On the first Wednesday of each month, I visit two nursing homes and help to provide a brief worship experience with their residents.
I do not go alone.
Dr. Bob Holquist and Barbara Vance have been committed to this ministry for many years. Additionally, many others have joined us in singing hymns and visiting with the residents. Furthermore, you won’t be surprised to learn that on selected Sundays throughout the year, both men and women’s groups from our church also take turns in providing a worship service in our community’s other assisted living facilities. I am proud of our church’s leadership in this ministry, and I am touched by our church member’s kind and gracious presence with the elderly. In truth, these individuals have been effective teachers for me in the discipline of providing pastoral care.
Ministry to individuals in our nursing homes can be difficult. Many will characterize these visits to be sober and disheartening. They will say that the visits remind them of their parents’ or grandparents’ slow declines in the last seasons of their lives. Others will claim that they feel haunted by the reality that many of the residents’ dearest loved ones have already died. And then some of us may harbor feelings of guilt and regret for decisions made about loved ones’ extended care in the past. Who among us isn’t touched by the residents’ chronic pain, physical and mental disabilities and the hardships that accompany the loss of mobility and freedom?
In truth, we resist frequenting these assisted living facilities because the trips can feel uncomfortable. They can remind us of the fragility of life, as well as the inescapable realities of pain and suffering, loss and death. The experience of visiting a nursing home can feel alien to us and we often find ourselves counting the minutes until it’s time to leave. It is little wonder that these group homes are not littered with visitors, family members and young people.
But they should be because ministry to the elderly is one of the surest embodiments of servanthood.
The life to which we are called, namely a life of service as modeled by our Lord Jesus Christ, is hard work. First and foremost, service requires sacrifice. Whether we sacrifice time, energy or our comfort, service to others requires that we willingly give something up out of concern for someone else. When we visit and care for those in the last season of their lives, we do so with the faith that our presence, our touch, and our words matter.
Visits to our local nursing homes require patience and gentleness. Upon arriving at the facilities, our church members take their time in greeting the residents who are in various states of vitality. I am deeply moved by the way in which our church members bend down to look individuals in the eyes, or who help to straighten someone’s bib, or who comment on an elderly woman’s baby doll. Their touch brings life to the residents’ eyes. Their words evoke a sweet smile, reminiscent of the grin they may have once had when their grandchildren walked in the front door. When I see our church members visit these residents, I see Jesus’s unqualified love. When I hear our church members patiently answer a question that has been offered multiple times, I see God’s persistent and gracious presence. When I see our church members linger by the wheelchair of a person who is comatose and unresponsive, I feel the strength of the Holy Spirit turning the linoleum tile into holy ground.
These hospitable visitors provide pastoral care for no other reason than the blessing that they receive from putting someone else’s needs before their own. Service is best embodied in the humbling image of a Christ who takes on the role of a servant and washes his disciples’ feet. As followers of this Christ, this should define our identity and shape our call.
I know what service and selflessness is because of the witness of our church members’ willingness to serve. You serve because you love. You love because God first loved you. God’s love is embodied and made incarnate when you share His love with these who yearn to feel the warmth of another. I am grateful for your inconspicuous ministry and I am humbled by the way in which you allow Christ to live in you.
To myself and to the rest of us, I must reflect on the question that Martin Luther King, Jr. once asked: "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'What are you doing for others?'"
We look most like God when we serve others in love. But service does more than that. The act of providing care and assistance takes the emphasis off ourselves and gives us a refreshing perspective on the world around us. For when we are focused solely on our own family’s needs, desires and agendas, we over-inflate our own anxieties and undervalue the needs and concerns of others. In short, service reorients our perspective and moves us from entitlement—or what we feel is owed to us—to loving kindness.
Thank you, First Baptist Church, for teaching me what it looks like to serve in such selfless, beautiful and Christ-like ways. May we all be inspired by the way in which you think of others before yourself.