Photo by Jake Thacker on Unsplash
The little old lady perpetually wrapped up in a shawl, who smiles at you when you walk by. The old man with the wheezing voice, you can't really understand his mumbling but you're too embarrassed to admit it so you slink away with a strained, awkward smile. The silent one sitting in the corner that is a bit deaf and smells of herbal candies; you tell yourself she's probably dozing off anyway.
If you feel like you "don't know how" to relate or talk to the elderly in your church, then you need to remember that it isn't much different from "knowing how" to relate to anyone else. As long as you have a sincere love and desire to reach out to them, and patience (patience! patience!), you'll start learning how to see things from their perspective, understand their needs, challenges, and what makes them "click"--nothing at all different from getting to know anyone else.
For starters, though, here are some things that might help you start, since we all know that first steps often take the most courage:
1. acknowledge their presence. Greet them when you see them. Okay, this should apply to anyone actually, regardless of age--but especially the elderly. A very traditional Asian practice, maybe--my parents always told me that when visiting, I should find and greet the oldest person in the house to show respect--if dying out nowadays. But respect ought to transcend cultures, whether racial or social.
Often, because they're quiet, or not at the center of things, they get left out. People don't even acknowledge their presence. Maybe they don't hear that well, so make sure your greeting is loud and cheerful--or at least accompany it with a physical gesture to make it more obvious. A wave, a smile, a handshake, a pat on the back, a hug. There was an elderly man who could be seen feeding the cats under my block every day. He always looked fearfully grumpy, yet there was a kind of pathetic loneliness in how he would spend hours, with his favourite cat on his lap, simply sitting there silently. I used to smile at him in passing, but he never responded, and I felt--rather hurt--that he was as grumpy as he looked. It was only later on that my mom, taking the time to actually stop and talk to him, found out that his eyesight was poor. Sure enough, the next time I saw him I tried waving to him. His whole face lit up and he waved back, eagerly, smiling so widely my heart ached and I felt a pang of self-reproach.
2. talk to them. This sounds simple, and it is. Several of the older people in my church revealed how much it means to them when a young person comes up to them and spends time talking with them--regardless of age, different interests, even language barriers. It may take a while, it may feel awkward at first, but as with any other friendship, perseverance, patience, and sincerity work wonders.
3. be interested to hear their stories and be open to learn from them. Ask them to teach you how to cook that curry chicken you love. Ask them about themselves when they were your age. Ask them how they learnt to knit so well, or how they came to believe in Christ.
4. affirm their role in the church, what they do for the church. whether it's praying, cooking, or simply faithfully attending despite the rain or the backaches or the sleepless night, elderly people often play a greater role in our churches than we--or they themselves--realize. They may struggle with feeling irrelevant, useless, or unnecessary, as the way some of them talk about themselves--jokingly or otherwise--indicates. It's important to affirm and encourage them, to remind them that age and physical limitations do not define the impact we can have on others.
5. encourage them in their spiritual walk. As we get older, we face the same challenge that we had when we were young, for different reasons. We may be tempted to sink into selfishness, to live lives bogged down by self-centeredness--
--for young people, because we have our whole life before us, and all the world to explore and conquer, every reason to enjoy life. So many distractions! So many desires! So many dreams!
--but also, as we get older, because our body becomes more and more of a concern everyday. Because everyone else is rushing on in their lives at the same time we slow down more and more. Maybe we can't hear--taste--see--walk so well, we can't enjoy the same things others do, and we feel increasingly isolated from them. So many small little things which affect the quality of our daily lives, which are so simple and mundane to others that they can't fathom, but which are frustratingly significant to us--bad teeth, hearing loss, failing eyesight, sleeplessness, multiple doctor's appointments...which all have a direct impact on our quality of life and interactions with others.
6. help them to be involved and interacting with the lives of others in the church. Introduce young people to them, bring children over to say hi, ask them to pray for you/someone else/someone you're praying for. Tell them about that young mom who's been struggling with a new baby and ask them what advice they would give. Help them be aware about the needs of other people in church; the missionaries you're praying for, ministries you're involved in.
True healthy friendships aren't limited to the two people in the friendship alone but continue to have a 'splash effect' in the way they bless others outside of it, build other positive friendships--thereby bringing even more blessings to the two main people in it.
7. be thoughtful and considerate of their needs. Maybe you need to walk slower, talk louder, or just be a more patient listener. Maybe they need a hand when it's dark and it's hard to see the road clearly. Someone to send them back, or help them carry their bags. Preempt their needs and challenges, whether the challenge of stairs, or finding them a seat. Or the temperature. If they have trouble with their teeth when eating. Once when my grandma had been unwell, a sweet young sister in church prepared a box of grapes, washed clean and painstakingly peeled, for her. My grandma was very touched that she had spent enough time and attention talking to her, sitting with her, in church to know that, and to remember it. Small gestures like that demonstrate that you are sensitive to their needs and challenges, that you are looking out for them, that you care for them, in concrete and tangible ways.
Perhaps it starts with something as small as smile, as making them laugh...
Somewhere along with the plasma, platelets, and hemoglobin, list-making is in my blood. As flipping through the notebook I've been using for the last four years indicates, even my journal entries are spotted with lists, especially if I don't have time to compose my thoughts. I thought that lists might be more direct and straightforward for readers as well--or you could just say I'm typing this in a hurry--so this week's post (and perhaps several others to come) is in the shape of a list.
A list of several small reflections I've had over the years, over the process of several difficult relationships with people I don't like/who don't like me/whose interaction with me is usually characterized by tension and conflict. This goes for people who don't see eye to eye with you on significant issues; on people with very different personalities from yours; or even people whose habits and characteristics annoy you. I think I don't need to spend too much time elaborating. If you've ever been tempted to gossip (read: "rant") you probably can explain this better--with more colourful language too probably.
1. Pray for the person. My mom told me this when I was very small, and it sounded so ridiculously, unrealistically simple that I always remembered it. Years later Ken Sande also reiterated this in his book The Peacemaker, and for good reason. If you're struggling to love someone, start by praying for the person. Almost like clockwork, the Holy Spirit gets to work on your heart and prepares it--you might not be able to start making advances then, but eventually you will; and you'll find yourself motivated increasingly by sincere concern instead of animosity/duty.
2. Pray for yourself, for grace, humility, love. As you probably already know, just the thought of it sometimes truly feels like part of you (the old man, according to the Bible) is dying. And boy, it hurts. We need to be greater than that bitterness, that grudge, that pride, that anger, that self-righteousness and entitlement, and yes, hatred.
3. Start spending more time with them, whether physically or communicating.
4. Focus on the things you can connect on. You need to have non-sensitive/explosive things you can relate over, or every time one of you just opens your mouth the other will flinch.
5. Examine what is the ratio of criticism/negativity to positivity/neutral in your communications. Be honest. This is often quite sobering and makes me realize, I'm not their favourite person either; this is what I come across to them as.
6. Give extra thought to tension, whenever you're tempted to criticize, scold, argue. As with dealing with children, it's important that you don't act in the flush of the moment's anger, or from personal reasons. We have to honestly ask ourself: how much of this is out of sincere love and care for the person's well-being, how much of it is just because it offends my own personal sensibilities and preferences, what I want them to do so that I will feel at peace, I will feel good? Because if humans have any defining characteristics besides two eyes, two ears, two legs, and an affinity for terrible decisions, it's a deceptive heart. If you are more concerned with them stopping a certain particular action than the state of their heart--well, just be aware that is the main message they're already receiving. To qualify: if destructive and harmful habits/actions are the case we might have to take decisive action and not just withdraw piously citing this as a reason.
On the flip side--and I've seen myself lapse into both extremes--are we too hesitant, too afraid of conflict to bring up these issues? Do we repress our concerns, telling ourselves that we're being considerate, we're controlling ourselves, only to end up bitter and resentful over time, or exploding unreasonably one day?
7. Appreciate them for who they are, see their strong points, their individual gifts and strengths. Challenge yourself to, if you can't see this.
8. It won't kill you to be silent whenever you want to say something hurtful, even if you feel convinced then that it's warranted or necessary. Often our emotions in the spur of the moment lead us to say things we regret, or things which are foolish and do more harm than good.
9. Sometimes, if you are in a more advanced stage where both of you are mutually working on the relationship, you could muster the humility and courage to ask them what makes it most challenging for them to open up to you/ warm up to you. Maybe you've never realized it before, or meant to come across like this, but you come across as the kind of person who responds negatively to anything that you don't like/that went wrong--blaming/scolding them instead of being supportive and trying to help. Which causes them to simply avoid telling you about anything problematic (dear parents! parents!!) Maybe you've ignored them or hurt them before, and they hold it against you. Maybe you have certain traits which make it hard for them to trust you or take you sincerely. And the list goes on. This takes courage and humility to bear, as the one listening. It also requires trust that the other person will answer honestly and constructively, without giving in to the temptation to tear you down indiscriminately. But when it works, it's hugely helpful in teaching you to see yourself with their eyes, and grasp some of the obstacles in your relationship.
10. And most importantly--not just when it comes to dealing with difficult people, but with everything else--
--meditate on Christ's love for us, and our unworthiness.
True empowerment and freedom comes when we can accept the life-changing significance and hope that lies in both truths, taken concurrently.
Student life as a young Christian can be one of the most bewildering and challenging periods of your life.
There are so many new things--challenges, mostly--clamouring for your attention. Uncertainties, ambitions, all the enjoyments of life; and often, so many priorities you haven't quite sorted out for yourself, or at least in application, yet.
Add on top of this all these challenges in a spiritual aspect, and overwhelming would be a good summary.
(Of course, this has a point. Youth is the best time for facing challenges creatively and courageously, rising to meet them with energy, spirit, and hopefulness. Though to be frank I don't think most young people feel exactly brimming over with energy, spirit, and hopefulness. More like ceaselessly dog paddling just out of your depth, your toes grazing the pool bottom every now and then giving you a fleeting sense of stability; other times your whole head goes underwater and the chlorine stings the inside of your nose.)
At this point in life, whether it's angsty teenagers or young adults struggling to adapt to the label 'young adults,' life and maturity largely boils down to navigating that fine balance between our often conflicting desires to be independent, and to be dependent.
(At least, from my own personal experience; a lot of the stress I experience stems from managing priorities. Fellow young adults, please correct me if I'm generalizing.)
Whichever one applies most in your case. Maybe that means being emotionally and psychologically strong. Or financially independent. Or being able to handle all the stuff that life throws at you without feeling stressed or lost (read: impossible.) We look to adults/older Christians both as role models, as people who had successfully survived/navigated this period of life and more or less (at least comparatively) seem to have found their own feet and a measure of stability and strength--spiritual or otherwise. At the same time, we struggle how exactly to define our relationship to adults, wanting to not have to depend on them, yet simultaneously still needing some guidance and help in our goal to achieve the sense of stability and security we associate with them.
This explains why, though it certainly shows love and care for your child if you cover them with concern and pre-empt their every need, it also reaffirms your child's awareness of how dependent that makes them, and simultaneously reaffirms their desire to be independent. We want ultimately to be treated as equals, but we're still vulnerable enough to need some TLC now and then. If you keep that paradox in mind, you won't feel so confused or resentful why we respond sometimes in the ways we do, and you'll be more able to give us the help we need. And forgive us, when we react ungratefully or ungraciously or just plain incomprehensibly. Or realize that perhaps the ways you thought you were helping us might be backfiring, despite your good intentions.
Whether you're a parent trying to care for the spiritual life and wellbeing of your child, or a kind soul reaching out to students in your church/life, here are some ways that I've personally found encouraging and helpful in my own time as a student.
1. Care for their physical needs.
This may mean little care packs of study snacks, oranges to help ward off colds and flus, herbal soup to boost focus during those all-nighters, buying them their favourite coffee, providing a quiet place to study, or a ride back to save on travelling time. Be creative with the gifts and resources God has given you. As a student, dollars matter so much. Food is vastly important.
2. Communicate and pray faithfully for them. Keep track of the big challenges in their lives so you can support them during those critical times, whether it's finals or waiting for results to be out, or knowing when they're stuck in a nightmarish group project with horrible team members. Let them know you're available when they need to talk, and be sensitive to gage when they do need help. Text them short, simple encouragements that don't require lengthy answers in reply. I remember feeling almost a sense of dread having to muster up the time and energy to give a detailed update on myself, when it wasn't a good time. Is this just an introvert thing? I think not.
On communication: Communication is a two-way thing. It's unfortunate, but just because you want us to confide in you doesn't automatically mean we will be as effusive and appreciative as you might think we ought to be. We may have inhibitions about opening up to adults, or fears on how you might judge us, or simply not feel ready to make ourselves vulnerable. And we've probably all had bad experiences/memories of condescending adults. Children get the worst of this, I'm telling you. Have you heard the way some adults talk to kids? Even I cringe. The worst part about opening up to someone is when they leap to conclusions and assume that they know exactly what it is, and how we should resolve it, full of I-am-older-and-more-experienced-than-you-so-I-automatically-know-better. And we creep away even more confused, unsettled, wondering if we were arrogant to dare to think otherwise, and mentally vowing never to expose ourselves to this kind of situation again. As with any other relationships, don't come to communication and interaction with a sense of entitlement, which usually arises when our motivation is dutifulness rather than sincere love and respect. I'm guilty of it myself!
3. Help us by giving us the perspective we often are too near-sighted to see. This is one of the great benefits of being older--you have a much more mature and far-sighted perspective of decisions, priorities, and events. Without downplaying and dismissing the emotional and psychological significance of things which seem to be the end of the world to us, help us to see an alternative, that life doesn't have to go exactly as we think it has to, or other people tell us it has to, in order to live a happy and productive life that glorifies God.
Or, help us to have more balanced experience and perspective on life. Help remind us that life isn't all about grades, success, (add in word of choice) but that simple things like cooking your own food, playing with children, sweating it out over sports, laughing with friends, a bunch of flowers, beautiful music, and a walk outside remind us why we were created, and by Whom.
4. Take an interest in our friends, the people in our lives, what we feel is important.
5. Encourage us by affirming our growth, abilities, and gifts. Constantly being made aware of our limitations and shortcomings, we deal with insecurity, feeling incompetent, internal and external expectations for ourselves, criticism--ah, I won't go further, it sounds like a pity party; I've written on the pressures of growing older elsewhere.
Encouragement goes a long way. Especially at this time when we're still discovering who we are, or who we want to be. When we're struggling to do everything required of us and be more, be better than who we were yesterday.
Most of all, God bless you for your kindness in wanting to help us during this bewildering and challenging, if fulfilling time of life. I saw a quote once which I've been trying to live out since, and which I think aptly sums up much of the thoughts in this post: be who you needed when you were younger.
How many of you want to be a blessing to your church?
A few hands appear--hopefully, that is.
How many of you want to feel blessed by your church?
Based on the general discontent that characterizes our current attitude towards the church, a lot more hands appear. Sure, there are problems--when has there ever not been?--new struggles, old ones, weak people, miscommunication; nothing new under the sun, to quote Ecclesiastes 1:9.
Well, here are 5 ways to bless your church--and yourself in the process, because the two come together:
1. Don't be a church-ninja. You can be a regular attendee but unable to name more than five people; or perhaps only the usher on duty that Sunday knows you even turned up at all. Don't come for service wrapped in an invisible cloak and magically vanish immediately after. Sometimes people just need that little bit of initiative. Sometimes they just need an answering smile to be brave enough to approach you (from my own experience, this is very much the case.) Go make a coffee and a friend in the process. Don't hide in the toilet or seek refuge in your phone, tucked away in the empty worship hall after everyone's left. The temptation to keep to yourself in your comfort zone, not give any more effort than it took to get out of bed and turn up, is very real, regardless of whether you're in a big church or a small one. This applies to whether you're a visitor or a regular attendee, someone who maybe grew up in church but feels disconnected and insecure. It's easy to do nothing; but then you shouldn't be surprised if you feel like you're not "getting" anything (a phrase I've actually heard several times. Maybe we should start handing out goody bags and participation certificates at the church exit.)
Reach out to people. And pray for the wisdom and love--and yes, maybe courage too--that you need to do that.
2. Get your hands dirty. Be involved in serving. Whether in small, prosaic ways and needs--coming from a small church which rents classrooms for our worship venue, setting up the place (ie. tagging all the desks with numbers and drawing a diagram on the whiteboard so we could rearrange the classroom back in order afterwards, setting out chairs and laying out hymnbooks etc) was one important, if often downplayed, area of service as well as a very real need. Take a look at what are the existing areas of service and needs in your church; whether committing to pray for people, visiting someone who is unwell, hosting visitors, or simply offering to usher. Smile and hold out a hymnbook. How much simpler can it be?
And consider: what are your gifts, your passions, or your assets, and how can they translate into a way you can bless your church? Perhaps you want to try your hand at flower arrangements. Bring an arrangement every Sunday and remind people of the beauty of the Creator we are gathered to worship (this is what I've been doing for years, and I'm always surprised and touched by the people who tell me how much they enjoy and appreciate the flowers every Sunday. I never thought a hobby could add to the atmosphere of Sunday worship in such a meaningful way.)
Or bless others with your signature recipe, like that grandma in my church who makes wonderful Nonya kuih in the true traditional style, down to using the dye from blue flowers. If love was soft, sweet, and sticky, that would be it.
Open your home or organize something for the children; share your new waffle iron, or some free movie tickets your boss gave you. I'm learning how creatively you can serve in church from the examples of others. Look around for inspiration.
Serving takes sacrifice, courage, vision, and dedication. It may start with something as small as volunteering to wash cups or push a wheelchair; but there is so much more that God has in mind for us in serving, than simply being the human instrument to get the job at hand done. Being involved in serving helps you to understand and appreciate the others who serve you; helps you understand your church and its needs better. One of the best ways to integrate and get to know people is when you do things for them and together with them.
3. Affirm people. In every church there is a backbone of people who are serving faithfully, often unacknowledged, often over many years. Like pastors and teachers who are more often criticised and taken for granted than it would be nice to acknowledge, they need encouragement. Take the time to be thankful. Notice those who are working in the background, and more often than not there's much you can learn from them.
4. Take charge of your spiritual growth. Don't see this as the pastor and Bible study teacher's job. I think they'll thank you for it. Jesus told Peter to shepherd His flock, not put them in incubators on tube feeding. The church is there to encourage and facilitate spiritual growth; it is the means to an end, rather than an end in itself. If you think that being there to sing hymns and warm a chair in the congregation is the extent of your input in accomplishing this goal, please think again. You're not here to be spoon fed spiritual truths and maturity like a pate de foie gras goose, though admittedly that would be a much cushier form of sanctification. Do your devotions. Read your Bible on your own, not just every Sunday during the worship reading. Study the parts of the Bible you don't understand, ask intelligent questions, don't assume that your spiritual growth depends on how knowledgeable or gifted your pastor or Bible Study teacher is. Too often we come to church with an entitled attitude that both prevents us from gaining anything, and sets us up to tear down others. All right, I'm here, I've done my part, now it's your job to make me feel my great sacrifice of several hours of sleep was worth it; by the time I walk out these doors I'd better have experienced a revival, seen several conversions, and feel on fire with the Holy Spirit; and if not, that just proves this church is lousy.
We come to church as if we're judges on the panel of some spiritual reality show, as if we're consumers trying out (spiritual) food at a new restaurant.
When you take the responsibility for your own spiritual growth, you will be less passive, less quick to judge, less entitled. More open and humble. Don't see church as your weekly dose of Christianity, like enforced exercise; hit the gymn on your own, embrace the challenges, the enjoyment, and the benefits that come with it.
5. Understand that every church has its strengths and weaknesses, as they are made up of sinful people. Perhaps I'm not one to speak, as someone who has been in the same church all my life; but as I see and hear others discuss the seemingly impossible task of finding and choosing a suitable church, I've concluded that it's rather like choosing a spouse.
In other words, no one person/church will ever be perfect. However great they are at dancing, playing the guitar, or making cute bento box lunches, they still wake up with bad breath in the mornings or leave dirty laundry on the floor. What's important, then, is deciding what combo of pros and cons works for you? What strengths are greater, more important, than the weaknesses? What's your deal breaker? And just like choosing a spouse, this decision and this relationship requires you to be humble and ready to admit your own mistakes and sins. To be willing to forgive others. To see that people who have different opinions, personalities, etc are God-given ways for you to learn humility, forbearance, love.
To understand the magnitude of Christ's love in learning what sacrificial, selfless love is, first-hand.
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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