciate than others. When everything is going our way and we’re happy, yep, God’s right there with us. No doubt about it! However, I find that I, at least, struggle more with accepting this when things aren’t going my way. Here I am, going through this rough patch in my life, where things keep not going right and not going right, and I start wondering whether my Father is indifferent to my suffering.
I’ve found, though, that God always has something in mind. Maybe there were lessons that I needed to learn. Maybe He needed to equip me so that I could bless others. Sure, there is suffering in the life of the Christian, but it is never needless suffering unless we make it needless by refusing to turn to Him.
I think this goes double for older Christians. Here, I can’t help but be reminded of my brother Burley back in Joliet. Burley is a large older gentleman who has bad knees. Even several years ago, it was agony for him to make it up the stairs into the Joliet auditorium. I asked him once why he did it. He replied, “To be an encouragement to others.”
I do not believe for a second that God will allow Burley’s example, or the countless other examples like it, to go to waste. It’s easy to say that assembling with the saints is important, but Burley proved that it was important. Nobody enjoys suffering, but it can provide us with an opportunity to let our light shine.
Finally, older Christians especially must REMEMBER THEIR HOPE. Consider with me 1 Peter 1:3-5. There are lots of things I love about this text, but I think my very favorite is the language it uses to describe our eternal inheritance. It is imperishable, undefiled, unfading, and kept in heaven for us. Throughout this sermon, we’ve talked a lot about how things change as we get older, and usually not for the better, but one thing that does not change and cannot change is the certainty of our hope. Every faithful Christian is heaven-bound, and as long as we stay faithful, there is no force in heaven or on earth that can do a thing about it!
In the last years of our lives, there can be no greater consolation than this thought. Here too, this is something that my dad and I talked about a great deal. He never lost much mental function, and he knew perfectly well that he was dying. It took him some time to get settled in his mind about it, but at the last, he approached the end with confidence. He had this confidence not because he founded his hope on himself, but because he founded it on what we read about here. He founded it on the great mercy of God.
What a realization that is to hold onto when we confront our own mortality! All of us know that we’re imperfect people, so if we hope in ourselves, that hope can never be more than imperfect. However, if we hope in God, His perfection can support that burden. No one who hopes in Him will be disappointed.
Death is an awesome thing to consider, particularly when it’s our own death we’re considering. Even Jesus didn’t want to die. However, if we die in Christ, we can be sure that for us, death is not the end. It is the beginning.