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.

If I die, will you raise my son?

Tricia Somers didn’t have an easy life. Both her parents died from cancer and she suffered domestic violence, as a result of which she moved to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania to make a fresh start. In 2013, when Tricia was 43 years old, she was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer. She knew her situation was serious and, while she was undergoing chemotherapy treatment, had a heavy burden on her heart; who would look after her 8-year-old son, Wesley, after she died? She prayed to God, asking him to help and guide her.

One day in March 2014, when Tricia was having diagnostic tests, oncology nurse Tricia Seaman was assigned to care for her. The two women immediately hit it off and Tricia Somers shared with her nurse her fears and concerns for Wesley. Although Tricia Seaman was not assigned to care for Tricia again during her 10-days at the hospital, she often popped in to see her. On the day before Tricia Somers was discharged, she told Tricia Seaman the cancer had spread and she only had a short time to live. Then she asked her, “If I die, will you raise my son?”

It was a big decision but, after talking and praying, Tricia Seaman and her husband, Dan, agreed to take care of Wesley when Tricia died. They already had 3 teenage daughters and a younger son. They had wanted another child, but it hadn’t been possible. When Tricia Somers’ health deteriorated, Tricia Seaman and Dan invited her and Wesley to move in with them and their children. Tricia Seaman cared for Tricia during the last 5 months of her life until she died in December 2014. Tricia Somers said they were the best 5 months of her life and during that time Wesley got to know his new family. Tricia Seaman said, “God had this planned perfectly, there was a reason I was Tricia’s nurse. I feel so blessed to have known her and now to have the privilege of raising her son.”

We all face issues in life that are too big for us to handle. At such times we, too, can pray to God. He hears our prayers and answers them, as he answered the prayers of Tricia Somers. A well-known hymn says, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer! O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!

Thoughts on being a parent

On a recent visit to Vietnam the Duke of Cambridge was interviewed on a popular English-language talk show. He was asked about being a father to Prince George and Princess Charlotte. He said, “There’s been wonderful highs and wonderful lows. But I’ve struggled at times. The alteration from being a single, independent man to going into marriage, and then having children, is life-changing. George is a right little rascal sometimes. He keeps me on my toes, but he’s a sweet boy. And Charlotte, bearing in mind I haven’t had a sister … so having a daughter is a very different dynamic!”

Since he has had children William has worried more about the future and hopes his children will inherit a better world. He said, “When you have something or someone in your life to give the future to, I think it focuses the mind more about what you are giving them. Are you happy that you have done all you can to leave the world in a good state? People are living with an enormous amount of stuff that they don’t necessarily need. I would like George and Charlotte to grow up being a little bit more simple in their aspirations and outlook and just looking after those around them and treating others as they would like to be treated themselves.”

The Duke’s concerns are shared by many parents. What kind of world will we hand on to our children and grandchildren? How can we prepare them for the future? When he first came to the throne, King Solomon asked God for wisdom and discernment so that he would be able to rule his people well. Some of the wisdom God gave him related to family life. Solomon knew the importance of teaching his children God’s truths and being an example to them.

The things Solomon taught his children provide a sure guide for the Duke of Cambridge and all parents. Solomon wrote, “My child, never forget the things I have taught you. Store my commands in your heart. If you do this, you will live many years, and your life will be satisfying. Never let loyalty and kindness leave you! Tie them around your neck as a reminder. Write them deep within your heart. Then you will find favour with both God and people, and you will earn a good reputation. Trust in the Lord with all your heart; do not depend on your own understanding. Seek his will in all you do, and he will show you which path to take.”

Remembering Aberfan

On 21 October 1966 I was at work in Cardiff when we heard there had been a disaster in a small valley community near Merthyr Tydfil. We assumed it must have happened underground and that miners had probably been injured or killed. Such tragic events had happened before in the South Wales valleys. Later that day, however, as we watched the evening news on our black and white televisions, we realised that a disaster like no other had struck the small mining village of Aberfan.

By 9 o’clock that Friday morning 240 children and 9 teachers had arrived at Pantglas Junior School for the last day of school before the half-term holiday. It was a damp and misty morning after a week of heavy rain. At 9.15 the school was engulfed by an avalanche of 100,000 tons of black slurry. The school building was demolished, as were some houses. Many of the men of the community were at work in the nearby Merthyr Vale colliery. When they heard about the disaster they rushed to the school to try to help. The women went to the school and felt utterly helpless as they saw the devastating scene. Their children were in that school. Were they alive or dead?

The Aberfan disaster claimed 128 lives – 116 children, 4 teachers, the headmistress and 23 local people. The following Thursday there was a mass funeral when the bodies of many who had died were buried side by side in one long grave over which a beautiful memorial was later built. The Aberfan Disaster touched the hearts of people around the world and £1,750,000 was donated to the Disaster Fund.

Aberfan was a man-made disaster and, eventually, the National Coal Board accepted their responsibility. The tip had been sited on a spring and had been poorly managed. Warnings about what could happen had been ignored. Eventually the Board paid families £500 compensation for each child who had died and the Disaster Fund gave them £5000.

To whom can we turn when tragedy strikes? At the heart of the Christian Gospel is a young man called Jesus, the only Son of his heavenly Father, who died a cruel death on a Roman Cross. He died in our place and for our sins. On the third day he rose again. He is uniquely able to help us in the darkest experiences of life because he understands our deepest grief, comforts us when our hearts are broken and gives us a sure hope of eternal life.

Prince George is baptised

The baptism of Prince George at the Chapel Royal in St James’ Palace was a very special occasion for his parents, William and Catherine. Prince George will one day be King and the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. In the presence of a select group of family and friends, including the Queen and Prince Philip, William and Catherine professed their own faith and promised to bring George up in the Christian Faith. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, baptised Prince George with water from the River Jordan.

The Archbishop told the parents and godparents that they had a “simple task”, to: “Make sure he knows who Jesus is. Speak of him, read stories about him. Introduce him in prayer. Help him to grow and flourish into the person God has created and called him to be.” He said that the baptism service was centred on “Jesus, who calls each of us to take a journey.” He added that the Prince would share the life of Christ with others, which would be “both very costly and infinitely rewarding”, and concluded: “With Christ and his love as our centre, all the needs we meet are faced, all the hopes we have are shaped, and all the possibilities of our life’s journey are fulfilled.”

All parents want their children to enjoy a happy and fulfilled life. We want our children and grandchildren to enjoy God’s creation unspoilt, to have a good education and not to be over-burdened by debt. The most important thing we can pass on to our children, however, is an example of moral integrity and living faith. Being a parent is very demanding, especially for those who are bringing up children on their own. We are all conscious of failing in many ways, but talking to them about God and Jesus, and praying with them, is so important.

The Bible encourages parents to teach their children the principles of God’s truth, “Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are away on a journey, when you are lying down and when you are getting up again.” King Solomon, who had many children, encouraged them to remember his teaching, “My child, never forget the things I have taught you. Store my commands in your heart, for they will give you a long and satisfying life.” Let’s pray that Prince George, and many other children, will know Jesus and his love as the centre of their lives.

God is the strength of my heart

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.”

God’s love for widows and orphans

I have just returned from a visit to South Africa. It is a very beautiful country enjoying economic stability, which is rare in the continent of Africa. The people are very friendly and welcoming. I spent the first few days near Durban and visited a small project, run by Christians, which provides care for about 30 AIDS orphans. The children who live in the project have lost both their parents through HIV/AIDS.

It is estimated that there are 1.5 million such children in South Africa alone. Many orphan children are being looked after in the extended family, by grandparents. So many parents have died, however, that some families have found it impossible to cope and, so, projects have been established to look after the children. The social and economic cost of HIV/AIDS is very great. The orphans’ parents were the main wage earners and the grandparents struggle to find the money to bring up the children.

It was a privilege to meet the South African house parents, who are caring for these children, and the doctor and his wife, who established the project and raise the finance need to sustain it. The children have a good home and are going to school. They have experienced great sadness at a young age but are being given a good foundation for their future lives. They are growing up in a stable and loving environment.

God has a very special love for widows and orphans. He watches over and sustains the fatherless and the widow. Christians, who know Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour, are also committed to living out their faith. The letter of James says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.”

The children living in the project are experiencing the love of God through those who care for them. They know that they are valued and that they are not on their own. They are being helped to cope with their sadness and are being equipped to face the future. Some of them have already understood God’s love for them in Jesus. They know that God is their heavenly Father and will always be with them. He will never forsake them or fail them. It is a wonderful thing to know such love and to know that our heavenly Father can bring us through the deepest sadness and give us hope for the future.