How easy it is to judge as the world judges. What’s your image of success? What would you look for in a minister to increase the numbers in your congregation? Who would you put into leadership positions? Why?What does strength look like?
I was pondering these things this week as I read 1 Corinthians 12 with an older lady from my congregation who is not able to get out much anymore. We were thinking about the different parts of the body of Christ in this passage—the foot, the ear, the eye—the many members in the one body. Recently I have been visiting some elderly saints and the passage has continued to resonate.
These members of my congregation are in various stages of illness and agedness, and their past years of service are receding from memory. Once actively involved in the life of the church, they are now mostly confined to their own homes, waiting for others to serve them, waiting for professional “caregivers” to bring them meals, help them wash, and get them up and dressed.
“Getting old is not for wimps,” one of my mother’s friends used to say. How right she was. At first glance (and at quite a few glances) it is hard to see past much of the indignity of it all: strangers coming in and out of your home without a by-your-leave, helping with the most intimate of tasks, invading your privacy when at your most vulnerable, poking in cupboards to find the cups and saucers because the post-it note attached to the door detailing its contents has fallen on the tiles. How would I react to this sense of helpless dependence on the mostly-kind but sometimes careless?
What I have seen in recent weeks is such a triumph of sanctification in situations that I think I would find impossible. We are so used to our independence and seeming autonomy; when I contemplate a life in which this is no longer possible, I fill with dread. But what have I witnessed?
One couple who are pretty much confined to their little house have carers who call 4 times a day. After a lifetime in pastoral ministry in a number of towns, their world has shrunk to a couple of rooms, but their opportunity to evangelize has suddenly grown exponentially. These aged ambassadors for Christ are welcoming strangers into the embassy and giving them glimpses of what the kingdom looks like. Here is visible love and kindness and patience; here is wise counsel to caregivers they have come to know and casual comments about the church service they have shared in (despite its being through their rickety DVD player). The Bibles in rooms, the verses dropped into conversation, the mini-sermons; the sword still sharpened. By the strength of God’s might, the shield of faith is still held against the arrows of the Fall and the flaming darts of the evil one (Ephesians 6).
Others less adept at explicit evangelism, bring glory to God through their constancy (Titus 2:5). I visited an elderly lady in much pain after she slipped in her kitchen. At 92 she lives alone while her husband is in a local care facility for patients with Alzheimer’s. She was barely able to stand or move at all, and she was badly bruised, but she wondered if I would help her: could I go to the supermarket to get her some gluten free flour so she could make her husband the oatmeal cookies she brings him every week? Quiet, enduring, selfless love. I am not recounting this to tug at the heartstrings. This lady’s life is hard; these lives are not sentimental versions of Christian triumph that we might have been brought up with as children, or which might be all too present now in Instagram accounts or church testimonials. But they are true and speak to God’s grace and strength even as the body grows weaker.
The lady with whom I was reading the passage in 1 Corinthians was bemused by the three phrases the care company manager had written under “client information.” This lady, faithful in her vocation as a high school principal’s secretary for more than 40 years, a Sunday school teacher for over 60 years, a prayer warrior for missionaries all over the world, a godly example to friend and neighbor, had peeked at her file on the kitchen table. What was the important information to note about this wonderful sister in Christ? “Speaks clearly, has one hearing aid, wears glasses.” The kingdom of the world can slice away at the most robust identity! But this lady in her late eighties knew that the “client information” could be reduced even more; all it needed to say was, “In Christ.”
When hoping to strengthen weak limbs and encourage runners nearing the end of the race, I have often been faced with frail bodies but steadfast faith. I want to get some cosy knitwear to give to these old saints, with lettering picked out in gold, “this is what muscular Christianity looks like.”
Because we are body-soul unities, physical and spiritual issues intersect in ways that can't be easily pulled apart.