Longevity is one of the greatest achievements of our modern era. The United Nations calls it one of the most significant social transformations of the 21st century. Advances in health care are a major factor in lengthening our lives. Over the past 20 years the number of people in Britain aged 100, or over, has quadrupled. There are now 2.7 million people in Britain aged over 80 and life expectancy continues to increase. But increasing length of life does not guarantee quality of life or make us more ready to face death and eternity.
The increase in life expectancy is bringing major challenges to our society, especially in caring for older people. A recent report highlighted a shortage of care home beds. In 5 years there will be 42,000 fewer care home beds than are needed. This raises big questions for those who are elderly, for their families and for our society. Our modern “progressive” society is changing. The influence of churches has significantly decreased and secular thinking is more common. An increasing number of families are reluctant to take on the care of their elderly parents.
The Bible encourages us all to consider how we live and how we prepare for our old age. We all need to lay down the essential foundations for our later years. In Psalm 71 the psalmist says to God, “My life is an example to many, because you have been my strength and protection. That is why I can never stop praising you; I declare your glory all day long. And now, in my old age, don’t set me aside. Don’t abandon me when my strength is failing.” Older people can be a great example to the younger generation. In Psalm 92 we read, “The godly will flourish like palm trees and grow strong like the cedars of Lebanon. Even in old age they will still produce fruit; they will remain vital and green.”
The early Christians lovingly cared for widows but also encouraged their families to care for them. “Take care of any widow who has no one else to care for her. But if she has children or grandchildren, their first responsibility is to show godliness at home and repay their parents by taking care of them. This is something that pleases God.” When we reach the end of our lives, as all of us must, it is a great blessing to be surrounded by our loved ones as we leave this world and pass into the presence of God.
Just before midnight on New Year’s Eve clocks in countries using Greenwich Mean Time were adjusted as one second was added to 2016. This was done to compensate for a slight slowdown in the Earth’s rotation caused by a small wobble in the Earth’s rotation. The National Physical Laboratory, which is responsible for the UK’s national time scale, uses an atomic clock to provide a stable and continuous timescale. This is the 27th time a leap second has been added.
We live in an amazing universe that is wonderfully stable and predictable. It’s hard to believe it all came into existence by chance. The book of Genesis, the first book in the Bible, begins with a majestic account of God creating the heavens and the earth in six days, or rotations of the earth on its axis. On the fourth day God said, “Let lights appear in the sky to separate the day from the night. Let them be signs to mark the seasons, days, and years. Let these lights in the sky shine down on the earth.”
Recognising there is a Creator provides stability and hope for our lives as a New Year begins. Many years ago a young man we knew died in road accident. Just after Christmas he was on his way to work when his car hit ice and he lost control. The car hit a tree and David was very seriously injured. After some days in intensive care he died. His wife, Brenda, was a Christian. In her deep sadness she found strength in God and hope as she faced the future. This hope was expressed in the words of one of the hymns we sang at David’s funeral. They speak to us all as we enter this New Year.
“I do not know what lies ahead, the way I cannot see, but One stands near to be my guide, He’ll show the way to me. I do not know how many days of life are mine to spend, but One who knows and cares for me will keep me to the end. I do not know the course ahead, what joys and griefs are there, but One stands near who fully knows, I’ll trust his loving care. I know who holds the future and He’ll guide me with his hand, with God things don’t just happen, everything by Him is planned. So as I face tomorrow, with its problems large and small, I’ll trust the God of miracles, give to Him my all.”
One day in 1981 paramedic Denny Welsh was flying in an air rescue helicopter near Tucson in Arizona. As he looked down at the State Route 86 highway he saw a car sliding on its roof. Suddenly something flew out of the windscreen and Denny realised it was a car seat. The pilot landed the helicopter and Denny ran to the car seat and found an 18-month-old baby in it. The little girl, Misty, wasn’t breathing, so Denny resuscitated her. Denny put the mother and her baby girl into the helicopter and took them to the hospital. In the helicopter Denny resuscitated the baby girl again. Misty was treated at the hospital and recovered.
A few weeks ago Denny, who is now retired, met Misty for the first time since the day of the accident. She had been told by doctors that because of injuries to her pelvis, caused by the accident, she would never be able to have children, but she has a son. It was an emotional meeting because, until she met Denny, Misty hadn’t realised how close to death she had come that day. If Denny and the rescue helicopter hadn’t been on the scene so quickly she would certainly have died. Denny said, “It was just a miracle that we happened to be there at the right place at the right time. Misty made it by the grace God.”
Jesus told his disciples about the amazing way in which God cared for them. He said, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” He also spoke of God’s special concern for little children, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”
Every Christian knows that they have received eternal life only because Jesus saved them by dying on the cross for their sins. They can never thank him enough for his amazing love. One hymn says, “It was a lonely path he trod, from every human soul apart; known only to himself and God was all the grief that filled his heart. Yet from the track he turned not back, till where I lay in want and shame, he found me – Blessed be his name!”
The debate on the Assisted Dying Bill provoked strong views on both sides. The Bill proposed giving people the “right-to-die”. If the Bill had become law then terminally ill patients in England and Wales with less than 6 months to live, who understood the alternatives, would have been able to make a choice about the time of their death. Doctors would have been able to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs which the patient themselves would have administered. After a full, and often emotional, debate the Bill was defeated by 330 votes to 118.
Death is a fact of life. All of us will one day die, but we don’t know either the time of our death or the way in which we will die. Recently I visited the place where a friend who died at the age of 80 is buried and nearby was the grave of the baby daughter of some friends of ours who died when she was just a few hours old. I have ministered to people struggling with cruelly disabling conditions such as multiple sclerosis and motor neuron disease and also those dying of cancer. I have felt the pain of families watching a loved one dying and have also seen the amazing love and care with which the dying people have been surrounded. The love of the family, and the dedicated care of nurses and doctors, has meant so much to the dying person.
It is right for us to ask questions about death and dying. Anyone who has watched and cared for a loved one who is dying has asked the questions death raises. What is the meaning of life? Why do we die? Is there hope beyond death? Is heaven real?
The answers to all the big questions of life are found in Jesus. He is the eternal Son of God and came into this world to give us hope. He lived a perfect life and then, in love, gave up his life when he died on the cross to take away the sins of the world. His resurrection on the third day was the glorious affirmation of the decisive victory he had won on the cross. The apostle Paul wrote, “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Duke of Westminster is one of the wealthiest people in Britain. He has had a lifelong commitment to the military and recently retired from the Army Reserve. As a two star General he visited British military personnel in many war zones including field hospitals where wounded soldiers were being treated. He is now leading a project which he believes will be his life’s achievement.
The Defence National Rehabilitation Centre at Stanford Hall, near Birmingham will provide care for wounded service men and women. The new centre will be built in the grounds of a stately home surrounded by a 360-acre estate, including its own lake. The centre will treat soldiers suffering from trauma, neurological injury and mental health issues, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The Duke’s vision is for wounded soldiers, many of whom have grown up in urban areas, to be treated in a beautiful place. When they arrive at the Centre they will think, “Wow, someone is really going to look after me here.”
In a recent interview the Duke spoke of the sense of alienation returning service personnel feel. After one visit to Iraq he called to see two of his soldiers who had been injured before going on to what he called “an immensely fancy house party.” He said, “I walked into the dining room and everybody was there with candles, women in dresses, black ties, and I had to walk out. Walking in through these big double dining room doors and seeing people laughing as if nothing was going on. I just could not cope with that and I had dinner by myself. One of the blokes I had been to see was an 18-year-old in the Parachute Regiment who had lost two arms and a leg; another had lost both legs. I could not cope with the two worlds in such a short space of time.”
This reminds me of Jesus. He left the riches of heaven he had always known and came to this sad world. He lived among us and then, when he was just 33, was executed on a Roman Cross. He loved needy people like you and me so much that he gave his life for us so that through his sacrifice we might one day go to heaven. Heaven is an exquisitely beautiful place. Everyone who enters heaven will be amazed at its beauty and will realise how much God has loved them that he has prepared such a wonderful home for them to enjoy, with him, for all eternity.
The number of older people in our society is increasing. 10 million people in the UK are over 65 years old. In 20 years time there will be more than 15 million, growing to 19 million by 2050. Within this total, the number of very old people is growing even faster. Now there are 3 million people aged over 80. This is projected to double by 2030 and reach 8 million by 2050. Today one-in-six of the UK population is over 65; by 2050 it will be one-in-four.
The average length of life is increasing significantly. A man born in 1981 might expect to live to 84 years, but for a boy born today it is 91. Women can expect to live, on average, 4 years longer than men. However, those who live to greater ages do not necessarily enjoy good health in their later years. This presents a massive challenge of caring for the elderly, both in terms of cost and quality of care. Recent cases have revealed serious mistreatment of elderly people in care homes and these problems are likely to increase.
God’s plan for our care throughout our lives is the family. The love between marriage partners is the foundation. In his Bible commentary Matthew Henry reflects on the account of the creation of men and women, and the institution of marriage, in Genesis Chapter 2. He writes, “The woman came out of a man’s ribs. Not from his feet to be walked on, not from his head to be superior, but from his side to be equal, under his arm to be protected, and next to his heart to be loved.” The mutual love of their parents provides a secure environment in which children can grow up and be cared for.
In later life the family can also provide care. The early Christian churches cared for widows, especially those who had no-one to care for them. But they also emphasised the importance of the family caring for their older members. Paul wrote, “If a widow has children or grandchildren, their first responsibility is to show godliness at home and repay their parents by taking care of them. This is something that pleases God very much.” It is a privilege to be able to care for our parents, who have given us so much. It is an even greater privilege to be cared for in our latter years by our children and grandchildren and to be surrounded by their love.
Lambing Live is a popular programme. This year it has focused on a family farm, with more than 1000 sheep, on the Scottish borders, set in the wild beauty of the Pentland Hills. Lambing Live shows the tender care of the farmers as they monitor every aspect of their ewes giving birth. The lambing season is a major annual event for the 77000 sheep farmers. It is anticipated that 16 million lambs will be born in just a few weeks.
The Bible teaches important truths through the theme of shepherd and sheep. In Psalm 23 David speaks of his personal relationship with God, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” For David, God is not remote and mysterious. The Lord is with him every moment, in all the experiences of his life. He leads him to green pastures and beside quiet waters and continually restores his innermost being. He guides and protects him, and even takes away the fear of death by his loving presence. David affirms, “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Jesus told a parable about a shepherd who had 100 sheep. One day he realised that one was missing, so he left the 99 sheep and went to search for the one that was lost. He kept searching until he found it and then returned home rejoicing, with the sheep on his shoulders. His neighbours and friends rejoiced with him. Jesus said, “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.” Isn’t it amazing to realise that in an impersonal world of more than 7 billion people each of us is precious to God.
The love of God is seen most clearly in the coming of Jesus into the world. He came to be a Saviour, by dying on the cross. He is “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” Our sins are many and serious. We have all accumulated a great debt to God which we can never pay. So Jesus, like a perfect, spotless lamb, died in our place and paid the debt. One hymn says, “Jesus sought me when a stranger, wandering from the fold of God, he, to rescue me from danger, interposed his precious blood.” When we experience this amazing love we can say with David, “The Lord is my shepherd!”
When he boarded a Wizz Air flight from Romania to Luton Victor Spiersau had no idea that he would be front page news in Britain. Victor comes from Transylvania, a very poor region in Romania which itself is not a wealthy country. He left his 19 year old fiancée Catalina Curcean in the dilapidated home they have bought in the remote village of Pelisor. Victor, who is a construction worker, has come to Britain to work and earn money to enable him to return to Pelisor to renovate his home and marry Catalina. Within 24 hours of arriving in Britain Victor started work in a car wash.
Migration has always been part of our human experience. It is often a response to problems in our home country and a desire to find a better life. My mother’s grandmother came from Tramore in Ireland to Wales during the Irish famine in the mid 19th century. It is estimated that as many as a million people in Ireland, nearly an eighth of the population, died of starvation and epidemic diseases between 1846 and 1851 and 2 million people emigrated. The Pilgrim Fathers left Britain in 1620 for America seeking freedom to worship God. They played a significant part in the development of that great country. Today the American national anthem rejoices that it is “the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
The Bible teaches us to exercise special care for strangers and foreigners. During a time of famine the Israelites went to Egypt where they later became slaves. When God brought them out of Egypt he commanded them, “Do not oppress the foreigners living among you. You know what it is like to be a foreigner. They should be treated like everyone else, and you must love them as you love yourself. Remember your experience in the land of Egypt.”
Jesus spoke about the final judgement when all people will stand before God. The King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home.” Then the King will explain how they had cared for him, “When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!”
As a result of advances in medical knowledge people in Britain are living longer than ever before. Many are also enjoying a higher quality of life than previous generations have known. But the increasing number of people is also creating big challenges, especially in providing care for elderly people. The increasing costs of quality long term care do not seem to be sustainable.
Throughout our lives we all need care and God has provided the family as the primary place of care. A new born baby is totally dependent on the loving care of its parents, especially its mother. Without her care a baby would die. When children are growing up they need the loving care of their parents to provide a secure environment in which they can thrive and develop. Children who do not have that security and love often experience serious problems in later life. God has also ordained marriage as a relationship in which love and security can be found. The traditional marriage vows express this well as mutual promises are made, “to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love honour and cherish, till God separates us by death.”
When problems arise in the family it is important for the wider family and the community to care. In his letter James writes, “religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” It seems that in the ancient world, as in today’s world, it was often the husband who died first and the wife who needed to be cared for. When my mother and my wife’s mother and father needed care in their latter years it was a privilege, and a challenge, to be able to open our home to them as they came to live with us.
Whatever our age it is important to remember the living God, who sent his Son, Jesus, into this world to give us hope. In Psalm 73 the writer expresses his faith in God, “Yet I am always with you; you hold me by my right hand. You guide me with your counsel, and afterwards you will take me into glory. Whom have I in heaven but you? And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion for ever.”
For the past few days I have been staying in North Wales. The weather has been glorious with bright sunny days and blue skies. It has been wonderful to see the countryside in all its splendour; Bala Lake, the Mawddach estuary, Cader Idris and the Bwlch-y-Groes pass. The trees are full of new leaves, the bluebells and various flowering shrubs are in full bloom, presenting a mass of colour. When I was leaving the farm of some friends a peacock stood in the road and presented a full display of its glorious plumage.
All these things spoke powerfully to me of the majesty and glory of God. Psalm 19 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge.” Before I became a Christian I didn’t recognise God’s handiwork in his creation. One hymn says, “Heaven above is softer blue, earth around is sweeter green; something lives in every hue Christless eyes have never seen: birds with gladder songs o’erflow, flowers with deeper beauty shine, since I know, as now I know, I am his and he is mine.”
It is wonderful to realise that, in his Son Jesus Christ, the great Creator God has drawn near to us so that we can know him as our heavenly Father. As our Father he cares for us in all the joys and sorrows of life and provides for all our needs. An old hymn says, “This is my Father’s world, and to my listening ears all nature sings, and round me rings the music of the spheres. This is my Father’s world: I rest me in the thought of rocks and trees and skies and seas; his hand the wonders wrought.”
Last week I attended the funeral of a good friend who had died very suddenly. When we were at the graveside the sun was shining and you could hear the birds singing. Whilst we were sad we also rejoiced that our friend was now with God in heaven. As I looked at the beauty of God’s creation I began to think of what it must be like to be in heaven. If this world of space and time is so wonderful, heaven must be even more glorious. In the Bible we are told, “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.”