by Chris Gore
Mildred Anderson was one of the oldest members of my congregation. She lived to be 95, and up until the last few weeks of her life was at almost every service. But as much as I loved and appreciated Miss Mildred, what I saw in her children shook the way I thought about life itself.
At the end of her life, Mildred was cared for by her son, Gordon, and his wife, Mabel. They showed love and grace and kindness in a situation that would be more than many of us could bear. When others their age were traveling and enjoying retirement, Gordon and Mabel were sacrificing years of their lives caring for a woman they both loved. I remember praying with Gordon and feeling the anguish in his heart as he had to recognize that his mother was dying. Yet even as his mother wasted away both inside and out, there was not a moment that they did not care for her in a way that glorified the Gospel of Christ.
Southern Baptists are known for their positions in the fight for life. Our stance on abortion has never wavered as we have been some of the strongest advocates for life in the womb. Our position impacts policy and elections. In this stance, we shine as a light for justice in a world seeking to legislate and thereby legitimize murder of the most helpless in our society. Southern Baptists proudly wear the moniker of a “people of life.”
This will become more and more obvious as our congregations age. The SBC is getting old. Shifting cultural winds which are pushing our world further from the Gospel and the continued aging of our churches means that we could begin to have a disproportionate number of older folks in our pews. I counted my own congregation and more than 50 percent of them were past the age of retirement. LifeWay Research has noticed the trend as well, and wrote an article about the “graying” of Southern Baptist leadership. It asked the question of what the future held for a denomination that is becoming more and more elderly. The question of how to appreciate life until its very end is one that Southern Baptists must address for their own sakes.
Supporting life until the end will be more than just not supporting assisted suicide, it will mean cherishing and honoring those who, though no longer able to serve as they could, still remain valuable in the eyes of God and in the eyes of His people. It will mean that we take steps in our church ministries and policies to ensure that we care for God’s people from cradle to grave. There is never a point where God tells us that those who are in our church have reached the point where they no longer need the intense, loving care of the local congregation. We must have the same values and passions for the aged within our churches as we do for the unborn who are yet to join them.
It’s easy to slip through the cracks when our bodies make it that we can no longer take the lead in ministries and our retirement checks no longer provide substantial help for the church. When we become afraid to drive at night because our eyes have grown weak, no longer do people ask where we were. They know, and we know with them, our contribution to the church is not what it used to be. And eventually, we will have to stop going. Not because we don’t want to go, but because we can’t. And the church will know where we are and they will understand, but for us the pain will come on Sundays all we can think of is where we aren’t.
This worry has become all too personal as I think of my own aging. I am a young pastor. As I write this, I am only 29. But as I look at my grandfather, a retired minister now in his 80s, whose physical problems make it more and more difficult to attend his local church, I wonder what my place in Christ’s body will one day look like. As a pastor, what will my life look like when I begin to slow down? I don’t ever want to retire from the church. That seems unthinkable. But what I truly fear is that perhaps one day as I can do less and less to help, I will just be forgotten by the church. And that scares me. Cut off from the Body as my own body edges toward death. At the time when I most need to remember the new hope of my Christ, His body will be looking for new hands, new feet that can do what I once could, and I will be left to trust in my Savior while separated from His people. I don’t want a plaque. I don’t want a pew in my honor. Those are nice gestures, but they are not what I will desperately need in my final days. I want and I will need the body of Christ, the same body that is meant to encourage me all the more as I see that Day approaching.
Although life does begin at conception, it does not end there. Our fight for life must not be one sided. In many ways those who are aging in our congregations will be just as helpless and in need of care and protection as those in the womb. But, will Southern Baptists be a people who support life through its entire cycle?
What we do with those in our churches will speak not just about us but about the Gospel of Christ. That is what God seems to be saying in James 1.27 when we hear, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” In other words, caring for the helpless at both the beginning and end of life is a necessary part of gospel living. Caring for those in need and who can give little in return is a picture of what Christ did for us.
Southern Baptists have risen to the call of the unborn. More recently, voices like those of Russell Moore and David Platt have raised awareness of orphan care through Christian adoption. These are needed steps to fulfill the first part of the command in James 1.27, but we must not forget those in our churches who are nearing the end of life.
I don’t have any grand insight into what churches must do, but, rather, a simple reminder of how important every member of our body is. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul reminds us of how important every member of the body is when he says in v. 26, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” There is never a point where the suffering of one of our own should not shake us.
As age limits the activity and attendance of our members, we must not allow them to be forgotten. In fact, wisdom would say that our care for them should increase given the doubts and fears that come with aging and the all too present signs of the curse. I still see Gordon and Mabel every week. He is a deacon, she a wonderful deacon’s wife. And when I look at them in their pews with an empty spot next to them, I am saddened. But greater than that sadness is my rejoicing, rejoicing that I have seen in them what gospel love can be and what a wonderful picture of Christ we paint when we celebrate life.
Their example was a light to our church and a reminder that we cannot wage war in the battle for life solely at its beginnings. We must be a people who save life at its conception and cherish that life until its consummation. That’s not just a good thing to do. That’s what the Gospel calls us to do. And that’s being a people of life from beginning to end.
Chris Gore is senior pastor of Beggs, First.