Old Easter


Author: Carl Knightly

**Written before coronavirus enforced church closures**

Easter is a time to remember, rejoice and proclaim to all, that Christ is risen. Churches swell with irregular attendees both young and old. So how can we care for older people this Easter?

The starting point to sharing Easter with older people is theological. Easter is all about Jesus- the God man stepped down from heaven into a broken, painful and evil world. He died for the sins of the world and opened relationship with God. Jesus was raised to new life demonstrating that death was defeated. We are called to respond in thank and trust.

Practically Easter reminds us that it is not strength, beauty or wealth which bring us and keep us in relationship with God. It’s all God! That’s great news for older people, most of whom are not strong, beautiful (as society defines beauty) or powerful. Most older people are profoundly aware of this reality. Older people also have a strong awareness of their own mortality. The reality of Jesus’ death destroying the sting our death, has clear application for people who know they are mortal. Finally, Easter reminds Christians that God’s love is for all people- Jesus did not die for the young, for the intelligent, for the rich. Jesus died for all people. James words ‘have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?’ (James 2) are a warning to us to not discriminate against people we think are less important.

Having recognised that we discriminate against older people at our peril and that the message of Easter resonates with their reality and before moving to practical strategies. It is important to bust a myth.

Myth: Older people are not receptive to the Gospel, they are stuck in their sin.

A few years ago, I read an article by a Bishop who was rejoicing in the fact that a local church almost had 10% of the local population in attending a special service. Residential Care chaplains expect 30% of the resident population (plus family members) to attend their weekly church service, I have seen congregations tipping 50% of the resident population. I do not seek to discourage the prayerful, faithful and hard work of local church ministry. But to highlight the foolishness of the myth that it’s older people who are unreceptive, hard and stuck in their sin and to inspire Gospel ministry amongst older people.

Some older people are hard towards the Gospel, just like some young people and some middle-aged people. Research however has found an increased interest in the spiritual by older people. Importantly this research has been repeated across cohorts and it has been proven that it not just one generation of older people but older people generally. To quote Rev Dr Elizabeth Mackinlay; ‘Spiritual growth is not simply possible in later life, it’s likely’. This interest in spirituality does not automatically express itself in Christianity. It should however encourage Christians and the church to care for and present the Gospel to older people. If the research is not enough to convince you there are countless stories from older people and those who minister to them of people coming to Christ late in life.

As message of Easter resonates with their needs older people, demographically older people are more interested in the spiritual, and ministry to and by older people is fruitful. The question becomes how can we individually and corporately share the love of Jesus this Easter?

I have written previously that ministry to older people (indeed to any people) is all about love. Love drives us to pray, love drives us to relate and love drives us to share the Gospel. Which brings us to our second principal of ministry to older people- If you know one older person, you only know one older person. Each person is different and recognition of their joys, needs and desires must shape how we love them.

Perhaps an example might help. Visiting a dying older Christian lady. I offered to read the Bible with her and because I was not sure what text to read, I asked her what she wanted me to read. She replied that her family had been reading her soft Psalms and she wanted something stronger, so I read some of Paul’s writings. My point is people are unique thus it is dangerous to make assumptions; questions are a great starting point to love.

Having warned against generalisations it is helpful to outline four general principals relating to sharing Easter with older people- think Epad (Engage, Pray, Appropriate, and Dementia):

1. Engage. James 1 highlights that ministry must be more than lip service. If we want to share Easter with older people we need to engage with older people. There is great value in making it easy for older people to attend church (e.g. disabled access/toilets, limiting service length and seats with arms). However, no fisherwoman (& only silly fishermen) expect the fish to jump out of the water and onto their line because the bait it spectacular. Effective fishing requires the effort to go to where the fish are. The value of Scripture in schools is that the Bible is taken to where the children are, and presented in an appropriate manner. If we want to effectively minister to older people, we need to go to them. Consider your local respite centre, residential care facility or another location where older people gather? I realise Easter is busy and that churches are already running services on Palm Sunday, Good Friday or Easter Sunday morning. Be creative, could a service targeting older people be held on Maundy Thursday? Could there be a service one morning during holy week?

2. Pray. Too often I rush to minister to people without praying. Fighting a fire with a bucket is a low impact strategy. Fighting a fire with a fire hose connected to the mains is effective. Prayer is our connection with our Lord, who is all powerful. Yes, He has given us gifts and we should use them but to rely on our bucket of gifts is silly.

3. Appropriate. The message of Easter is not flexible, but how we present it should be. We would not speak of ‘Penal Substitutionary Atonement’ in a kid’s talk. We would teach children that Jesus loved them so much that He died for them. Equally we need to be sensitive to where an older person is at. I visited one frail old woman, who was dying who had decided to use her dead husbands’ commentaries to wrestle with the four Gospel’s accounts of Jesus death. When I visited her, I engaged on a rigorous academic level. For other people simply singing an Easter hymn or just ‘Jesus Loves Me’ is appropriate.

4. Dementia. Dementia is not only the biggest killer of women in Australia today, it’s the most dreaded diagnosis. It strikes at our culture’s basis of personhood the mind. So, if you’re living with dementia what can Easter mean for you?

  • Easter reassures us that we are loved. Loved so much that Jesus died for us.
  • Easter reassures us that our salvation is not about our actions.
  • Easter reassures despite our memory fading, Jesus never forgetting us.
  • Easter reassures us that we have God with us. Even when we feel weak, alone and afraid.
  • Easter reassures us that our certain hope is heaven.

If you are caring for a loved one who is living with dementia:

You are loving a person of immeasurable worth, but that doesn’t make it easy. What is easy is getting isolated. The best thing you may be able to do this Easter is reach out for some help- speak to your GP, contact a Christian or a church or organise some respite.

If you are struggling to effectively share the message of Easter with someone living with dementia there are some good resources available for people throughout their dementia journey. Consider using music (e.g. Easter Hymns), watch the Jesus movie together or pray together. There are also resources designed especially for older people and people living with dementia- adult Easter colouring, or the Faith for Life Series (HammondCare and Bible Society). ‘Jesus Loves Me’ one of the resources in this suite is designed specifically to share the message of Easter with people living with moderate to advanced dementia (disclaimer-I co-authored it).

In conclusion I encourage you to remember and share Christ crucified this Easter with at least one older person.

Ben Boland is a Seniors Chaplain with Churches of Christ in Queensland, Australia, and the co-author of ‘Jesus Loves Me’ and ‘Joy to the World’ which share Easter and Christmas with people living with dementia.