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The Bible says poverty comes upon you like a robber (Proverbs 6:11), but so does old age. Turn around and you lose your hair, you lose your balance, you lose your bladder control. Your sneakered foot sticks for a split second on the macadam of the bank parking lot, and the next thing you know home health nurses and physical therapists are ringing the doorbell and changing your decor: extra grab bar for the shower, extension on the stair railing, “transfer handle” on the bed, kitchen chair with arms and glide tips.
The old age of my father-in-law doesn’t fit into my schedule. I phoned my husband between the nurse and PT visits. My husband: “You will have reward in heaven.” Me: “No I won’t, because I’m grumbling—not outwardly, but I’m grumbling.” My husband: “So don’t grumble. This is the most real thing you can do for Christ. ‘Whatever you do for the least of these, you do unto me.’”
My father-in-law is not the least of these. He’s one of the most of these. But the point is well-taken.
Take a peek at the last chapters of many a New Testament letter. They’re all about work, labor, and doing.
Is my husband right that there are “more real” things and “less real” things? We know what the unreal things are that carnal men do: gaining the whole world and losing your soul (Matthew 16:26). But in the church sphere too there may be a spectrum, things higher and lower on the scale of authentic worth and being. One of C.S. Lewis’ Bright People in heaven, an erstwhile university professor, tries to drag his hell-bound former intellectual sparring partner into the real, but it’s a thankless battle. Some folks are just enamored of heady esoterica and will never get real:
(Bright Spirit): “Let us be frank. Our opinions were not honestly come by.” (Cultured Man): “Do you suggest that men like—” (Bright Spirit): “I have nothing to do with any generality. Nor with any man but me and you.” (Cultured Man): “Well, this is extremely interesting. … It’s a point of view. Certainly, it’s a point of view. In the meantime—” (Bright Spirit): “There is no meantime. All that is over. We are not playing now.”
We are not playing now at my house either. My father-in-law’s declension is real. And the choice before me is real.
Or, rather, choices. For there are only the individual moments served up one at a time. Moments in which I can run roughshod with my preferred agenda, or I can stand in direct communion with the Spirit of God and “do the next thing.” And “the next thing” may be to drop everything and play a slow game of Chinese Checkers. For the Spirit’s direction is always immediate to the conscience: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you” (Psalm 32:8).
Take a peek at the last chapters of many a New Testament letter. They’re all about work, labor, and doing. In 1 Corinthians 16, Timothy, Stephanas’ household, Fortunatus, Achaicus, and “every fellow worker and laborer” are commended. Paul commands Titus: “And let our people learn to devote themselves to good works, so as to help cases of urgent need,” exhibiting no qualms regarding endless ivory tower discussions of legalism. The topics in the Epistles are generally arranged in order from more esoteric to more practical, but this is not the same as saying from more important to less important. Obedience to the latter things is the proof that understanding of the former things took hold.
When old age robs your IQ too, and the neurologist says to retire the Mercury Sable, there are things you can still do to keep from sinking: make a sandwich (but not a complicated one involving lettuce and meat-cheese issues); vacuum the carpet (but not the stairs); fold the laundry (who cares if it’s not Martha Stewart–perfect); rake the leaves (there will be plenty); sort and roll a jar of pennies in those paper wrappers (though the bank machine can do it in a flash).
But all these need my help. So what about the other tasks I have to do?
The Spirit says: It all will turn out fine.