June 2018 - Pastoral Letter - Growing Old Gracefully
JUNE 2018
Growing Old Gracefully

‘You must be soon to retire Martin’. This was the opening comment from a friend I met recently.  
The police are dealing with his body.
I pointed out, with some considerable force, that being in my 50’s retirement was somewhat distant.

Retirement is a big thing in our culture, but for the believer it is to be approached with the same attitude with which we view all our lives. Our discipleship does not stop the day we leave our work - why would it?
I have a small, but very helpful book, by J.I. Packer entitled ‘Finishing our course with joy’. It is about living faithfully to the very end of your life. It is written by a man who is now in his 90’s, and so he has a strategic vantage point from which to comment on the process of ageing and how it impacts on our lives. Having a sense of Christian service through old age is important for us as believers, and Packer explains, retaining that commitment to learning and service is better for us physically and mentally and psychologically. He criticises the western view of getting older as a time when the world tells you that it is time to relax, slow down, take it easy, amuse yourself. By contrast he makes clear that we are called to discipleship for all our days; lifelong learning, wholehearted service and running the race to the end.

There are two Bible characters we might compare in this regard, who provide us with very contrasting examples. First we may think of old Eli, who was responsible for the religious site at Shiloh. We read about him in the early chapters of 1 Samuel. Eli and his two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, were the spiritual leadership - supposedly. Tragically Eli let things slip, and slip badly. He had all but given up, in terms of serving the Lord. He still drew his ministerial stipend, but he allowed his sons to run things and do so as appalling hypocrites. These young men stole from the offering, and adopted an immoral lifestyle similar to what could be seen around pagan shrines. They made use of their religious office to feed their own base appetites.

The tragedy is that, as the years passed, Eli seems to have lost any zeal for the Lord and lost any sense of service that he displayed in his early life. His diligent care of young Samuel suggests he certainly had a foundation in true God-centred spirituality. However, the way he turned a blind eye to the hypocrisy of his sons, allowing the shrine of God to become a place of dishonesty and vice, suggests a refusal to live out those principles in his own life. Perhaps he thought he had served God for many decades and now he could ‘ease off’.
When warning of judgement comes to Eli he displays a hopeless and powerless resignation: ‘He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes’. It is a word of abdication and indifference, symptomatic of a spiritual life which has hit the sand. At some point he held back from doing what he knew to be right; then he began to accommodate the corruption around him. In the end, having refused when he could do something, he became so distant from the Lord that he was simply unable to do anything, and became hopelessly resigned to impending judgement.

The description of Eli in 1 Samuel is full of drama and tragedy. His life stands as a warning to us. He is an example of one whose spiritual life deteriorated until God’s judgement fell upon him and his family. Here was a man who was perhaps once alive to God. Here was a man who was perhaps once significant in the work of God. But now he has lost all power; lost all spiritual depth; and is indifferent to the work of God. Maybe he has grown disillusioned and disappointed at the way life has turned out. But he failed to ask why there was such barrenness in his life and so spiritual dry rot gripped his prayerless, faithless soul. Despite being warned by prophecy that his family was doomed his spiritual condition was such that he remained paralysed and unwilling to act.

By contrast there is Caleb. Through his life he was someone who ‘wholly followed the Lord’. As a man of forty he stood out in his generation as one who trusted the promises of God and was prepared to step out in the obedience of faith, even when it made him unpopular among his peers. He and Joshua were among those sent to spy out the land when the people were called to enter the Promised Land. The others in the reconnaissance party only saw the problems and the obstacles - the people in the land were giants (Nephilim) compared to them, so better not to enter the land, they reasoned, ignoring all the assurance God gave them.

By contrast, Caleb (and Joshua) seized hold of the promises of God and urged that the people follow God’s plan for them, since that would surely lead to blessing. Caleb recognised the challenges, but those challenges could be overcome through trusting in God. The people did not listen to him and they missed their first opportunity to enter the land, failed to trust God, failed to trust God’s promises, failed to do what God was calling them to do and condemned themselves to the spiritual wilderness, as well as the actual wilderness. Caleb was a man devoted to the Lord and it showed in his readiness to stand alone and go against the grain.

Wonderfully the same Caleb reappears in the story as an old man aged 85, after the people had entered the Promised Land. Again the people were prone to failure and compromise. Distinctively, as an old man, Caleb displays the same sterling qualities of faith and wholehearted commitment to God that were evident in his younger days.

Repeatedly in Joshua 14 we are told of Caleb that he ‘wholly followed the Lord’. As an old man he is now relishing the prospect of facing the same giants the rest of the people had shrunk from when he was a young man. In his declining years he is not looking for an easy time, but is ready to face the kind of challenge many of those half his age are shrinking from. Inspired by his recollection of God’s goodness and mercy in the past, and longing to show that when God calls us to a life and a task there are no obstacles can ultimately stand against us, he wants to face the giants now. Caleb was faithful to the very end. Having been deprived of facing the giant Nephilim as a man of 40 because of the spiritual failure of others, he now stands at the age of 85 asking ‘Can I face my giants now?’

So which is it for us - Eli or Caleb?

Your minister -  Martin Thomson

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