This past Saturday, I was blessed to have a friend come to Birmingham and spend his day with me. Seminarians do not get out too often those days, and any change to my daily route, albeit slight, is always a welcoming one!
After spending an entire afternoon shopping at 2nd & Charles (it is an awesome and mind-blowing but dangerous store to go for those who love books!), we decided to eat dinner at Diplomat Deli, a mom-and-pop joint in Vestavia Hills. It did not only have good selection of food but also a mean Reuben sandwich that leaves me wanting for more! I highly recommend this place to any of you who want some good local fare, but don’t go if you are a recovering alcoholic: this store prominently sells and displays liquor on its walls. But I digress here.
As we entered the restaurant, three people at a table caught our attention when a college-aged girl signaled and signed to us in a rather halting manner a question I rarely witness in Alabama:
“Are you Deaf?”
What ensued was a delightful conversation with an elderly lady at the table who was also Deaf. She graduated from Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind in Talladega, AL and currently lives in Birmingham not far from the restaurant and where I currently live. At one point during our conversation, I discovered that she was 96-years-old and that her husband died a while ago, so I told her with a beaming face, “Well, you still look great, even at your age!”
The countenance of this lady was changed transformed into one of sheer delight and appreciation. It was as if her weary bones has taken a drink of refreshing water drawn out of a deep well on a hot day. And she kept talking to her daughter-in-law and granddaughter long after we ended our conversation how encouraged and good she felt by “these young men” that evening. When they left, this elderly lady said, “It was really great to meet you. I hope I will see you again!” Her daughter-in-law also thanked us before leaving the deli.
As I chomped into the delicious Reuben sandwich I ordered, an epiphany occurred: through this encounter, I was also transformed. Without realizing it at first, God divinely arranged this meeting and taught me a new lesson in an unexpected manner. I was reminded of 1 Timothy 5:3-16 when Paul explained to Timothy, his protégé, how the Ephesian church and its families can minister to widows and young widows. Verse 3 says, “Honor widows who are truly widows.” Within the context of this section, it is a clear reference to those who are elderly and way past the age of child-bearing.
How do we honor and serve the widows and elderly people in our present-day churches? We often rationalize that a larger share of our church budget, our ministerial efforts, and our energies should be devoted toward those who are younger. “We got to invest in our children’s future… we got to have a bigger, badder, and better program to draw teenagers and young adults to our churches… we got to have this cool mission trip to a third-world country to impact these people’s lives…” on and on we go. But as we do this, we tend to sacrifice if not only subtly tell the widows (and orphans too in the light of James 1:27) and tell them that they are not worthy of our attention. Under the guise of “we got to be wise stewards of our scarce resources,” we are in fact subscribing to a socialist’s perspective – which is un-Scriptural – that elderly people are of no use in this society and should be “dismissed” if not “discarded.” Because each person in this world has been created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27; 2:7; 9:3) and belong to the Creator himself, we should never ever dismiss, marginalize, or diminish the dignity of any single human being on the basis of their usefulness, their intelligence capacity, or even their social standing.
Brothers and sisters, how often do we pay attention to the elderly members of our congregation? How often do we visit them during the week? Do we find ways to show them their intrinsic value as humans within our society and, yes, even on Sunday morning in our churches? What about the widows among us? How can we continue to support and encourage their families to take care of them? If they have no families in the area, how can churches best support and encourage them? I do not pose these questions with a condemning heart to all Christians and churches who have failed to do so (I am often a failure with this as well!), but rather with a repentant and pastoral heart.
Because of my encounter at Diplomat Deli, I am reminded and resolved to neither diminish, devalue, or marginalize widows and elderly people, but rather to affirm, honor, and respect them in whatever ways possible. And the Lord promises that he will bless those who pay attention to those who are on the fringe of the society.