Confession time here… I’m a pastor who really dislikes having to visit nursing homes. Obviously I don’t regret it nearly as much as the folks whose health and circumstances consign them to live there. I always try to keep my bad attitude in check with that little piece of reality.
Nevertheless, I genuinely admire people who feel called to minister to nursing home residents– from chaplains, pastoral care givers, and many faithful laity who visit these folks month after month to bring worship, fellowship, and Christ’s love to the residents. I respect them so much for their quiet, passionate, faithful work.
I’m not one of them.
And yet, Jesus has never accepted my reluctance to venture into a nursing home as an excused absence. He reminds me, sometimes gently and other times forcefully, that nursing home residents need his love and presence, too. Okay, yup, I get it. Yes, Lord.
So, Jesus decided to give me another chance to address my reluctance over nursing home ministry when a colleague of mine asked if I would fill in for her this past Sunday at her church’s monthly nursing home worship service. She said it was simple. All I had to do was share a short devotion, serve Communion, and the other church folks would take care of the rest. Eager to help out a friend, I agreed. But I can assure you that that was my only motivation! [I imagine a meme of a tired, frustrated Jesus with the caption “SMH”.]
Sunday afternoon came, and as promised I showed up to the nursing home. I got there early to check in with the other volunteers and look over our order of worship. Then I walked around the large recreation room we were meeting in to see the residents who were slowly showing up for our worship service.
Off in the back corner, I saw a man playing the guitar. He was singing old revival style songs- “I Saw the Light”, “I’ll Fly Away”, “Amazing Grace”, and some others. So I walked over to talk to him. Maybe he could play along with our pianist… I introduced myself, and got to chatting with him.
His name was Erik. He told me that once a month he came with his guitar to sing songs his grandmother would know and appreciate. Her dementia had gotten much worse lately, and this music was one of the ways he could still make a connection with her.
Here’s what really humbled me. Erik is devoutly Jewish. So much love was at that back corner table. It occurred to me that Erik was being far more Christ-like than I was. [A nudge in the ribs from Jesus… Yes, Lord…]
Then the service started. All the residents had song books, and our pianist picked out older songs they would know and love. Within a few bars of music, those residents transformed from quiet and withdrawn to a jubilant choir. I saw some residents whose dementia kept them from following along in a book, but clearly they were mouthing and singing words that had long ago ingrained themselves deeply within their souls.
There was a woman sitting near me, hunched over in her wheelchair. Before each song I helped her get to the right page, not sure if she was able to follow along or not. But yes, she was singing, too. She seemed frail and distant enough to be blown away by a sharp wind, but she perked right up at the sound of all those familiar hymns. That got me to wondering if I could perhaps sing with a little more spirit when I’m feeling down and weak. [Another elbow nudge from Jesus… Yes, I get it, Lord.]
During the singing, I heard guitar playing. I looked over, and to my surprise, Erik, my new Jewish friend, had made his way over to the piano and started playing and singing along. For him, there were a lot more people there like his grandmother.
After a few songs, I gave folks an opportunity to share thanks and praises and then shared a message about joy. Many residents showed no hesitation to give thanks to God– for another day, for the health they have, for a healing, for people who come and visit them, for the other volunteers and me. At least for a moment they seemed to embody the message of thanksgiving and joy I had come to bring them. In turn, they were teaching me with their lives what thanksgiving and joy are all about. [I can do without another elbow, Jesus. I get it.]
Then it came time to serve Holy Communion. Normally, I’m accustomed to people walking up to me in a procession to receive the body and blood of Christ. One of my favorite things to do in ministry is to serve them. But this time, we had to go to each of the residents, all of whom were resting in some kind of wheelchair.
As I went to each one, I asked if they would like to receive Communion. Most of them gladly took the elements. The little old lady whom I was helping with her songbook needed some help. She couldn’t quite grasp the bread and cup of juice, but she clearly wanted it. One man I offered Communion to looked up at me with a beaming smile but was unable to respond to my invitation. I blessed him with Christ’s peace; he smiled even wider.
After Communion was over, we sang one more song and I shared a benediction. But the residents were in no hurry to leave. Unlike any of my congregations who leave promptly after the service is over, these folks lingered. They wanted to sing some more! So we sang a round of “Jesus Loves Me.”
Following my second benediction, I decided to stick around and talk to a few of the residents. Several of them thanked us over and over for coming out to be with them. I found out that the older woman sitting next to me, the one I helped with her songbook and Communion is 106-years-old! What an honor to have served someone who remembers the First World War and who lived as an adult through the Great Depression…
Walking out of the nursing home, I didn’t feel drained like I normally would. I felt blessed. I reluctantly came to offer a meager gift. I gave my best, but those folks out-gave me.
They showed me something I have had to learn over and over again when following Jesus. You see, it’s one thing to get to know about Jesus. Anyone can do that by reading the Gospels, listening to sermons, reading books, and sitting in Bible studies. But, to get to know Jesus, personally, we must try to imitate his way of life, its fullest expression being sacrificial service that blesses other people. And when we do that, we find that not only is Jesus present in us and alongside of us, but he’s also present in the ones we serve. When we serve “the least of these”, there he is– in this case, within the guise of some nursing home residents.
Apparently, Jesus was trying to take me there to show me himself in the hopes that I would re-learn the blessing of serving in difficult places.
It’s a reminder to me that Jesus is perfectly willing to work with half-baked motives and less-than-rosy attitudes. All he asks is for the faith to take the first step. He holds our hand and looks at us with an assuring smile.
It’s like a friend who invites me to go on a trip with him. I’ve heard of the place, and frankly, have had no desire to ever go. But he jabbers on an on about how captivating a place it is, and so to just shut him up I go. Of course, I’m hemming and hawing the whole way there, and even when we arrive, I’m ready to ditch my friend and catch the next ride back. But then, gradually, slowly, I begin to discover how amazing a place it is. Before I know it, I’m simply lost in wonder. My friend has enough class to not rub it in. As he looks at my reaction, his joy only intensifies, and as soon as we start to head back home, I ask him when we can go back?
So Jesus, anytime you want to take me back to the nursing home, I’m game!