ANNA CHAPLAINCY AND THE TOPSY-TURVY GOD
In a news saturated era, there is special competition over who can break a story first. BBC, ITN, Sky, CNN, CBS rarely win this battle today – a story is much more likely to emerge from Twitter – but they are often first on the scene to report. The race is won by the nimblest, which means on the ground reporters are usually young and energetic. Only once a story has unfolded sufficiently are opinion formers brought in to make sense of what they see. This cohort is often older, bringing years of experience to the cameras.
Before Moses died, he said another would one day step into his shoes. This person would be Israel’s Messiah. Some promises take a while, but there can’t be many stretching well over a thousand years to fulfil and so anyone waiting for the Messiah in the first century AD might be forgiven for having given up. A long passage of waiting blunts expectations and leads to tired, ritualised responses, like a child forlornly pestering: ‘are we nearly there yet?’ but long having given up hope of arrival.
It is no surprise then, that when the Messiah makes his debut, carried in his parents’ arms into the Temple in Jerusalem, almost no-one was ready for it. There was no pomp, no theatre, no press release even. Amid the crowds and bustle, the heat and the smells, the fear and anxiety of an occupied nation, Jesus is spirited in, ordinary and unexceptional. But Simeon noticed him. And so did Anna. Two old people break the world’s most important news – at least until Mary Magdalene went for a stroll in a garden one Sunday three decades later.
It is tempting to think this is God’s topsy-turvy way with things. But this is only because our world is topsy-turvy – not his. There was nothing exceptional about two old people breaking the news, because they would have been respected for their wisdom and the capacity to wait patiently. We value the ability to do lots of things at once and at great speed, crossing off things to do with vigour, frowning on any who look backwards or forwards too far as not being in the moment, in the zone. Anna and Simeon had one thing to cross off their list. And they were prepared to wait decades to see it: perhaps the world’s best example of attention surplus syndrome.
Anna was a long-time widow. The way it is described – a young woman bereaved after only seven years who devotes herself to praying in the Temple – is once more filtered by our cultural prejudices: She couldn’t find another man. How awful to be alone for so long. How nice that she became so religious to make up for it, if you like that kind of thing. Anna made a conscious choice about her life. Luke says: ‘she never left the Temple but worshipped there with fasting and prayer, night and day’. Anyone who camps in a public place like that, denying themselves food and sleep has iron self-discipline and unwavering desire. She must have been a formidable, grace-filled woman, defined by spending so much time in the presence of God.
As Psalm 71 said:
O God, from my youth you have taught me, and I still proclaim your wondrous deeds. So even to old age and grey hairs, O God, do not forsake me, until I proclaim your might to all the generations to come.
Anna would have used these words in worship. It is easy to believe she felt she embodied them. It is easier still for us to believe this, looking back.
Anna Chaplains who bear her name should do so with delight and with her cool shadow shading them, and those they care for from the heat generated by those who have no time for growing old or living with dementia. Anna had a ministry of presence. She waited on God; she expected to meet with him in others. There was no sense that she brought God to the Temple that day. She went with an open heart and she met God in the shape of a poor at heel Galilean young family. Presumably everyone else at the Temple that day had no idea what was happening right next to them, except for her and Simeon.
Our culture prizes special traits. It is quick-witted, image-conscious, hyper-rational and goal-oriented and values those who embody it. Conversely, it is shuns those who don’t. Squarely in this category are older people with declining health. The job description of an Anna Chaplain is to inhabit the topsy-turvy world of God, where such people are highly esteemed. Anna Chaplains are a walking critique of the idolatry of glamour which blinds us to truth if we stare at it for too long.
The parables speak of God searching for the lost sheep and his willingness to spend all his resources on the quest. People living with dementia are not lost. They are firmly in God’s loving embrace. But they may feel lost, and their families may feel they have lost them. It is into this milieu that the Anna Chaplain offers the pastoral care of our topsy-turvy God. People living with dementia and other forms of declining health are at a particular stage on the road of discipleship, their journey into God. Every point on this way presents its challenges, and they will have encountered and overcome many already.
If we were to give up on such people, through negligence, through ignorance, through our own deliberate fault, we would be saying the road had become too hard to accompany them on. It would be the denial of our own path of discipleship, where we must offer our shoulder to those who need to rest and carry those who can go no further. The support we offer those who are ageing now is a harbinger of what we may find ourselves. If our generation loses the will to care for older people, we cannot be surprised if those younger than us choose to emulate this.
Thank God for those who care spiritually for older people and those with dementia. Like those who knew Anna herself, they will be changed by the experience of waiting alongside those whose waiting for the Kingdom of God is nearing its conclusion.
To find out more about Anna Chaplaincy, go to: thegiftofyears.org.uk/annachaplaincy
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