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I was surprised and saddened when I heard long-term care facility chaplains report that some older persons come to the end of their lives wavering in their faith. Psalm 1:3 tells us the person who delights in God should expect spiritual growth, like a luxuriant tree planted by a stream that bears fruit in season. Psalm 92 records that the righteous will flourish like a palm tree-always green, providing shade and shelter. Verse 14 points out that righteous people will "still bear fruit in old age" and will "stay fresh and green" (NIV). Galatians 5:22 elucidates this fruit as the fruit of the Spirit: love joy, peace, patience, and so on. We conclude that as we grow older, the norm is to keep bearing fruit and stay spiritually fresh. No wilting, shriveling or wavering here!!


How do we experience continual growth in Christian grace? I asked members of my church how they grow spiritually throughout their lifetime. Of fifty-two people who responded, 92 percent checked Bible reading and prayer; 69 percent indicated Bible study and 58 percent said spiritual songs help them grow. Fifty-nine percent of those over twenty-one said suffering helps them grow in grace. When asked how they knew they were continuing to grow, responses were consistently action-oriented such as changed desires, attitudes and behaviors, freedom to share faith and concern for vulnerable persons.


From Scripture and the responses to my survey, I developed the GRACE acrostic as a creative strategy to help facilitate ongoing spiritual growth:


G oals


R obust health


A cknowledge stage of growth


C hristian fruits


E nable


Goals must be established if we intend to continue to develop our spiritual fruit. Birthdays are a great time to establish goals. Goals may be short- or long-term, but need to be specific and developed for all dimensions of life, including the spiritual. For older persons, spiritual goals might include independent or assisted Scripture reading, recitation and study, attendance at church services and fellowship. In a care facility, goals should be recorded on the nursing care plan so all caretakers are aware of the spiritual plan of care.


Robust health includes biological health and a lifestyle that includes good nutrition, sleep and exercise. It is imperative to plan activity and exercise into daily schedules. For older adults, provide information about how they can maintain active minds. MemAerobics, a cognitive intervention program, has been found to improve well-being and memory and reduce depression in older adults.1


Acknowledge the stage of development in which a person is living. Expanding on the tree symbol described in Psalm 1, life can be like a seasonal tree with developmental stages: buds of childhood, blossoms of youth, leaves of maturity and fruits of old age. Positive and negative spiritual characteristics of each of the stages, which are not necessarily correlated with physical age, can help identify which stage a person is in and focus energies toward developing positive "fruits."2


Christian Fruits. We can have healthy fruit-calm, humble, gentle, constructive, compassionate, happy and patient characteristics; or we can be an unhealthy tree with few or no leaves and dwarfed, bruised or misshapen fruit-stress, pride, critical spirit, hatefulness, impatience and sadness. What unhealthy fruits are in our lives? What additional healthy fruits need to grow?


Enable by eliciting and repeating stories that provide positive spiritual examples. Encourage elders to share testimonies about God's goodness and work in their lives, in the past and the present. Talk about things that demonstrate hope, courage or humor.


Scripture promises we will continue to bear spiritual fruit in our old age. The GRACE acrostic suggests a pattern for implementing spiritual growth so that even in old age, when the body wrinkles and loses its youthful appearance, beautiful fruit is evident.


1 Robert Winningham, Roger Anunsen and Lisa Hanson, "MemAerobics: A Cognitive Intervention to Improve Memory Ability and Reduce Depression in Older Adults," Journal of Mental Health & Aging 9, no. 3 (2003): 183-92. [Context Link]


2 For a model of The Seasonal Tree and GRACE acrostic, contact the author at [email protected]. [Context Link]