Things I’ve Learned From Elderly Saints
Robert Wurtz II
The glory of young men is their strength, And the splendor of old men is their gray head. (Proverbs 20:29)
It is sometimes hard to imagine that every elderly person that we come into contact with was young once. The unlocked wheels of time have a way of changing the appearance of a person until they no longer resemble the man or woman of their youth. The time would fail to go on describing the many people I have walked into their room and there, sitting on a nightstand or dresser, were the pictures of the person that once was. Men who were accomplished athletes and pictures of strength and masculinity; ladies that were as beautiful as any who graced the cover of a magazine or starred in a Hollywood movie. Indeed, the glory of youth is a fleeting thing. If God should will it and we live an abundance of years, we too, will look on as our golden, auburn, brown or black heads turn in uniformity to grey or white. Some of us will lose it all together.
As a Christian I have often wondered how an elderly person can go on expressing their faith in a meaningful way. Consider their circumstances. Among the first things to go are your sight and hearing. This presents a great challenge. Consider some of these problems:
If a person cannot see, how will they read their Bible?
If a person cannot hear, how will they listen to someone else read it to them?
If they lose their mobility and become confined to a bed, how will they attend church meetings?
If they lose their mental capacity, how will they assemble their thoughts?
If they are in pain and medicated, how will they think clearly at all?
If their voice and lung capacity is lost, how will they sing the songs and hymns that once encouraged them? They can sing them to themselves, but this implies recollection of the lyrics. Most elderly believers cannot see a songbook well enough to sing from it- no matter how large the font.
If a person suffers from any combination of these problems, how will they share their faith with others? How can they express their faith at all?
Over the years I have met numerous Christians that no longer had the ability to express their faith as they did in their youth. Some were pastors or chaplains; some were Sunday School teachers and choir members. Some were born again as a child and were used to going to meetings several times a week- reading their Bible and all other standard Christian exercises. But now, for many of them, none of these things are possible. Imagine living, wondering, if you will wake up tomorrow, but physically and mentally struggle to express your faith as you once did. What do I do now?
I often say that the longest and loneliest valley a Christian will ever walk will be the final months and years of their long life. Usually they that hear me say that push the thought as far back into their mind as they possibly can- hoping it will never be true of them. I could not possible list the number of times I have heard elderly saints ask for prayer that their family would come to visit them. Loneliness is often the only faithful earthly companion of the elderly. Well, we can avoid this by dying young, but there are few in line wanting to do that.
One thing I have learned from elderly saints is that we must prepare ourselves now for the circumstances of old age. Once you are old you will generally no longer desire or be able to “keep in check” the feelings and attitudes dwelling just under the surface of your personality. You will be so distraught at your circumstances that you no longer care what people think. You will likely speak your mind for good or evil. Keep that close to your mind and guard your heart with all diligence. In other words, the time to get deliverance from hard feelings and ill temper is now. Because if it is still there when you are older, it will typically come out in unguarded moments. What else ought we to do to prepare for the older years?
First, we must become men and women of prayer. Understand that prayer is the primary way that you and I express our faith. Abraham had no Bible, but he built altars for prayer. The old timers used to say that we need to learn to pray until we touch God. Others have said we need to pray that the Holy Spirit come and anoint us to pray. That is a way of saying that God is enabling us to pray above and beyond the “lay me down to sleep” type of praying. Prayer is our lifeline to God. We ignore it to our own peril.
The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray in Luke 11:1ff. John the Baptist taught his disciples how to pray as well. This is amazing. The greatest Prophet of the Old Testament was a teacher of prayer. Leonard Ravenhill used to say that no man of God is greater than his prayer life. As John the Baptist, Jesus took time and taught His disciples to pray as well. He taught them the content of prayer and the necessity of prayer. When faced with the cross He fell to the ground and cried out in prayer. A wise man once said that prayer doesn’t change God- it changes us. Prayer is the bringing of our will into harmony with God’s will. Jesus ended His prayer with, “Nevertheless, not my will but thine be done.”
There will come a time when all we can do is pray, so we need to be praying men and women now. Like the foolish virgins who left to get oil when the Bridegroom was coming- so too are they who wait to develop a prayer life until they perceive the need. By the time a person is in a crisis there is no time to develop a prayer life. We need to be able to touch God in an instant.
The early church did not have Bibles to carry around or ipods to listen to music. The printed page did not exist until the 1400s. This is very much like the daily life of elderly saints. All of their faith and their understanding of it was what they had hidden in their hearts when they were physically and mentally able. They are living off of those reserves. This is a very sobering consideration. someday all we will have as means to express our faith is what we have built into our life and practice right now. I am afraid that in modern times we risk becoming too dependent on our books and gadgets- not knowing that at some point they will be rendered useless to us. We must put to memory the scriptures, now. We must commit to our minds edifying song lyrics, now. We must build altars of prayer, now.