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Edward F. Markquart

All Saints
Aging and All Saints

All Saints     Psalm 90:12

Normally, I never have a sermon title printed in any of the church bulletins, but after I go home today, I will sit at my computer and type the sermon that I have just given.  In that computer, I will type a title for the sermon.  Today’s computer title is “Aging and All Saints.”

Today is All Saints Day in the life of our church.  That means, we commemorate those in our parish who have died this year.  Their names are printed in the bulletin; we will read each name slowly; there will be a pause; and we all will remember that person and pray for their memory and family.  Also on All Saints Day, we remember those of our loved ones who have died:  mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, neighbors.  All of have been touched by death this year or years past, and All Saints is that time when we specifically remember our loved ones.  In some ways, All Saints Day is like the Memorial Day of the church in which we remember the people sacred in our lives.

There are two Bible verses that I have selected as the basis for today’s sermon.  The first is from Psalm 90:12, and in which are asked to “remember that God teaches us to number our days so that God will give us a heart of wisdom.”  That is what we all want as we grow older:  hearts of wisdom, and we shall learn about hearts of wisdom today.  The second Bible verse is from James where the author says:  “True religion is this:  to visit the widows in their suffering and to remain unstained from the world.”

There are three resources that I used for today’s sermon.  The first is the Bible.  I looked up “aging” in a Bible dictionary and studied the Bible verses about old age and aging.  Secondly, I visited all the shut-ins from our parish.  I am now working as the “visitation pastor” and have been having a wonderful time visiting the shut-ins of our church.  Please do not feel sorry for me in any way that I am overworked.  I am not, but I am enjoying my visits with these people.  The third resource for the sermon is our American culture and our awareness that we are growing much older in America.

Our American culture.  There is no doubt about it that Americans are living longer these days.  You read all about this in almost every magazine.  Dan Rather, on his television report, said that the “hundred year olds” are the fastest growing section of our population.  We have all read the astronomical figures of how many Americans will live to a hundred by the year 2005.  Similarly, the other day, I visited a shut-in, Zella Dallas Patton, over at her home at Wesley Terrace and she told me that the Terrace had a party for 90 year olds and sixty-six people showed up. Only two were in wheelchairs. The same thing happens in our own parish. We have an annual party for those in their 80s and the room is now jammed.  It would have not been crowded many years ago.  So from our reading and life experience, we all know that Americans are living longer.

We are aware that we are living longer, but we are not so aware that we are living lonelier.  Today, in our narthex, you will notice a poster for the Friend-to-Friend program, which matches a volunteer visitor with a resident in a nursing home.  You will read the dramatic statistic that 60% of the people who live in retirement homes in King County do not have an outside visitor such as a family member or friend.  That boggles your mind.  60% do not have someone visit.  Mother Teresa visited our country a few years back and she said that a chronic disease in America is our degree of loneliness.  Maybe our loneliness has to do with our increased mobility and the deterioration of our family relationships.  We as Americans have this huge challenge before us in the coming decades:  to minister to millions upon millions of people who will be aging into their late 80s, 90s, and 100s who at the same time, are suffering from increasing loneliness.

But I also examined the Bible about aging and I would like to share with you some of the results of my study.  I will share with you a study of three sections of Scripture.  The first is Deuteronomy 30:26, and I have preached on this verse before.  Deuteronomy says: “Chose life not death.”  That is the verse I focused on, and I remember someone quit the church about that sermon a short time later.  But the verse continues:  “Love the Lord your God, obey his voice, cling to his commandments that you may have life and length of days.”  God says, “Love me and walk in my ways and you will have a better life and a longer life.”  Most of us agree with the Bible’s observations that a person has a better life and a longer life if you love God and follow in God’s ways.  So many different Bible passages say that we are to love God, walk in God’s ways, and it will go better with you. We read our current books and magazines and the results of social surveys say the same thing:  love God, walk in the ways of God, and you will have a happier life, a better life, a more fulfilled life.  We agree.  Social surveys also conclude that such people live longer, about seven to eight years longer.  We agree.  It makes sense.  A recent newspaper article stated that the longest living people in America are older women living in southwestern Minnesota.  That’s where Jackson, my hometown is, and I agree.  The articles suggest southern Minnesota women live so long because of the harsh winters they endure; these women are tougher and also because of their Scandinavian heritage.  But these articles missed the mark because they said nothing about these women’s faith.  Southwestern Minnesota has the highest percentage of church people and devout believers in the universe.  These older Minnesota women believe in God; they are devout Christians, and Deuteronomy 30:26 says that such belief results in better lives and longer lives. There are no surprises here.  We pretty much agree and understand.  If you ask the question, why?  Why are they living better and living longer?  My suspicion is that Christians are more apt to take care of our health and we are more apt to take care of human relationships.  If you take care of your health and care of relationships, it is no surprise that a person usually lives a better life and longer life. Of course, there are always exceptions and situations, but for the most part, we understand and agree.  Of course, in the midst of better and longer, there is much pain…but we are coming to that.

The next Bible passage I would like to examine is Isaiah 65, where Isaiah has a vision of the coming Messianic era.  Most of his words are familiar to us:  in the new age, there will be a new heaven and a new earth.  If you read the Gospels and the Book of Revelation, these New Testament books are filled with visions of the future new heaven and new earth.  These visions from Isaiah all see a New Jerusalem, and in the New Testament, we hear often about this New Jerusalem.  In Isaiah 65, he sees a time when there will be no more tears, and no more crying and no more pain. Again, these words and concepts are familiar.  But then in Isaiah 65, the prophet also talks about something I had just skipped over:  that infants will not die young but live to 100 years and that adult sinners also will love to a 100.  That’s the part of the vision I missed:  that we as human beings would live past the expectation of Psalmist of three score and ten, 70 years.  We would live past the expected seventy years in order to a hundred years.  It is interesting that at this time in modern civilization in First World countries, with good health and good vitamins and good medicines and good relationships, the human body is beginning to live closer to 100.  This is not to suggest we live in an era of a new heaven and new earth and New Jerusalem, especially when so much killing is going on in Jerusalem; but it is interesting to realize that Isaiah’s vision of the coming kingdom foresaw long life as part of that vision.

The third Bible passage that I would like to examine today is Leviticus 27.  Have any of you been reading Leviticus for your devotional life recently?  I think not.  In Leviticus 27, it is interesting to me that the value of a man’s life is severely reduced when he crosses that invisible line of sixty years old.  From ages 20-60, in Leviticus, a man’s life is worth sixty shekels, but as soon as he turns sixty, his economic value drops to 15 shekels.  His age crosses to sixty and his value drops four fold.  Interesting.  What is interesting about this is that in modern America, we have similar values.  If you cross that line near sixty, something happens to you and you aren’t worth as much to the corporation as you were when you were younger and more productive.  The corporation wants to retire you, get rid of you, and move you out.  You are not worth as much anymore, especially if you try to find a new job where you are sixty.  I am sixty this year, and am sensitive to these observations, which are so, accepted in our culture.  It is interesting to me that the agrarian society of 3400 years ago and the contemporary society of today has similar values of the working man and woman:  their value is severely reduced at about age sixty. 

I would now like to shift gears and share with you the results of the conversations that I had with the shut-ins of our congregation.  Shut-ins are not the same as retired people, that’s for sure.  Basically, the shut-ins have lost their wheels and can’t get out any more unless someone takes them.  I first would like to share with you four general observations and then what I learned from several individual conversations.

First, as a group, our shut-ins live in very nice places.  Every one of them. We have twenty shut-ins.  How do I know that?  Because we prepare twenty Christmas baskets for them, one per household.  And every one of them lives in a nice place. I personally, when and if I get to that age, would be most pleased to live in any one of their apartments, condos, retirement centers, or homes. 

Secondly, our shut-ins are also well cared for emotionally.  Every single one of them is visited by family or friends and frequently.  None of them suffers loneliness to the degree that happens in American society; that 60% of the shut-ins in retirement homes are not visited by anyone.  I am convinced that is why our shut-in members live so long; this is because they live comparatively full, meaningful, and better lives than the rest of society. 

Thirdly, these shut-ins were 100% devout, true believers, deep believers in God.  These were not young doubting Thomas, with skeptical questions at every intersection of life.  These people had outgrown the questions and were now simply waiting to die and meet their loving God face to face. These people also loved their church and were deeply appreciative of you for caring for them and remembering them in prayer.

A fourth characteristic of these shut-ins is that you have to be tough; that “growing old is not for sissies,” as one of them said to me. You have to endure much pain, illness, suffering, death of loved ones, and transition. I one time heard that our seniors and shut-ins go through more transitions and painful transitions that teenagers, and I now believe it is true.  My next stories will illustrate this. 

I would like to share with you observations that I experienced during my recent visits with our individual shut-ins.

Opal Dye is the oldest person in our parish at 96.  Last Sunday morning, she fell and broke a hip and is at Auburn Hospital where she is receiving good care.  She is doing well as possible.  I remember Opal greeting me at the door of her duplex at Huntington Park, standing erect, blind, carefully walking to the sofa and then chatting.  Much can be said about Opal but I want you to know that she is the “best read person” in our parish and the best conversationalist. She receives oral tapes from the library each week, and she goes through dozens of tapes, listening to the classics and everything else under the sun, since she can’t read due to her blindness.  Her mind is bright and alert, a continuing learner. 

Zella Dallas Patton is a young 91 year old, living over at Wesley Terrace.  When I think of Zella, I think of words like dapper, dazzling, distinguished, “dressed to the nines.” She has the tallest red spiked heels of anyone, and she looks great when you visit her.  I mention this because all of our shut-ins take care of themselves physically.  They look good and manicured and well kept.  Their manner of dress and self-care reveals a self-pride in all of them.

Betty Elmore is married to Don and they both live over at Judson Park.  Betty is about my age, slightly older, has been fighting cancer for years, and wears a turban to church when she comes because she has lost all her hair due to radiation.  Don, her husband, has Parkinson’s disease and has been sick for several years.  As I mentioned previously, all these shut-ins deal with sickness, disease, death, and transition and so do the Elmores.  The Elmores are people who still live life and even have fun when they are seriously sick.  Recently, when I was thinking about imaginary plans for their death and burial, they were traveling to Hawaii, took a helicopter ride over the islands, returned home in time to go to Sweden the next year.  That’s the way the Elmore’s are:  they go even when they are sick.  Another thing to learn from the Elmores is how to ask for and receive help.  The Elmores have no children and so the Dann’s in our church helped them with the finances, find a lawyer, sell their house, and move into a retirement home.  Like many of our shut-ins, the Elmores have learned how to lean appropriately on their church friends when needed.

Lorraine Hendricks is great. She lives over at a retirement home in Kent. The doctors seem to chop another inch off her spinal cord every time she has surgery, and now she qualifies as by far the shortest person in our parish.  Lorraine is another strong person, and like all the others I have mentioned, she has learned how to live with enormous suffering and pain.  All the shut-ins do.  What I want to mention about Lorraine is that she does wonderful ministry, even when she is sick.  Lorraine was the best telephoner in church for years, forever calling hundreds of people.  She, too, does not have children, and Lavonne Sorenson and Jan Dann from our church take good care of Lorraine.  Another footnote about Lorraine:  in her previous retirement home, the residents were having trouble with the young handicapped people living there who had electric carts and were speeding in the hallways.  She said you had to look out your door before entering the hallway to make sure it was safe.  She herself is an electric cart rider.

Sophie Word is also 96, younger than Opal Dye by some three months, and Sophie lives with her daughter out in Federal Way.  Sophie has many friends from church as she taught Sunday school here for years.  She is a charter member of our church.  She symbolizes a shut-in whose family really cares and looks after mom.  There are several such people in our parish whose children are enormously faithful to them in their old age.

It is important to mention Bill and Hulda Benson because Hulda has Alzheimer’s and recently Bill had to find a home for her out in Puyallup where Wilma Knutson lives.  Hulda knows almost nothing, and the emotional pain is almost all Bill’s.  Bill is symbolic of those spouses who have to make the painful choice of putting their mate in a specialized home.  This is always an emotional conflict for the one spouse, but it is a choice that needs to be made.  I remember Hannah Madland telling me to tell those retired people not to ruin their health taking care of their mate, as Hannah did.  So faithful to Hannah’s persistence, I told Bill what Hannah said.  Eventually, Bill had to make that painful choice. As all our shut-ins personally know, growing old is not for sissies.

Murray Pierson is here today, with his oxygen tank, sitting in the front pew with his caregiver.  Murray lives over at Huntington Park, right near Opal Dye.  Murray is a fine man who has found that growing old is always full of surprises.  There are so many doors with the word, surprise, written on them.  Life doesn’t go it as it was planned or was supposed to.  Murray had a stroke; his wife, Joyce visited him. He came home and Joyce had a stroke, much to his surprise. She came home and surprise, Joyce preceded Murray in death, and no one expected that either.  But when you grow old, life is full of surprises.  When Opal Dye fell and broke her hip last Sunday, she was surprised that there was no telephone within her reach; especially since she has telephones are the entire house.  Life just doesn’t always work the way you planned, and if you are a shut-in, you must learn to live with surprises.

The last couple I want to mention are the Tronsons, Claire and Agnes.  They have been married for 65 years, the longest married couple in our congregation.  Claire has prostate cancer; Agnes has Parkinson’s and fainting spells that cause numerous falls.  They are a kick to visit; both are clear headed and spirited.  During our last visit, Tronson told me that Agnes’s pharmaceutical bills cost $300 a month and that he feels that both presidential candidates are liars, promising and implying that the Tronson’s drug bill will be significantly reduced if they are elected.  Tronson is a healthy cynic and believes that they will be paying high drug bills until their dying day.  As a personal note, I hope that a collective will is developing in our nation, so that our nation finds a way to significantly reduce drug bills in the future. 

One more comment, and this is about our Graceful Seniors.  They are the most active group of people in our church.  I met with their leadership team, under the direction of Dale Linebarger, and they plan a dynamic ministry, even when all of them are sick and living with some disease.  They are awesome.  Recently, they recently had some forty-five people together at a Bible study and will have some eighty plus people on their March retreat.  This is important. When I came to this parish many years ago, our seniors were a collection of individuals, and I distinctly remember being embarrassed that I had to call some of them when their friends were sick or in need.  They were only a collection of individuals. That has all changed, and under the leadership of Pastor Ed Ray, they have become a community of caring people, with hearts full of compassionate wisdom for each other, and that is what we have learned from all of them today.

And so we close with the words from the Bible on this All Saints Day.  The Psalmist said:  May God teach us to number our days so that we may learn to have a heart of wisdom.  Today I have shared with you some of the wisdom from the hearts of our shut-ins.  And James said:  And this is true religion:  to visit widows in their suffering and remain free from the stains of the world.  Today is Friend-to-Friend Sunday, and I hope that you sign up to be a friend to person living in retirement home, a person who is never visited unless one of us does.  Amen.

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