Growing old

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.

I can’t thank them enough, they are all heroes

One Sunday morning Matthew Bryce set out for a morning’s surfing off the Argyll coast of Scotland. When he failed to return home, his family reported him missing and a major search and rescue operation was launched, involving RNLI lifeboats, coastguard rescue teams and a rescue helicopter based in Prestwick. Matthew, who is 22, was finally spotted in the Irish Sea by a rescue helicopter from Belfast on Monday at 7.30pm, 13 miles off the north Antrim coast. He had spent 32 hours in the Irish Sea. The Coastguard believe Matthew’s surfing knowledge and thick neoprene wetsuit saved his life.

Speaking from The Ulster Hospital, where he was recovering from his ordeal, Matthew said he had been helpless as changing currents and strong winds swept him out to sea. He said, “It got to the point where my paddling was ineffective, but I did it to keep myself warm.” Fear really set in as night fell, “It was incredibly lonely and quiet because there was nothing – just waves. I hadn’t seen any helicopters. I thought I was going to die – I was almost convinced. I didn’t think I would see sunrise.” Fighting back tears he continued, “I knew I had, maybe, three hours and was watching the sunset when a helicopter flew right over. So, I jumped off the surfboard, lifted it up and waved it; I thought they’d missed me. Then they turned around … and saved my life. I can’t thank them enough, they are all heroes.”

One day when Jesus was teaching a group of people who knew they had made a mess of their lives, he told a parable about a shepherd who realised he had lost one of his 100 sheep. Jesus said, “Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent.”

Jesus came into the world to seek and to save those who are lost. Just as Matthew’s rescuers and family were overjoyed when they found him alive, so there is great rejoicing in heaven when any of us realises our need to know God and turns to him.

Our God is the end of the journey

Last Saturday I stood at the graveside of a good friend I had known for more than 45 years. Standing with his wife, children and grandchildren and other family members I shared the deep sense of loss they were experiencing. My friend had died from cancer after a short illness. It had all happened so quickly. After the burial, we went to a local chapel where more than 200 friends had gathered for a service of thanksgiving. We sang hymns my friend had chosen for the service which all expressed his personal faith in his Saviour, Jesus Christ. The hymns were full of the Christ-centred hope in which my friend had faced death; the last enemy. The hymns reminded us that, though my friend is no longer with us, he is now safe in the presence of Jesus.

The first hymn celebrates the greatness of God. “And when I think that God his Son not sparing, sent him to die, I scarce can take it in; that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, he bled and died to take away my sin. When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation to take me home, what joy shall fill my heart! Than shall I bow in humble adoration, and there proclaim; My God how great thou art! Then sings my soul, my Saviour God to thee; How great thou art! How great thou art!”

The second hymn reflects on our frailty and need of the eternal strength and grace of Jesus; who is the Rock of Ages. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the fountain fly; wash me Saviour or I die. While I draw this fleeting breath, when my eyelids close in death, when I soar to realms unknown, see thee on thy judgement throne; Rock of Ages, cleft for me, let me hide myself in thee.”

The third hymn focusses on heaven. “My Saviour will never forsake me, unveiling his merciful face, his presence and promise almighty, redeeming his loved ones by grace. In shades of the valley’s dark terror, where hell and its horror hold sway, my Jesus will reach out in power, and save me by his only way. For yonder a light shines eternal, which spreads through the valley of gloom; Lord Jesus, resplendent and regal, drives fear far away from the tomb. Our God is the end of the journey, his pleasant and glorious domain; for there are the children of mercy, who praise Him for Calvary’s pain.”

When mind and memory flee

More people than ever before are facing the challenge of dementia, either in themselves or in someone they love. There are around 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK and it is estimated that 225,000 will develop dementia this year. The increase in the number of people suffering from dementia is linked to the fact that we are living longer than ever before. The risk of dementia increases with age. One-in-three of those over 85 years old have dementia.

The demands on the immediate family of caring for a loved one with dementia are very great and sometimes there is limited support. It is very distressing when someone we love seems to have become a different person and doesn’t recognise us or other family members and close friends. Carers, often a husband or wife, become very tired and may find it difficult to think positively about the person with dementia. Caring can be a lonely task when you can’t go out and fewer people call in because they don’t know how to react. Carers experience a living grief because they feel they have lost the person they love and may feel guilty if they experience relief when the person dies.

My wife’s mother suffered from dementia and she and her husband lived with us until she died. It was very sad when she couldn’t recognise her family, whom she loved deeply. She was often anxious and fearful, especially when her husband went out, even for a short time. Sometimes she misunderstood situations and could become difficult to deal with. Yet, it was encouraging that she remembered some things very clearly. When I read Psalm 23 to her she would say the words with me which she had memorised when she was a child. When my wife sang familiar hymns to her it comforted her.

As we face the challenges of life we need the comfort and help that God alone gives. Even when we forget him, he never forgets us. One hymn says, “And when these failing lips grow dumb, and mind and memory flee, when Thou shalt in Thy kingdom come, Jesus, remember me.” A modern hymn writer, Mary Louise Bringle, wrote a hymn for a friend whose mother had Alzheimer’s disease, “When memory fades and recognition falters, when eyes we love grow dim, and minds, confused, speak to our souls of love that never alters; speak to our hearts by pain and fear abused. O God of life and healing peace, empower us with patient courage, by your grace infused.”

When God breaks into our daily lives

Are the news headlines always the most important events in the world? Are the “top” stories really the top stories? Are the things that Presidents, Prime Ministers say and do the things that matter most? Some of the most important things that have happened in history have taken place away from the glare of publicity and have involved ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

More than 2000 years ago a young man named Joseph was living in the small village of Nazareth in Galilee. He had trained as a carpenter and worked in the village making furniture and helping people with practical jobs on their homes. He had fallen in love with a young girl in the village named Mary and his family had arranged with her family that they should become engaged. Joseph couldn’t wait until Mary became his wife.

One day Mary told him some very disturbing news; she was expecting a baby. She told Joseph that an angel had appeared to her and told her that, even though she was a virgin, she would conceive a child through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph’s immediate reaction was that Mary had been unfaithful to him. He was heartbroken and decided the only thing he could do was to quietly end the relationship. He loved Mary deeply and didn’t want to bring disgrace on her.

Then one night Joseph had a dream in which the Lord appeared to him and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” So Joseph did what the angel had commanded him and married Mary, but did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son, whom he named Jesus.

Joseph is an example of a young man who lived a gracious, godly life in a small community. He worked hard and loved his wife and son. He was open to God and responsive to him. He did something that was hard to do, and was probably misunderstood by many people in the village. Joseph knew that the son Mary bore was very special. Mary’s son, Jesus of Nazareth, would change the history of the world. God still draws near to us today in the ordinary events of our daily lives with his transforming love and grace.

What do you think about?

What do you think about? Our minds are an important part of who we are. Many are keen to make sure their bodies are fit, so they eat the right things and exercise regularly, but do we have the same concern to maintain a healthy mind? Near the end of his letter to the Christians at Philippi the apostle Paul wrote, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

These words seem especially helpful for our world at this time. It is easy for our minds to be filled with bad and depressing things. We hear news reports of desperately evil things being done. We see pictures of towns and communities destroyed by bombs and children being killed or maimed. Much of the internet and many television programmes are characterised by cynicism, bad language, and unwholesome content. Our newspapers expose the failures and corruption of prominent people, whose decisions may affect our lives. At a personal level many of us struggle with unhappy family situations, with unemployment, or just the daily grind of making ends meet.

Paul is not encouraging us to be escapists, who can’t cope with the real world. He and the Christians in Philippi lived under the domination of Rome. Daily life was hard. Paul was in a Roman prison and would soon be executed because he was a Christian. It would have been easy to simply dwell on the bad and evil things that were happening, but he knew it was important not to lose sight of the best things because they are the things that will ultimately endure. All the evil things which now dominate our world and our lives will one day pass away.

Last Sunday afternoon I was driving along the Gower coast. It was a beautiful, tranquil, autumn evening. The sun was setting, the sea was calm and the landscape was tinged with beautiful autumn colours. The whole scene spoke to my heart about God, our wonderful Creator. He is eternal and is the source of all that is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and admirable. He has revealed his amazing love for the world in his Son Jesus, who came that we might have life and have it to the full. Because Jesus came into this world we can look forward to the time when there will be “a new heaven and a new earth filled with God’s righteousness.”

Nigel Mansell reflects on his life

Nigel Mansell was a great racing driver. He won the Formula 1 World Championship in 1992. In the course of his career he broke his back, neck, legs, arms, wrists and feet. A crash at Le Mans in 2010 left him with a blood clot on the brain that caused memory loss and difficulty in talking. He feels his greatest achievement in the 62 years of his life is that he is still alive!

In a recent interview Nigel gave a fascinating insight into the kind of man he is and the things that matter most to him. He has lived with danger and knows the fragility of life. This has given him an appreciation of what is truly important in life. His family is a priority. He first met his wife when he was 17, and they have been married for 45 years. His biggest regret is that he did not spend more time with his mother, Joyce, who died of cancer in 1984 at the age of 60. He didn’t realise how ill she was and, at that time, he was busy developing his career with Lotus. He often thinks about her.

People matter to Nigel. He is a special constable and has seen how crime wrecks people’s lives. For 16 years he has been the President of the UK Youth charity that seeks to inspire young people to have greater self-esteem. He is committed to trying to make people’s lives better. He wants to think the best of everyone and never do anyone down.

When he was asked which figure of history he would most like to buy a pie and a pint his answer was, “A pint with Jesus would be interesting, if a little daunting!” Out of all the people who have ever lived Jesus stands supreme. Anyone who is really seeking to discover the meaning and purpose of life must encounter him. Jesus was both very approachable and also created a sense of awe in those who met him.

Jesus wasn’t a religious leader who lived in a palace with great riches. He lived an extraordinary life amongst ordinary people. Because Jesus mixed with all kinds of people, the religious leaders of his day accused him of being “a glutton and a drunkard and a friend of sinners.” Knowing Jesus transforms our lives. He answers all the questions we have and gives real meaning to our lives. Jesus came into this world that we may have life in all its fullness.

“God’s Tenor”

Jon Vickers has died at the age of 88. He was a world famous tenor singer whose rich and powerful voice was once described as “holding a hundred colours and inflections.” He was given the nickname “God’s tenor” because of the outstanding quality of his voice and his Christian faith. He was the finest Heldentenor of his day and sang the great heroic tenor roles in German opera. He was a perfectionist and was not always easy to work with. At times he made controversial decisions because of his Christian convictions.

Jon was born in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, the sixth of eight children. His family was musical but very poor. His parents were so poor that the future Canadian Prime Minister, John Diefenbaker, who was a long-standing friend of the family, offered to care for young Jon. As a child Jon and his brothers and sisters sang with his lay-preacher father at churches near their home. In the summer Jon worked on neighbouring farms where he developed his barrel chest. His success as a world famous tenor, and the honours and wealth that came with it, were in marked contrast with his humble beginnings. When he retired in 1988 he was very content on his farm, surrounded by nature and his family.

Jon’s Christian faith was the guiding principle for the whole of his life. He knew that the gifts he possessed had been given to him by God, so he wanted to use them in a way that pleased God. He knew that the most important thing was not his international success and acclaim but what he was as a man before God. After retiring he had time to return to his roots and to reflect on the things that matter most in life. He also had time to prepare for eternity. He proved with Paul that “godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it.”

Jon is now in heaven with his Saviour, and with all those from every nation who have experienced God’s love in Jesus. He has joined the heavenly choirs who joyfully worship God as they remember God’s amazing love and grace to them. To the most beautiful heavenly music they sing, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb. Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!”

Joy to the world! The Lord is come!

As we sat in Bali airport waiting for our flight it was a very pleasant surprise to hear the music of a familiar Christmas carol, “Joy to the world”, being played. The carol joyfully affirms that the coming of Jesus into the world is a reason for all to rejoice. “Joy to the world! The Lord is come, let earth receive her King! Let every heart prepare him room and heaven and nature sing.” Jesus, who was born in lowly circumstances in Bethlehem, is King of kings. “He rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove, the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.”

It seems as if two different celebrations are being held at this time of year. For some it is “Winterval”. In the dark days of mid winter this festival offers happiness through spending, feasting and parties. It is very expensive and leaves the headache of paying the bills in January. It is really good, in the busyness of modern life, to take time to be with family and friends and to give and receive presents, but surely there is more.

Jesus is at the heart of Christmas. His birth is a wonderful reason to celebrate because his coming brought true and lasting joy. In the words of another Christmas carol, “O little town of Bethlehem how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light. The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

There are real similarities between Bethlehem, when Jesus was born, and our 21st century world. The people in Bethlehem that night were busy because their lives had been disrupted by the demands of a Roman census. They had had to travel from their own communities to Bethlehem and many were stressed as they tried to find a place to stay. It wasn’t a good time to pause and take note that a child had been born in a nearby stable who fulfilled the promises made by God from the beginning of history.

God has given us his only Son, whose name is Jesus, because “he will save his people from their sins.” “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

To have and to hold

My wife and I have just celebrated our Golden Wedding Anniversary. 50 years is a long time and yet the years have passed so quickly. It has been good to look back and to remember the many things that have happened and the many people who have been important to us in our marriage. We invited family and friends to join us for a celebration and many people came. Some had known us from childhood, others were friends and neighbours.

Marriage is the most significant life commitment we ever make and we were young when we made our vows. We promised “to live together according to God’s ordinance in the holy estate of marriage, 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 until God separates us by death.” On the day of our wedding we had little idea of what lay ahead of us and how much we would need the help and encouragement of family and friends, and the love and grace of God, if we were to keep our vows.

The traditional marriage vows are very realistic and true to life. There are good times and bad times. Sometimes we have had very little and at others more than we need. There have been some times of sickness and, as we get older, we know there will be more such times. The challenge to continue loving, honouring and cherishing each other, as we struggle with our own self-centredness, is very real. And we know that one day our marriage will end when “God separates us by death.” We cannot know which of us will be the first to go to heaven and which of us will be left, for a time, here on earth.

As I look back on the years we have shared together I am conscious most of all of the importance of forgiving and being forgiven. The marriage relationship is very close. The Bible says that we become “one flesh.” In part this is a reference to the physical intimacy of marriage, but it is more than that. Our lives and our joy and sorrows are intertwined. This is why marital breakdown is so painful. There are many times when I have said things and done things which have caused sadness and pain. At such times I have needed to be forgiven just as we have both experienced God’s forgiveness through Jesus.