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November 25, 2001
Let me tell you about Mildred. Mildred once held her family together like matriarchal glue. She orchestrated the holiday dinners, the house renovations, and the family vacations. She taught her daughters how to play the piano and sew a hemstitch. She navigated her family through two wars, one house fire and the slow death of her husband. She baked biscuits that melted in your mouth. She wore pastel suits with matching handbags to church every Sunday. She juggled membership in two bridge clubs, the Women of the Churdh, her college alumnae association, and the hospital auxiliary.
But one day she slipped in the kitchen and broke her arm. From then on, life was all downhill for Mildred. Other injuries occurred. She was sick a lot. For a while the daughters covered the grocery shopping and doctor appointments. But they had their own lives to juggle, too: husbands with high blood pressure, children with marriage problems, grandchildren to spoil, their own bills to pay, their own homes to maintain, their own health problems to nurse.
So now Mildred's at Sunrise, or Morningside, or Courtyard Manor, or Cascade Village, or some such. She is in a cheery place where she still a lot of living to do and she can reward herself after eighty-plus years of workaday by letting others wait on her hand and foot. Mildred is in assisted living.
The concept of "assisted living" makes sense: people want to live their own lives and make their own decisions for as long as possible, but eventually they find that they need a helping hand. Independent living has too many dangerous possibilities. A full-blown nursing home may make the residents feel like they have been transferred to a prison. Assisted living creates a middle ground: to assist with personal care in the midst of a comfortable home.
That is why assisted-living is the hot new thing in senior residences, with dozens of new facilities opening every month across the country, each with its own glossy marketing brochures promising to take good care of your loved ones. Assisted-living facilities go by many names, including residential care facilities, adult congregate living facilities, personal care homes, catered living facilities, retirement homes, homes for adults, or community residences. According to the Assisted Living Federation of America, or ALFA, one million people are living in more than 20,000 communities. The ALFA also reports that the average resident is a woman in her eighties. [Bob Rosenblatt, "Assisted living: More like home," Los Angeles Times, March 12, 2001]
Now I know that we may not want to think about this kind of thing. We all want to maintain complete independence as long as possible. But there are few facts that we have to face. Fact #1: Aging happens. Get used to it. We are going to get older. Fact #2: We all need help sooner or later, and usually sooner rather than later--which leads to fact #3: None of us goes through life unassisted. There are no rugged individualists. No one makes it on their own. This is especially true when we come to spiritual things.
That is why the apostle Paul is so careful to pray that his readers might be "strong with all the strength that comes from his [i.e. from Christ's] glorious power" (v.11). Paul also reminds us that we have been "rescued ... from the power of darkness and transferred ... into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (vv. 13-14). That is assisted living. The lifestyle of followers of Christ is assisted living.
Authorship of Colossians
Let us say a word about Colossians. The epistle to the Colossians is typically Pauline in the style and nature of its discourse, and yet in some ways it is not typically Pauline. Doctrinally, Colossians presents a more cosmic view of Christ than usual for Paul. We see this particularly in 1:15-20.
Phrases of greeting and peace and farewell certainly echo the other letters of Paul, but Colossians also has numerous words and phrases not found in Paul's other letters. So if we read the commentaries, we find that many scholars say that Colossians was not written by Paul. I need to tell you that so that you will not be totally shocked if you do some reading and encounter that notion.
But there is no need to come to such a radical conclusion. It is true that Colossians contains material that seems different from Paul's other letters, but no compelling reason exists to cause us to decide that Paul did not write Colossians. Things that cast doubt on his authorship, for some scholars, may just be a result of the issues Paul and Timothy are addressing. In other words, we, when faced with different situations, might write letters that differ considerably. And It may be that Timothy had more of a role in writing this letter than is generally recognized . We see perhaps a hint of that in v1 which says, "Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timotheus our brother." However that may be, I see no reason to doubt Paul's overall authorship of Colossians.
Vs 9-14 are what we might call a prayer and praise unit. Paul prays that the Colossian Christians will be so inspired by the tremendous things God has done for them that they will "lead lives worthy of the Lord" (v. 10), To lead such "worthy lives" Paul stipulates two directives. In v10 he says they are to "bear fruit in every good work" and to "grow in the knowledge of God." They are to grow in spiritual wisdom. This is not some sort of abstract knowledge that has no bearing on behavior in daily life. The "knowledge" the Colossians are urged to acquire is always made manifest in right action and right conduct. True knowledge, in the Biblical sense, is not a knowledge of how God plans and works; it is simply a relationship with God. Only because they are in relationship with God through Christ are believers able to bear the fruits of faith. The fruits of faith Paul lifts up that will reveal to the world a Christian with "true knowledge" include strength, endurance, patience, joy and thankfulness. Human character is too frail to produce these fruits on its own. These spiritual virtues grow directly out of God's "glorious power" (v. 11), and the strength that Christians seek relies entirely on divine assistance. Note that this strength is not for displays of wonder-working; it is, Paul says in vs 11-12, that "you may be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father."
A Christian Hymn
Verses 15-20 is an early Christian hymn. This is Paul's hymn of praise to Christ the Redeemer. The hymn stresses the supremacy of Christ in the universe and the church. These verses most nearly compare, in scope and sweep, with John chapter one. John 1:3 says, "All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made." Colossians 1:16 says, "For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him." John 1:14 describes Christ as the Word, made flesh. Colossians 1:15 speaks of this same Christ as "the image of the invisible God."
Think of all the things in life that are real and powerful, but invisible--the wind, magnetism, gravity. Do you realize that we do not actually know what gravity is? Sir Isaac Newton taught us some things about how gravity works, and Einstein added to Newton, so we know something of how gravity works, but we still do not know what gravity is. To some degree that also describes our relationship with God. God is an invisible force in our lives. We know something about how God works, but we do not know much about God. Jesus makes God more visible to us; Jesus enables us to see what God is like. Again, v15 says, "He is the image of the invisible God." In Christ, we see God and know more about God.
Col. 1:15-17 establishes the priority of Christ's relationship over all creation. The phrase "firstborn of all creation" does not suggest that Christ is first among all created things, but rather that Christ is pre-eminent over the rest of creation. The phrase also testifies to the special relationship that exists between God and Christ. Every created thing has its origin in Christ and exists for Christ, even the various ranks of angels referred to in v16 as "thrones or dominions or rulers or powers." V17 indicates that Christ does nothing less than hold the universe together, reminding us of the claim in Hebrews that he "sustains all things by his powerful word" (1:3).
Verse 18 narrows the focus of this cosmic Christ into a more Pauline concern by looking at Christ in relationship to the church, as Christ the Redeemer. "He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything."
But verses 19-20 once more expand the role of Christ to the whole of creation, on earth and in heaven. Paul's surprising universal hymn of praise and thanksgiving concludes by moving Christ's cross not just beyond the boundaries of Israel, but exceeding even the limits of planet Earth itself. Marvelously, Paul hangs the cross in the heavens, the symbol of redemption for all of creation. It is through the sacrificial death of Christ, Paul concludes, that "God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven" (v. 20).
The Great Assister
Is it not obvious then, so Paul would ask, that we need Christs assistance for living? We need assistance of all kinds for living. Our culture may glorify independence and individualism, but the reality is that none of us goes it alone. We are assisted from the cradle to the grave. Countless people--our parents, teachers, friends, pastors, neighbors, employers--help us along the way. So, if we need some special assistance late in life, that is no embarrassment. People have been helping us all along. Life on earth is assisted living. There is no such thing as independent living. It is a myth. The only way we can get through life is with the help of others. Yet, as true as this is, most of us find it hard to ask for help.
Paul reminds us that the church as a community is an assisted-living environment, a place where we do not need to fear asking for help. A space where our special gifts are placed in operation for the benefit of all. At the head of this assisted-living community is Christ, the Great Assister. Christ helps us everyday all along the way of our lives. Paul says that we should not expect it, or want it, to be any other way. The assisted life is a life of joy, thanksgiving, strength, redemption and forgiveness.
Let us face it. We have all tried independent living and found it to be dangerous if not deadly. That is why hikers are warned not to travel in the high country alone. That is why women are encouraged to be careful when traveling or walking alone in the city. That is why children are given a buddy when taking field trips to the zoo. That is why God gave Adam and Eve to each other, because God knew it was not good for us to be alone.
Why even pretend to live "independently" when he who is the "image of the invisible God" has promised to be with us always? Christ was with Paul even in prisonwhich was where Paul was when he wrote Colossians. Most of us have sometimes been unable to escape the feeling of being imprisoned in this life. Circumstances beyond our control chain us to places and times we wish to avoid. Yet Paul says that even in chains, God's power brings the patience and the strength to endure.
Real Assisted Living
One could wish that the administrators of assisted living facilities were as faithful to those who depend upon them as God is faithful to us. Unfortunately, what was created to give individuals a little help has not been enough. Assisted living facilities were supposed to rescue those we love from dangerous--and potentially deadly--situations; they have not always succeeded. Unlike nursing homes, assisted living residences feel less like "human warehouses," and yet, also unlike nursing homes, few government guidelines exist for the assisted living industry. Safety guidelines and healthcare standards vary widely. One facility that had promised "loving care, dignity, and quality of life in a safe, homelike environment" was recently charged with involuntary manslaughter when an 82-year-old resident, caught between the side rails of her bed, suffocated to death. Other facilities have been investigated for keeping discombobulated medical files or literally losing confused residents who wandered away from their buildings. One gentleman died on the night of his 80th birthday after wandering out of his residence and down a busy highway into traffic. [The Washington Post, February 26 and March 5, 2001.]
Assisted living residences sometimes do not live up to their promises. But God always, always, always, lives up to his promises. When we need spiritual assistance it is readily available. When we need strength, it is ours for the asking. When we need wisdom, we are invited to ask in faith without doubting (James 1:6). When we need forgiveness, we are asked to confess our sins. When we need deliverance, we are told to call upon the name of the Lord. When we need peace, we are reminded that God keeps us in perfect peace if our minds are "stayed" upon him (Isaiah 26:3). When we need direction, we are to "trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not rely on your own insight ... and he will make straight your path" (Proverbs 3:5-6).
And when we need support and strength from others, we turn to the Church of Assisted Living, the body of caring disciples of Christ who are empowered to reach out and shoulder burdens. In our society, the church does not receive much notice. On TV, nobody goes to church. Even on TV shows that have a religious theme, nobody goes to church. The only TV program that consistently shows people going to church is "The Simpsons." That says something about our society, doesn't it? And Homer Simpson always moans about going to church. "What if we pick the wrong religion?" he says, we may be wasting our time going to church. He invites daughter Lisa to watch an afternoon football game with him, saying it "helps get rid of the unpleasant aftertaste of church." Nevertheless, churchgoing is a regular Simpson routine. Prayer is also a common Simpsons activity--especially when some special pleading is in order. Young Bart prays when he starts missing his soul, which he sold to another boy for a few dollars. Wife Marge asks God to stop a hurricane and save her family, adding, "We will be forever grateful and recommend you to all of our friends."
Now I know that "The Simpsons" is a comedy, and we are not supposed to take the show seriously, but yes, we are supposed to be forever grateful to God, and we ought to recommend him to all our friends. We have an awesome God who comes to us through an awesome, cosmic Christ.
And yes, Christian living is assisted living. We lean on Christ and we lean on each other. Keep on leaning. It is the only way to live. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified, 01/11/02