A reflection for Candlemas

by Debbie Thrower, team leader for BRF’s Anna Chaplaincy

Growing old faithfully

At the heart of BRF’s Anna Chaplaincy lies a practical way of supporting people in their later years - whether they’re people of strong, little or no faith at all. It’s named after the elderly widow, Anna, who appears with Simeon in Luke’s gospel.

About Anna Chaplaincy

In the course of my own 60 years on this planet, society has become much more consumerist, valuing above almost anything else youth, beauty and productivity. As BRF author Tony Horsfall writes:

We’re encouraged to be dissatisfied and to always look for something better. We breathe an atmosphere of complaint, unrest and ingratitude that can infect the souls of even the godliest people. It seeps into our homes, our workplaces, even our churches.

New Daylight, 22 August 2018

Debbie Thrower
Flying geese

In the foreword to another recent BRF publication, Archbishop John Sentamu, speaks of ‘uncertainty hanging in the air’. Despair is polluting our air, he says. We live in a world where…

we are more and more reliant on inner resources to tackle the general foreboding.

Anxious Times (BRF, 2018)

Invest in the interior life

As a journalist, I’ve conducted many vox pops out on the street with a microphone over the last 30 or so years. These are not concepts occupying the minds of most shoppers on today’s high street. The words ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirituality’ tend not to be uppermost in people’s minds. And yet… when the generations reach old age and are in sheltered accommodation or care homes, you can spot the difference between those who have an interior life – who focus on what nurtures their minds and refreshes their souls, those who’ve cultivated their faith through practising the presence of God – and those who have not.

The Australian researcher Elizabeth MacKinlay, who travels to the UK regularly to speak and whose books are widely read for their insights into ageing and well-being, has identified several tasks when it comes to ageing.

To transcend difficulty, disability and loss
To search for final meanings
To find intimacy with God, and
To have hope.

Spiritual Growth in the Fourth Stage of Life (Jessica Kingsley, 2006)

The time for my departure is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day.
2 Timothy 4:6-8

In chapters 3 and 4 of Paul’s second letter to Timothy, the apostle senses himself close to death. He’s completed his tasks, he’s brimming with hope despite, touchingly, going on to ask for his warm coat to be brought to him, along with his books and notebooks. Here we see a Paul who’s reassuringly human, vulnerable.

He implores his friend to keep the faith, to remember how he’s absorbed the sacred scriptures along with his mother’s milk. Now is the time to stand firm and preach the gospel, whether the times are propitious or not. Paul is urging Timothy to complete the particular task assigned to him, knowing the clock’s ticking. For Paul, life did have meaning and purpose; his sense of a personal destiny stemmed from being called by Christ through that overwhelming experience on the road to Damascus that had shaped the rest of his life.

The call to growing old

So many of us these days live on into prolonged old age without such meaning – never discovering much of a sense of purpose. I bless the kind person who gave me a booklet of Bible reading notes after I was confirmed. I’ve pretty much read them, regularly, ever since, lapsing only in my 20s. But after a time, I felt the lack of them. I missed that regular appointment with God, and I found my way back to them.

Sally Welch, editor of New Daylight, describes how she pictures typical subscribers: 'They may be married or live alone. In late middle age or early old age, they have recently retired, but have been readers for some years. They have some experience of the world and like to keep up to date with what is happening… They are active in the community, both church and beyond, but are finding physical issues prevent them from doing as much as they once did. They have experienced the deaths of people they love. They read the Bible regularly and work to understand how it relates to their everyday lives. They are committed Christians who want to know Christ better. They like to share the gospel with others and do this mostly in practical ways – through volunteering at church, being good neighbours and giving as generously as they can. They have times of loneliness and doubt; occasions when they are fearful of the future and apprehensive about their ability to cope, but they find hope in their faith.'

Without consciously doing so, perhaps, such people are undertaking the ‘tasks of ageing’. They’re quietly living out their calling to grow old, to be evangelists, to practise hospitality, to help those less fortunate. In short, they’re responding to Paul’s challenge to Timothy (and to each of us): to be ‘equipped for every good work’.

Last year BRF’s Anna Chaplain Rachel Sturt invited the Bishop of Basingstoke, the Rt Revd David Williams, to confirm two older people, Jean and Terry, 89 years after they had been baptised! What a message that sends to younger generations that ‘you’re never too old’ to commit your life to Christ.

When I was confirmed in my early teens I remember my father, the following year, also getting confirmed. It was such a powerful sign to me that his own faith wasn’t something he just performed on a Sunday, but something lodged in his heart.

Terry Brown and Jean Burt
The Gift of Years annual gathering 2018

As I accompanied both my parents in their old age and saw how much their faith grew despite the many challenges, it led directly to the work I, and other Anna Chaplains, do now: helping to support men and women in the third, and increasingly fourth, age of greater dependency, often among those living with dementia.

Thanks to BRF, we’ve grown from one Anna Chaplain, me in Alton in 2014, to a national network more than 60-strong, plus dozens of Anna Friends – volunteers working with them.

'The Bible tells us the stories we need and want to hear – stories to help us live… to help us die, and stories to help us believe we shall live again.'

'The Word beyond all words'

Nowadays, we leave going into care as late as possible. The majority of residents exhibit signs of confusion. Once, when writer and priest Barbara Brown Taylor was visiting a care home in the US, she found the residents there vocal, restless. When she asked them to choose the gospel reading, one woman shouted out: ‘Tell us a resurrection story!’  As her words settled down over the room, the ‘movers and shakers’ held still for a moment, and the sleepers opened their eyes. ‘Yes,’ someone else said, and then someone else, ‘Yes, tell us a resurrection story.’

The Bible tells us the stories we need and want to hear – stories to help us live… to help us die, and stories to help us believe we shall live again… The living words of God heal our hurts and soften our hearts; they clear our vision and guide our feet. Like a lifeline strung from the beginning of time to the end, they show us a way through all the storms of culture, nature and history. They show us the way to the Word beyond all words, in whose presence we [his witnesses] shall be made eloquent at last.

The Preaching Life (Rowman and Littlefield, 1993)

Reflection adapted from a sermon preached by Debbie Thrower, team leader of BRF’s Anna Chaplaincy, at Winchester Cathedral, on Bible Sunday, October 2018. 

Find out more about BRF’s Anna Chaplaincy.

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Image acknowledgements

Background: Flying wild geese and a red sunset © Thinkstock