Walking Alongside Those I Serve
My first contemporary spiritual mentor was also a world-famous theologian, humanitarian, and elder. Dr. Albert Schweitzer was 80 years old when I met him as a young teenager at his home in France. He was on a short break from his medical missionary work in Africa when he responded to my request to visit him during our family vacation. I had started reading his books the year before, drawn to his ethic of compassion which taught me to appreciate the wisdom of those who were older. To meet him was a highlight of my life.
A fondness and respect for senior citizens has helped shape my ministry and theology for 47 years as a pastor. That appreciation came early on – in my grade school years, when I learned how to relate to elderly neighbors on all three sides of my home. As an active child, I was taught by my parents to be attentive to the needs and views of seven women in their 70s who were either single or widows.
By the time I started studies at Yale Divinity School, I became friends with Prof. Roland Bainton, whose great biography of Luther I had read in college. He had retired in 1962, a year before my arrival. But he still biked from his home in Milford to the YDS campus to do research in the library.
Dr. Bainton represented for me an active, vital senior citizen. During this period, at age 69, he accidentally fell from his roof and fractured both legs. When I went to visit him, he expressed his positive attitude: “This will not be a problem, Bob. I need to be reading through the proofs of my next book on Erasmus of Rotterdam. Being forced to be in bed for a couple of months will keep me from other distractions.”
Since my ordination nearly 50 years ago, I have served as a pastor in nine different United Church of Christ congregations. I’ve learned much about the elders in our midst. I’ve loved them and received their love in return, and seen God’s grace working in them.
I’ve learned that it is important to listen carefully. Whenever I ask an older person “How are you?” I try to take the time to listen carefully to the answer and respond appropriately. The information could be vital.
I regularly visit our shut-ins in their homes, assisted-living facilities, and other institutions. Ministering with them, I keep abreast of unmet needs and provide help as their situations change. So many become isolated in settings where their only human contact is the aide who checks in on them. In nursing homes, I always encourage them to take advantage of activities there. I’ve seen how isolation leads to depression and speeds up the aging process, particularly the aging of the mind and emotions.
In my current parish, all of our worship services, ministries, and activities are consciously intergenerational. We do not provide programs exclusively for the aging. We do not refer to them as a separate or homogeneous group, but regard each person as unique in the eyes of God. It’s important for everyone to have relationships with other age groups.
A person usually finds a meaning in old age that corresponds to the meaning he or she has always lived by in life. For many, and for myself, that meaning stems from the “greatest commandment” cited by Jesus: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 21:37)
The meaning of aging for a Christian is found also in living out each moment, facing the high, middle, and low experiences that are natural to the aging of body, mind, and spirit. Seeing the purpose in each day, and reflecting on it, is a way of loving God, loving oneself, and loving others.
The meaning of aging involves a focus on the future – making the plans and decisions about dying and death, preparing the disposition of possessions, helping those who will be the survivors. Confronting one’s mortal span sharpens awareness of God’s presence and support. It awakens an ability to show love for others. It helps a person be more willing to accept the changes of an aging body and mind as part of God’s natural order.
Entering my 70s, I see a new dimension to my pastoral relationships. I am now a peer with those I visit. Although I have always been attentive to the perspective of the aging, I now have a deeper personal empathy. I am walking my journey alongside those whom I serve.
As I go deeper into the experience of aging, I regard the past, present, and future with faith. Aging is a unique time to affirm the faith that God has been caring and loving to each of us, and always will be.
The Rev. Robert Loesch ’66 B.D. is pastor of Zion’s United Church of Christ in Sand Lake, NY.