I am happy to be with you today and to share some of the story of Presbyterian Homes. Kenilworth Union Church has had a close relationship for many years with Presbyterian Homes. Many of your members are residents. Many of you have served on the Woman’s Board and on the Board of Directors. You have also faithfully funded our chaplain intern training program for seminary students for many years. And so Presbyterian Homes owes a debt of gratitude to Kenilworth Union Church for those close connections over time.
The history of Presbyterian Homes goes back over one hundred years – all the way back to 1903. It was in the year 1903 that Rev. Norman Barr, from Olivet Presbyterian Church in Chicago, stood on the floor of Chicago Presbytery and made an impassioned plea on behalf of worthy Presbyterians who, in their old age, were poor and forgotten. He scolded the Presbytery for its seeming indifference to these faithful mothers and fathers of the church and pleaded for the Presbytery to do something on their behalf. And out of that impassioned plea came the Presbyterian Homes.
The Presbytery minutes state that “Attention was called by the Rev. Norman Barr to the matter of a home for older people and, on his motion, a committee was appointed to take it into consideration.” Now, appointing a committee is a very Presbyterian thing to do. But the really amazing thing is that – in this case – it worked! Not only did they take it into consideration, they did something about it. It was that motion and that committee which led to the chartering of Presbyterian Homes the next year in 1904. In the beginning it was intended that the Presbyterian Homes would also be a working farm. When the Geneva building was completed in Evanston in 1922, they also had on the property a farmhouse, a barn, a machine shed, a chicken coop, and a granary. They had thoroughbred Holsteins for milk and Plymouth Rock chickens for eggs and the residents helped tend a vegetable garden raising their own food.
The first chapel was given by Mrs. Nettie McCormick in memory of her husband. Now, Nettie McCormick was one of those unforgettable characters of Chicago history. Her husband, Cyrus McCormick was famous for inventing the reaper, and he moved his business to Chicago where it eventually became the International Harvester Company. When Cyrus McCormick died in 1884, his wife, Nettie assumed the leadership of the company which was an intensely competitive business with over 1800 employees. She was a woman ahead of her time – running a major corporation in the 1880s. And in her spare time, besides running her company, she also ran McCormick Theological Seminary, which was named for the family. And I mean she ran it! Very little happened at McCormick Seminary in those days that she did not personally supervise.
And when Presbyterian Homes built its first building in Evanston, Nettie McCormick donated the chapel in memory of her husband. She was 86 years-old when the chapel was dedicated but she attended the dedication service with her family and she was described as “ripe in years, rich in faith and alert in the service of God.” And so that chapel and its successors symbolize the importance of our roots in faith – a consistent theme down through one hundred and eight years.
Our Old Testament text today comes from Isaiah and it talks about God’s people waiting in exile. And, as Walter Brueggemann suggests, exile is not necessarily a bad place to be, because God comes to people there. In fact, these poetic words from Isaiah Chapter 40 announce that the time of exile is soon to end. God will come in might and mercy to comfort God’s people. The mysterious, powerful grace of God will come. Only the act of a supreme God could bring about a new beginning for an exiled people, prevented from returning home by both their captors and the intervening desert wilderness. What Isaiah envisions was for that time unimaginable: a defeated and exiled people coming home, instead of fading into the sands of history.
Aging as Exile
For the residents of Presbyterian Homes the theme of exile has special meaning because aging is often compared to the experience of exile. Facing the losses of aging may feel like an exile experience. Physical infirmities, cognitive decline, loss of loved ones and friends, reduced mobility, – these are all losses that our residents encounter. Added to that is the fact that our culture seems to idolize youth and often disparages older adults. We live in a society that is fixated on staying young and treats growing old as a plague that must be resisted with every cosmetic and pill available. And so consciously and unconsciously our residents absorb the message that their society looks down on growing old. And yet I am here to tell you that in the midst of all the adversities of aging, there are wonderful glimpses of the kingdom. Older adulthood can be a very rich time spiritually. Our scripture text tells us that those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength. This can apply to God’s people in Old Testament exile. It can also apply to older adults dealing with aging.
Theology of Aging
As thousands of Baby Boomers turn 65 each day, the denial in our society about aging is reaching record proportions. A book was published some time back, entitled The Denial of Aging: Perpetual Youth, Eternal Life, and Other Dangerous Fantasies. The author’s purpose is to disabuse us of our magical thinking about old age. She points out that each year, sales of antiaging nostrums break new records – more than six billion dollars in one recent year – a strange fact when you realize that, in terms of scientific efficacy, there is no such thing as anti-aging medicine. Yet today there are more doctors in the United States who are members of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine than there are board-certified geriatricians. And moreover, from a theological point of view, aging is part of living out God’s plan for our lives. As Homer Ashby, a former professor at McCormick Seminary, has said: we understand ourselves as persons created by God who grow, evolve, mature, and change. To become an older adult is to live out God’s plan for us. We believe that human beings are created in the image of God. That image of God is not lost, even when we are beset with many infirmities. As we affirm the basic goodness of creation, we acknowledge ourselves as creatures who grow up and grow old. Aging is part of God’s plan for us – not something to resist, deny, camouflage, and rebel against. Aging is not an accident or a mistake. It is part of God’s plan for our lives. Proverbs 16 talks about “Gray hair as a crown of glory.” The biblical word affirms that old age is a blessing from God.
Thirty years ago Presbyterian Homes began a program for training chaplain interns. Kenilworth Union Church has been very much a part of this program – financially supporting it over many years. And each year, six seminary students have done their field education with Presbyterian Homes, learning about ministry with older adults. Students from McCormick and Garrett Seminaries have gotten to know our residents. They lead worship, preach, and make pastoral calls. They learn an appreciation for the gifts of older adults and hopefully are better prepared for ministry because of it. When they come to Presbyterian Homes each fall, they are full of apprehension about what life in a long-term care facility can be. They have heard all the stereotypes, and their friends from seminary say to them “why would you want to do your field ed in a place like that?” But then a whole new world opens up to them. They discover that there are “glimpses of the kingdom” even in the midst of exile experiences. Our residents are their teachers. When they step onto a floor of our health care center for the first time, it may seem like a strange and scary place. But the more you get to know the residents, the more you discover that this too is a community – a community that is like a little neighborhood.
You discover a winning sense of humor in the midst of the adversities of aging. You meet one-hundred -year olds learning to use a computer in order to send e-mail to their grandchildren. You meet memory-impaired residents who say almost nothing all week long but can join in singing a hymn at Sunday worship. You meet vibrant spirits that overcome frail bodies. You meet heroes of the faith who can affirm God at work in their lives even in the midst of adversity and struggle. The description given to Nettie McCormick would fit many of our current residents: “ripe in years, rich in faith, and alert in the service of God.” The Presbytery of Chicago had a vision over a century ago and this vision has been embodied in the ministry of Presbyterian Homes. Every year hundreds of older adults receive care regardless of their ability to pay. And in this ministry we see glimpses of the kingdom transforming the exile experience of aging into a sign of God’s goodness and grace. As Walter Brueggemann suggested, exile is not necessarily a bad place to be, since we know that God comes to people there.
All these “glimpses of the kingdom” are signs of God’s presence. Jesus says in our reading from Mark: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near.” The good news is that we are not alone. Even in the midst of the exile experience of aging, there are signs of comfort and wholeness and hope. Sometimes it is precisely in our setbacks and adversities that we come to know God’s presence. No matter what happens, God can use it. We become aware of the sacredness of all of life’s moments. If God was present in the past, God is present now and God will be with us in the future.
Isaiah says “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” And so we say: “Thanks be to God.”