Here's part of a conversation between John Chapman and Kel Richards on the subject of growing old and dying.
Kel: John Chapman, I get the impression that getting older, aging and sickness, is not a lot of fun.
John: It depends. If you’re sick, it’s no fun being sick, everybody knows that. And it often is associated with growing old isn’t it. Your parts do start to fall apart. You gather up specialists like some people gather stamps. I always keep saying the next book I’m going to write is called, Another Year, Another Specialist.
But I lost two last year, which you may think is careless.
There are fun things about growing old, because people’s expectations lower. They don’t expect you to do much, and that’s quite nice, because if you don’t want to you don’t have to.
And if you do anything which is out of the ordinary, they’re quite surprised and you feel good about that.
But chronic sickness is no fun whichever way you look at it. And I think you’ve got to be a non-realist to pretend—you know those sort of people who say, ‘my granny got run over by a bus this morning praise the Lord’.
And I want to say, for goodness sake wake up. And if you’re honest, you do spend a lot of time going to your doctor…s, of which you’ve got, you know, many, and a lot of the time of the elderly is spent in just putting all their gear on, to start with.
Kel: If someone said to you, Chappo, I know there are some people who handle chronic sickness well, and some who handle it badly; I want to handle it well, how can I approach chronic sickness and handle it sensibly?
John: Kel, the more I think about growing older, is, it’s hard not to be self-centred, because you do spend a lot of time looking after yourself and getting ready to face the day, and I think it’s hard for your world not to sort of creep in and diminish. You’ve got to work hard at being concerned for other people, I think. And the people who seem to me to handle their sickness well have got an eye out to help other people.
I think it helps to know that you’ve got God with you. I can’t imagine what it’s like to live without the hope that comes for knowing that you’re right with God.
Kel: If someone said to you, Chappo, why is there such sickness in the world, what’s the answer?
John: The Bible’s answer is that when we turned our back on God and said, Leave me be, God said alright. I’ll leave you be. But he keeps warning us that all things are not right. You see, if you lived in a world where nobody got sick and nothing ever went wrong, and it was all Pollyanna-ish and, and —would you worry about God? You wouldn’t. You’d say, I’m in heaven now.
And you would be.
And because I’m not in heaven now, I live in a world that’s just ideal for me, because every now and again it says, ‘Oops! Everything’s not right.’ And if you say, why isn’t it right? Well you say, you turn your back on God, that’s what you ask for. Now we’re all caught up in that bind, so the world in which we live is an ideal environment for people who are not right with God. It keeps saying, all is not well.
Kel: It’s a poke in the ribs to say, ‘Pay attention’.
John: That’s right.
Kel: It’s not working.
John: That’s right. And sometimes it’s a big poke in the ribs. It’s a poke in the eye with a blunt stick. And you say to yourself, you know, did I do something for this to happen? And the answer from the Bible is, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? Jesus says neither, but you want to see what I can do? Watch this. And he heals him. [See John 9]
Kel: For those of us who turn from our way to God’s way and give our lives to Jesus Christ, we in effect get the same message Jesus gave to the repentant thief, 'you will be with me in paradise'. [Luke 23:43]
Kel: As you get older, how important is that hope?
John: One of the things that was interesting to me when I came to live in a retirement village was, I was surrounded by lovely Christian people. They had their trust in Jesus, there was no two ways about that, they’d come to terms with their sins, they’d put their trust in Jesus, they knew what it was to be forgiven. But because nobody had taught them about death and life after death, they weren’t looking forward to dying, and they certainly weren’t looking forward to the new creation. Now when I read the Bible stories about the new creation, they’re so exciting!
One poem in Isaiah says, they will beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning hooks [Isaiah 2:4]. Imagine a world…you can’t imagine a world without war! For as long as I’ve been alive we’ve been at war with somebody.
And to say there’ll be a time when there’ll be no war—it’s breathtaking.
Kel: And in that world with no war there is also no illness.
John: Well, then you get to the New Testament, He says, no more tears, no more pain, which is good for the elderly I can tell you, no more crying, no more death. You see, death’s a terrible curse isn’t it?
In this village where I live there are people whose spouses have died between selling their house and moving in. Now it’s a big enough trauma to sell your house and move. But to have your partner die on the way, that’s a terrible tragedy isn’t it.
And you would think it was all 'Pollyanna' if it wasn’t for the fact that that’s exactly what Jesus does...
So they’ve had the funeral, they’re carrying the coffin out, the widow’s son of Nain, Jesus says young man I say to you arise and the bloke sits up in his coffin. [Luke 7:11-17]
Now Kel I’ve done hundreds of funerals, and it’s never occurred to me to give that a try, enough trouble at funerals without importing idiots aren’t there.
Can you imagine that?
The bloke sits up in his coffin!
So when Jesus says in the new creation, there’ll be no death, well you say, well he can pull that off, can’t he?
Kel: Well in fact foolish people talk about the fact that, I want to die a good death. Every death is a bad death, every death is a reminder of sin.
John: Oh absolutely, and Kel, we ought to make a distinction between dying, and the process of dying. My observation is that the process of dying can be no fun at all. I mean, I’m a born romantic from ways back. I want to go to bed one night and wake up in heaven. But the chances of that happening are fairly slight, aren’t they.
Kel: So, talk to us about Jesus for a moment, because Jesus actually does our dying for us. What does he do, how does that work?
John: The Bible says that when Jesus died on the cross, he took the punishment which I deserve and you deserve, and Old Uncle Tom Cobbley and all. The sin of the whole world, he took on himself, so that he can give to us the gift of forgiveness.
It’s like as if when you turn to Christ, you get a certificate that says ‘The bearer has borne all his sins’.
And you say, well, where’d you get that from? It was given to me by Jesus. Well that’s OK if he wants to give it to you, he’s certainly earned it. If he wants to give that to you as a gift, that’s his business.
Now you see, to know that I’m right with God is terrifically stabilizing in a world which is changing.
The thing about the elderly is they’re always complaining about the fact that it’s changing. When decimal currency came in I said to my ancient mother, how are you getting on with the decimal currency?
She said, isn’t it a fool of a thing John? Wouldn’t you think they’d have waited until all the old people died before they changed things? Which I think is brilliant.
Kel: She didn’t say she was going to go on using the old money because she liked it?
John: Well she converted everything back to pounds, shillings and pence so she knew how much it was costing.
But you see, to know that you’re right with God, it’s marvellous. And to know that when you get there and you meet him face to face, eyeball to eyeball on the day of judgement, he’s going to say, how good it is to see you old friend. I mean, you can’t think of anything better than that can you?
Kel: No, you can’t indeed. In fact TC Hammond used to say, they said to Hammond, what’ll it be like when you die? And he said oh the moment after I die, I’ll hear Jesus say, Father, this is Tom, I died for him. Hard to think of anything better, isn’t it?
Kel: Talk to me about old people for a moment. We tend to think that as people get older they will think more about God, they will think more about their relationship with God. Do they or don’t they?
John: Well Kel I used to believe before I was converted that if you were a good person you’d probably be right with God. Now the funny thing was I wasn’t all that good. I laboured under the misapprehension that when I grew old, I’d be ever so terribly good to make up for lost time. That’s stupid. When you get old, you don’t become a different person. You’re the same person who was always there, only it takes you longer to do things. Why I thought I’d be able to catch up I’ve no idea. See, when you become old, you don’t become different.
One of the nice parts about living in this [retirement] village is, collectively, we’ve got an enormous amount of knowledge. If you want to know how to do something, there’s somebody here to teach you. And, that’s the nice part about living with a hundred and twenty, hundred and fifty people. Amongst us all, we’ve got a massive amount of skills. You want to learn to use the computer, the computer club’ll spend time, and they’ve got it, to do with you. If you want to play chess and board games, there’s someone who’ll play with you in the living, in the sitting room.
Kel: So if old age is just like the rest of life, then older people, even though death is approaching, don’t give any extra thought to God.
John: Don Howard used to tell a story of a man he visited in Burwood East. And he urged this man to turn to Christ, he was fit and well. And he said Don I don’t need God.
Don said I visited him in hospital where he was lapsing in and out of consciousness. And Don said you don’t have a lot of time left, you should turn to Christ. And he said you don’t think a fit man like me is about to die do you?
Now you see, if you’ve spent a lifetime of saying no, why would you suddenly say yes? There’s no more new information to have. I’m a sinner; Christ died for me; I need to repent; I need to trust him. If I don’t believe that when I’m seventeen, there’s odds on I won’t believe it at 37.
Kel: Or 77.
John: But at 77 I’ve said no so many times, I hardly need to think about it. And that’s why as you get older, you’ve got to take great care. See it’s possible to have been mistaken. And if you’ve been mistaken for a long time, you really start to want to to dig your heels in and pretend you’re right when you know you’re wrong. But the people I admire are the people who say, I’m stupid, I’ve been wrong.
Kel: So can people do that at any age? Is it possible that at any age to say ‘I’ve got it wrong, I’ve offended God, I want to come back.’?
John: I preached one day at Holy Trinity Adelaide. On the way out a lady said to me, I am 87, and this day I’ve told God I’m going to stop fighting him, and I’m going to put my trust in Him. I said well gee you’ve only just made it sister haven’t you. I said, You were lucky to have stayed alive. She said yes, and I think I’ve been foolish. And I said well, I agree with you. Yeah.
[This is part of an interview that Kel Richards did with John Chapman earlier this year. I'm transcribing it for a DVD. More to come!]