I just spent two weeks in a convalescent home for therapy for a badly shattered shoulder.
After a few days I felt good enough at eating with my left hand to eat lunch in the dining room.
Being there temporarily, I had just brought exercise clothes.The others were all dressed quite elegantly, even with matching jewelry. I felt a bit shabby until a helper put baby blue terry cloth bibs on all of us. Somehow bibs are a great equalizer!
I have wondered often why God allows old age to be so humbling. Having some pride seems a virtue of sorts. But now I think that is what old age is about. Recognizing that we are all equal in God’s eyes and loved just as we are without one plea or status symbol. Over and over Jesus tells us that His way is not the world’s way, that our value is based on the love of God, not achievement, riches, nationality, religion, image.
More and more I realize that only when we either let go or are stripped of those, do we discover not only our human brotherhood, but our oneness with all, including Jesus, the human expression of the unconditional love that is God.
What was the “Way” of Jesus? It was to witness to the Love that is God by healing the sick, feeding the hungry and calling us to do the same. How did it end in worldly terms? In helplessness, unvalued by the world, identified with the lost, no longer even able to help himself, never-the-less others, abandoned by almost all of those closest to him.
I can tell you from experience with my mother’s dying by inches with Alzheimer’s and friends who spent their last years in nursing homes or even alone most days living with their children who work, Jesus’ last days describe many peoples’ last years.
We leave the world the way we came into it: naked, helpless, equal, of infinite value, and loved by God because of whom God is, not whom we are.
And the challenge of life is to become able to love ourselves and others the same way.
In old age, the life question, “Why am I here?” becomes, “Why am I still here?”
In the past fifteen years scientists have discovered that the natural human life span
may be one hundred and twenty years or more. I’m not sure if this is good news or bad news!
Does the Gospel message have any good news for the challenges of later life?
Many people have conscientiously lived the Gospel message, that it is better to give than to
receive all their lives, so they find it difficult to figure out how to answer the call, “Come, follow
me,” when they are flat on their back, stuck in a wheelchair, in pain, and dependent on family
or nursing home care.
I’ve become convinced that following Jesus in our later years is a completely different
call. Jesus does not limit the “Come Follow Me” to his years of healing the sick, feeding the
hungry, and taking the Good News of God’s love to others. It includes following Him, like loyal,
doubting Thomas to Jerusalem, where we know that in worldly terms, things will not go well.
Jesus was in God’s accelerated class. What He learned from His experiences on Good
Friday may take the rest of us years.
Through my years in a wheelchair, I experienced things that I never would have, if I
were walking under my own power. Painful and challenging as these were, they were learning
experiences. Shocks do get our attention.
Shock One: was being imprisoned. I could no longer go either when or where I wanted.
I was helpless and dependent on others.
Shock Two: was that my church community pretty much went about their busy lives without
me. I felt abandoned even by my Christian family.
Shock Three: Though blessed with free air travel abroad, I discovered that the handicapped
are literally hated in many countries. (Note: Many people were kind in these countries, but the negative experiences were a shock.) In the Czech Republic, I was hissed at and we were forced
off the sidewalks into the streets and even out into the rain by middle-aged, middle-class
looking women. In Lucerne, Switzerland a taxi driver with a trunk easily spacious enough for the
wheelchair, vehemently and arrogantly refused to take us from the airport.
In a two story museum in Paris, we were told that the elevator was out of order, though we
could see workers using it. In Vienna, the manager of our small hotel refused to help
us find a safe place on the ground floor for the wheelchair that wouldn’t fit into the tiny
The first few times I experienced this kind of rejection, I cried at night realizing that it didn’t
matter to these people, whether I was a good person, smart, talented, or had even achieved
things. I was rejected, because in their eyes I was defective, and that probably threatened to
force them to recognize their own vulnerability as human beings. These experiences made me
feel terribly naked and vulnerable out on the streets among hostile strangers. In fact, we would
go blocks out of our way, when we spotted groups of young skin heads on the street.
Shock Four: When we had to struggle to get me and the wheelchair up long flights of stairs
while hurrying to make a connecting train, no one offered any assistance, some even
angrily pushed past us. Those days left me with both a great deal of physical pain and the
emotional pain of feeling so universally rejected.
But grace came in Prague in a huge ancient cathedral. As we toured the cathedrals of Europe
several things struck me. One: the only people actually using them for prayer were the old,
mostly women. Two: The Catholic ones were filled with gold and silver ornaments and
elaborate tombs of Popes and Bishop, the Anglican/Episcopal ones were filled with gold and
silver and elaborate tombs of Kings and Queens and other nobility. The Presbyterian one in
Scotland was a little less gilded, but no less ornate and filled with the tombs of warriors.
In Prague the cathedral not only had many gilded angels, ornaments, and tombs, but one
room with walls almost completely covered with embedded semi-precious stones.
My son wanted to climb to the top of the bell tower and my husband was taking photos of all the
glitter. It was jam packed with tourists, so they parked me in a dim unadorned corner without
any people in it. I was newly wounded by my experiences of rejection and when my son and
husband were gone a long time, I began to feel depressed and sorry for myself. I started
looking around for something that represented the love of God, not the silver and gold in
honor of men. Finally, I looked up at the wall behind me. There was a life size wooden crucifix
with the body of Jesus right over me. We were alone together in the darkness, since the crowd
was entranced by the silver and gold and the famous. I remembered a quote from Paul Caludell, “Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it. He came to fill it with his presence.”
Somehow in that moment, I experienced a oneness with Him. We were in this together. I
was not alone and never would be.
God chose, through Jesus, to experience our loss of purpose, imprisonment, falling
under the weight of the cross, needing the help of strangers, being
stripped of image, being rejected by the world for vulnerability,
being abandoned by friends, suffering physical and mental pain that makes the minutes
seem like hours and the hours like eternity, and even finally feeling abandoned by God.
Yet, still saying, “ God, into your hands I commit my spirit.”
I knew then, that He is not only with me and all of us, but He is in us, experiencing
everything through us. Right then, right now, and always. He told us that whatever is done to
even the least of us is done to Him. And in the helplessness of old age, we are finally freed to
accept being the least, those totally dependent on God. We are not alone, ever. And
when that becomes more important to us, than all the losses we mourn, I think we get to go