For two years I’ve worked shifts in an acute rehab/nursing home. And for the last six months I have been engaged with a preaching ministry at a different nursing home a few towns west. Since I’ve begun preaching, I find myself often trying to put into words my thoughts as to why I feel such a strong pull towards this church work. At first it was simply an opportunity to preach to a group that would listen. But it has evolved from that. It’s no longer about I, it’s about they. I want to briefly (such a thing may be possible for me) outline some of the motivators for me regarding christian ministry in nursing homes, and then mention a few personal benefits for doing this work. My hope is that some of these points will resonate within you and cause you to spend some time thinking it through. Maybe this work has never crossed your mind before? Perhaps you’ll shortly feel the pull.
They Need You
They are often pushed to the side. For some families nursing homes provide a wonderful blessing that works out quite well. It can essentially be a full-time job taking care of our parents or grandparents and if we have the means to provide for them a home and some hired help, I think it can be a wonderful opportunity that should not be shamed. For others, however, it’s a one stop drop-off of a burden that they want nothing to do with. All too often I have witnessed the admission of a new resident, only to watch them rot away in loneliness for months without a single visitor. This is a real problem, especially, god-forbid, when we let members of our church experience it.
The aging process is a real burden for the christian, too. I acknowledge I may be odd for thinking this way, but as it stands I see aging into the very late stages of life to be a rather miserable suffering that some are tasked to deal with. Admittedly I’m a young millennial, but I imagine living so long that I could no longer function independently would cause a great turmoil in my soul. Then there is the suffering through aches and pains, cancers, dysfunctions, etc. With a failing body and sometimes mind, being old is a difficult calling. While we have the vigor of youth to see us through long hours of reading and studying scripture, to learn about and grow in Christ, I find that is not the case with those that constitute the wheelchair pews. As the body ages so too does our ability to concentrate on anything, especially demanding small print. I’ve come to see there is almost nothing better for a church member to do than to go to them and live the pages of scripture.
The aging process is likely to end, soon. According to statistics, everyone dies. And the most recent data shows that the elderly die sooner than everyone else. These are saints that need to fight the fight of faith every day until they return to their Lord, just like you and me. The battle does not end when you receive Social Security or senior citizen discounts. Satan is unrelenting and he will not show mercy because of a wheelchair. He hates them with ferocity and desires their destruction as much as yours. And the flesh does not discriminate based on bone integrity. It will continue to pull them towards sin and cause them to doubt and fear and worry and wander away. Wage warfare with your brothers and sisters and do it until the day they die. Not only is this a kindness you have the ability to exercise, it is also a command you have been given by God.
And You’ll Grow Too
Growing in gentleness and sensitivity. To any hopeful preacher I can with certainty claim that bringing five points of theological fire into the foyer of your local nursing facility is a sure way to waste your time. Plus, the foyer is usually far too warm since the elderly seem to always be cold. I sweat a lot when I preach there. A lot. Anyways, all truth is God’s truth, and all scripture is beneficial. But like any meal, there is a time and place to eat. And you must have variety in your diet. Likewise, your diet must be tailored to your specific needs. If you are ill, you will not find yourself engorging at a buffet. If you are well, it is unlikely you will be sipping on bone broth. What does the wrinkly saint diet call for? What they need as much if not more than others is a gentle spirit that shows kindness towards them. Anyone can and should do this, preachers and non-preachers alike. To be Christian is to love the Lord, but how that love is nurtured changes in the late stages of life. I personally need clear exposition and vulnerable friends who spur me on. For another, feeling the hands of Christ is far more helpful for them than hearing an exposition of Romans (my book of choice for the first two sermons there!). Am I saying don’t exposit? Far from it. But be gentle and be mindful to their needs, not your wants. And if you aren’t preaching, the same sentiment is true regarding your actions. Learning to be there for a saint in the unique way they need you, even if difficult, is a blessing to you, too.
Learning to listen. To the same story.. over and over. And her cat named Molly? You’ll be updated on her window-sitting every single week. Count yourself lucky. For it is often of the world and the ways of young church goers to waste their time in idle chatter and useless entertainment, keeping bored and unsatisfied minds busy. How rare it is to find a peer that always has their mind drifting towards higher things. Conversation for us young ones is often full of the latest news in sports, politics, or petty church drama. Now, am I saying the elderly are free from this trap? No. But there does seem to be some added weight to the value of their conversations. I tend to notice that every story they tell is meaningful and a tremendous gift to them that you are listening. You don’t need to talk much at a nursing home. Learning to listen well is a skill we all need to learn. And when you do speak, speak meaningfully. Slow to speak, slow to anger, quick to listen.
Refreshing the runners. You likely won’t change anyone or anything. You aren’t there to plant seeds that will grow in thirty years. This is sometimes a difficult thought to deal with, and this ministry like any other requires trust in God to do his work. Know that you’re there to do no less than hold the hands of the men and women walking into the valley of death, literally. You’re standing at the last water station in a decades long marathon in the heat of this fallen hell of a world. It is a tragic mistake to take lightly the need for this final refreshment to spur the runners on to the finish line. What great a joy it must be to reunite with the godly in heaven and remember how God used us in the last days of some to strengthen their faith, ease their doubts, lift their spirits, and gladden their hearts.
Whether I’ve been clear or not, I don’t know. But I do know that the nursing homes need more Christian’s that love Jesus and love his body. And as much as they need us, I think we need them. For no other reason than they are the church as much as we are, and serving them in the ways that suit them best is selfless love and is the recipe for personal growth in the Christian life. Learn to live this way for the church, and you will make a wonderful wrinkly saint yourself some day.