BIBLE SUNDAY – WITNESSING TO CHRIST

October 28, 2018

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Preached by Debbie Thrower, Team Leader at The Gift of Years and Anna Chaplain to Older People, using Timothy 3:14 to 4:5 and John 5: 36b- end at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 28th October 2018, Bible Sunday.

The year I was born there were five times as many people getting confirmed in church than there are now in the diocese of Winchester. Many more than a thousand people would have been confirmed in this cathedral and the parishes beyond. That’s five times more people publicly witnessing, by undergoing the rite of Confirmation; the rite of passage, when a baptized person, especially one baptized (or christened) as an infant, affirms their Christian belief as a full member of the Church.

Last year, in this part of the worldwide Anglican Communion, 271 people (to be precise) were confirmed. As you can see, figures have collapsed just in my lifetime.

In the face of that shift in behaviour, our three bishops have recently written a letter to the parishes posing the question: ‘have we lost confidence in this rite, as its growing unpopularity has come to represent the loss of our missing generations?’ That’s the teenagers, those in their twenties, thirties and the forty-somethings.

Notice I haven’t told you which year I was born in yet! But I will. It was 1957. Sixty years ago, almost 61. I’ve no qualms about disclosing my age, because my job is partly about dispelling the fears associated with ageing. I lead The Bible Reading Fellowship, BRF, programme, The Gift of Years- ‘resourcing the spiritual journey of older people.’

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

Hence my candour, this Bible Sunday, even though it’s somewhat counter-cultural to admit one’s advancing age in a society which values youth, beauty and productivity above almost anything else!

In the sixty years since the late Fifties we’ve become more consumerist. As one contributor to BRF’s Bible reading notes New Daylight commented the other day, we live in a world where ‘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.’ (Tony Horsfall New Daylight, August 22, 2018)

In another recent BRF publication called Anxious Times (by Carmel Thomason, BRF, 2018), in the Foreword, Archbishop John Sentamu, speaks of ‘uncertainty hanging in the air’. Despair is polluting our air, he says. And adds: ‘We are more and more reliant on inner resources to tackle the general forboding’.

Inner resources for the spiritual journey? Not concepts occupying the minds of most shoppers on today’s High Street. As a journalist, I’ve conducted many Vox Pops out on the street with a microphone over the last thirty or so years. The words spiritual or  spirituality wouldn’t be uppermost in people’s minds, I can assure you… despite the Hallowe’en decorations.

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. They are these:

To transcend difficulty, disability and loss

To search for final meanings

To find intimacy with God, and

To have hope.

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

As Paul is writing his second letter to Timothy he senses himself close to death. He’s completed his tasks, he’s brimming with hope despite, touchingly, asking for his warm coat to be brought to him, along with his books and notebooks, (in paragraphs just following our passage of this letter to young Timothy). 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 him 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.

So many of us live on into, often these days, prolonged old age without such meaning; never discovering much of a sense of purpose. I bless the kind person (and I don’t even remember who it was now) who gave me a copy of Bible reading notes after I was confirmed… and I’ve pretty much read them, regularly, ever since… lapsing only in my twenties while away at university. But after a time, I felt the lack of them. I missed that regular appointment with God which they ensure, and I found my way back to them.

Thousands of people read New Daylight right around the world. I was helped to picture a typical reader by the editor’s description: ‘For me,’ says Sally Welch, ‘they are two people in my congregation who are regular 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.  Educated and reasonably well off…. They have some experience of the world and like to keep up to date with what is happening, but not in an obsessive way…  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.’

Bishop David, in that letter I mentioned asks us to share the bishops’ longing to see more joyful celebrations of Confirmation, at the end of more courses teaching people the basics of Christian faith and life. He mentions two older people he confirmed not long ago, 89 years after they had been baptized!  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, a convention almost… But was something lodged in his heart.

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 Ages 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. Archbishop Justin Welby will commission three more new Anna Chaplains, in Kent, on Tuesday. (October 30, 2018)

Nowadays we leave going into care as late as possible. The majority of residents exhibit signs of confusion. When writer and priest, Barbara Brown Taylor, was visiting a care home in the U.S. once 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.’

(Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, Rowman and Littlefield, 1993, p.66).