As part of my work as a parish minister, I regularly lead worship services in aged care facilities. They are a highlight of my week. On each occasion, I make sure there is a short Bible reading followed by a reflection on that reading—the plan being to keep the teaching to one point, illustrated by a memorable story. I have never attempted, until recently, to preach though a book of the Bible to residents with cognitive impairments.

Though we are often surprised by what people forget, it is also surprising what they remember.

There are three things I have been learning: first, it is worth providing intellectual content in a straightforward form to residents in aged care because, though we are often surprised by what people forget, it is also surprising what they remember. Different residents have different capacities; for example, sometimes the most communicative are the most forgetful, and sometimes those who can no longer communicate retain high levels of cognitive function. Of course, the staff who bring residents to worship also need to have good teaching given to them as well.

Second, good teaching is part of ‘the vibe’ of the worship experience—and emotions matter a great deal in aged care. Many in aged care are struggling with depression, isolation, loneliness and frustration with their reducing capacities. An uplifting worship service can change their emotional day, and that makes a big difference to their sense of well-being and their sense of being held by God at a time when they are struggling just to hold onto what remains of themselves.

The research here is clear; our emotional capacities do not decay with our cognitive capacities and frequently, we remain the same person emotionally as we were before the onset of dementia or any other illness of ageing. People are ministered to by a well-prepared sermon, music and sacraments—even if they cannot express or cognitively recall what has just happened. Emotionally, they remember.

People are ministered to … even if they cannot express or cognitively recall what has just happened.

Third, I have realised (again) how needlessly complex much of my preaching has been. Perhaps it is good to tackle theological and philosophical and political and social and psychological issues in our sermons, but the truth is, both the preacher and the congregation remember about as much of such sermons two days after the event as an aged care resident with advanced dementia would be able to recount twenty minutes after such a talk. God’s word is beautiful and nuanced and I really, really want his people to see what I have seen in my preparation but I need to leave more out for the sake of clarity and memorability and not run the risk of turning a sermon into the preamble of a small thesis.

Here are two examples of ‘preaching to the aged’ from an expository series on the letter of James.

James 3:13-18: How to be Wise

My grandfather used to say: ‘When I was young, I was a young fool. Now I am old; I am an old fool. I have not let experience teach me anything.’

Getting older does not necessarily mean we get any wiser. But we know we need wisdom at every age. We also know that our world needs wisdom because we see so many unwise things happening in our world, and we shake our heads at the stupidity of it all.

A war in Europe, troubles in our families, daft decisions we ourselves make … We need wisdom.

James has already told us we need to pray for wisdom. Back in chapter one he taught the church to pray for wisdom to deal with the struggles in our life so that those struggles produce growth and maturity in following Jesus.

Here, in chapter three, he tells us how to recognise when that prayer is answered, and he does this by describing three kinds of wisdom.

  1. Our default, instinctive, reactive wisdom. This is the wisdom a cat has when it hears a loud noise and instinctively runs away. This is our animal reaction: reflex, not reflection; fight and flight. Lots of us can live most of our lives at this level.
  2. Demonic wisdom. He calls it demonic because it involves the deliberate use of human intelligence to cause harm. The fruit of this is chaos and division—pulling apart relationships, families, societies, workplaces …
  3. The wisdom God gives—this comes from outside of us. It is an answer to prayer. It is a gift of grace that is:
  • Humble;
  • Pure;
  • Healing with regard to relationships;
  • Considerate;
  • Reasonable;
  • Merciful toward others, but still …
  • Unbiased where the truth is concerned;
  • Sincere and consistent.

I find these categories so helpful. When I see a news story, hear a conversation or speech, or email that is divisive and reactive, which seeks to stoke hate and cause harm, I think, ‘I know where that wisdom that is coming from.’

James tells us to pray for wisdom from above … he tells us this is a prayer that God is very keen to answer.

But if I see those rarer and beautiful things that are humble, patient, merciful yet truthful, just and discerning—things that seek to grow and heal and reconcile—I know where that is from too.

The difference between these types of wisdom is so important. I am thankful to God that James has told us how to tell the difference between them so I can recognise what is from God and what is not.

James tells us to pray for wisdom from above … he tells us this is a prayer that God is very keen to answer.

Let’s pray now for this wisdom for ourselves and those we know.

[Prayer based on the reading]

James 4:1-10: Getting What we Want

In this passage, James gives us a health check for our churches. He tells us that there are two indicators and they both have to do with our prayers:

  1. Prayerlessness—we want, we do not have because we do not ask. Many churches live without prayer; many Christian lives go through times when they are prayerless. We do not try to come near to God in prayer, so we see no answers to our prayers.
  2. We pray, but we pray for the wrong things. If we ask in prayer, we ask for our pleasures, not for God’s pleasures. We treat prayer as if it were magic—a way of controlling God to do our will—instead of (what it really is) relating our will to God’s will.

The result of this is that there are fights going on in the church. James compares the situation to murder and adultery, and many people think he is picking up Jesus’ language from the sermon on the mount, where Jesus says hate is like murder and lust is like adultery.

But the answer to it all is prayer, drawing near to God in humility.

Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
(James 4:7-10)

I find these words so encouraging. I think about the size of wrong and evil in our world, and I think: ‘It is just too big.’ The job of overcoming it in our lives, our churches—let alone in the world—seems too hard.

But look at what James says the Devil is terrified of: the repentant … the humble … those who come near to God through humble prayer.

When we humble ourselves we are breaking with the spirit of the world and breaking up the desires and strife that cause so much harm in our relationships, families and world.

We give up nurturing wrong and start to oppose it instead.

The way up is down. In humility, come near to God in prayer, and he will come near to you.

That, says James, is the path to a beautiful life.