Person Holding Fountain Pen

Dear Church,

I’ve spent almost four years serving in the nursing home. In those four years, I’ve wrestled with some “big” issues, not the least of which is why God allows these precious souls to linger on, often in such pain, mental incapacity, and complete physical inability. Not too long ago I read a book that introduced me to a new idea: what if these people are not meant to be “objects” of our ministry? Especially for the ones who are in Christ, what is their purpose in the Church? They’re still members of the body of Christ, so what is their role now? How do we help them continue on in that role? And as members of the body, each of us has gifts to support and edify the rest of the body. I think if we are not in communion with the parts of the body who are outside our walls, those who are isolated due to their physical and cognitive decline, it’s as though we are missing a limb.

There are many things I’ve learned from the residents at the nursing home that I could never have learned anywhere else. First of all, they’ve provided a much needed source of friendship for me. Our ministry encourages people outside of nursing homes to “be a friend to one,” but in doing so we gain such amazing friends ourselves! My peer group of friends tends to be quite homogenous–just like me. My sweet friends in the nursing home bring a diversity of backgrounds and experiences that I could not find anywhere else. They each have a unique story. They have sharpened me in ways no other friendship could. (Prov. 17:27)

They have also convicted me about my opinion of aging. In a culture that glorifies youth, it seems I too have been convinced that aging is bad. And is it any wonder? I can’t believe how many commercials there are for anti-aging products! Wrinkle creams, hair dye, hair growth supplements, brain boosting supplements–how can we be “pro” aging when everything around us screams “anti-aging?” We must learn to think and speak differently about aging. That includes having things like “over the hill” birthday balloons and gifting adult diapers to people when they turn 50. What nonsense! May we grow to value aging as a good gift from the Lord. (In full transparency, I’m still getting my gray hair colored, though I’m trying to appreciate Proverbs 16:31, Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life.)  Leviticus 19:32 ESV   Psalm 92:14 ESV

In thinking about being more “pro-aging” as a society and in the Church, I’ve definitely stretched my understanding of being “pro-life.” Now I see that, until I was around the folks at the nursing home, what I really meant when I talked about being “pro-life” was being “pro-birth.” Being in the nursing home has caused me to be purposeful in working to change the cultural narrative so that being “pro-life” really means valuing ALL life, from the womb to the natural grave and everything in between. Philippians 1:6 ESV 

The nursing home residents have also helped me to live life with more gratitude for my everyday blessings. They’ve helped me to see that it’s not just material things I’m blessed with but also abundance of freedom and choices.  It is so very humbling to see them light up when I bring them the simplest of gifts.  They get excited when I bring apple cider, and yet I stand in front of my overflowing pantry and complain that I have nothing to eat. I get to choose where I go and when I go there. They are confined to one building and during covid, one room. I get to choose how I spend my time, and they are at the mercy of the schedule of the nursing home. They are told when to eat, what to eat, and when they will shower or bathe. And they handle it with such amazing submission and graceful resignation. 

They have taught me to appreciate life. They make me come face to face with the fact that we are here for such a short time and then we vanish. (James 4:14) The difficult part about our friendship is that I know it too is fleeting. I will lose those friends all too quickly. 

There is something special about worshiping God alongside someone whose body is broken down, someone who is likely nearing the end of his or her journey on earth. When a man who cannot speak or sing struggles to raise his twisted arms to heaven as the rest of us sing Amazing Grace, the Holy Spirit immediately brings to mind the times I skip church because I want to sleep in, or the grumbling in my spirit when things at church don’t go the way I think they should. When we sing “I’ll Fly Away,” I can see it in their eyes–the hope of being in heaven and being free. That too teaches me. It teaches me to spend less time worrying about the things of this world and more time dreaming of heaven. It regularly reminds me that this world is not my home and someday I’ll get to live in a beautiful mansion that Jesus is currently getting ready for us. Philippians 3:20-21 ESV

In these ways, the residents at the nursing home are being used by God to edify, sanctify, and challenge me. I say it all the time: “Nursing home residents cannot go to church, so the church must go to them.” (A line which I borrowed but it’s too good not to use.) And now I see the reason for that is not just a one-way ministry. We don’t go there just for them. We go so that that part of the church body can be utilized by God. A volunteer who accompanied me on a visit to the nursing home recently said, as we were leaving, “Wow. Every church member should be required to visit here.” I would agree, but I’m a little biased.