Age and Concern
Mr Allingham’s funeral will be a public affair, complete with military honours – a fitting tribute to an old man willing, if necessary, to give his young life in the service of his country.
A few days prior to Mr Allingham's death, the government put forward new proposals for reforming the funding of social care. Advances in general healthcare and an increased standard of living mean more and more of us are living longer. So long as this scenario doesn't blind us to the fact that death remains a fact of life, no matter how long that life might now be, this is something to be celebrated. Nevertheless, it also poses real challenges, as more and more people living longer need dedicated care and attention to help them, well, keep on living longer.
Broadly speaking, these two examples are indicative of two dominant characterisations of the elderly in our culture. They are either to be cherished on account of past service and achievements, or they are a challenge of care needing to be addressed. It is completely right and proper, of course, that people's service and achievements are recognised. And it is entirely appropriate that we face up to the real challenge of providing appropriate care.
Scripture, though, encourages us to recognise the need for a third way in regard to old people: that of their potential in the present. Old age is self-evidently no barrier to full participation in the plans and purposes of God as they unfold through the biblical story. Abram was 75 when God called him to leave his home. Sarah was 90 when Isaac was born, and when it comes to the event of the incarnation, everyone bar Mary and baby Jesus is, frankly, 'getting on a bit' (especially in light of the life expectancy of the day). As John Bell has observed, the Christmas story is testimony that our God 'takes a positive delight in showing how those up in years can be the midwives of the new thing [he] wishes to do'.
Our Christian communities ought to be characterised by an expectation that the elderly among us are as likely as the young to be called to radical service in the cause of the kingdom. Not least, perhaps, in their mentoring of the latter. If we can succeed in cultivating and modelling such expectancy then maybe slightly fewer people will be so utterly astounded if a 59-year-old leads the field going into the final round of next year's Open golf championship.
By Nigel Hopper
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