Leading a Bible study at a nursing home is not a sexy ministry. No one gives you great acclaim for it. No one recognizes your name because of “that thing you do.” Actually, the people you minister to often don’t remember your name at all.
That is especially true of Ed. He joined our Bible study a couple of months ago after moving into the home. He is recovering from major brain surgery from cancer, and he rarely remembers where he is, much less my name. Ruth faithfully comes by his room every Wednesday to remind him of the Bible study, and then walks him back.
Clara can barely hear. As we sit around the table, she sits right beside me, often getting uncomfortably close in order to hear the words I feel like I am yelling to the other 10 or so people in the room.
Warren can barely stay awake. He’s a gruff man and has few words. He’ll awake from his afternoon nap (which happens to take place when I am teaching) to interject a comment or a “let’s move along.” Evellyn is his girlfriend, and she often apologizes for Warren’s time preference for his slumber.
When I took over the Bible study with these wonderful people, my motives were less than perfect. At Covenant, we need something called Field Education Hours— a dreaded 300 hours of on-site ministry experience on top of school and work and everything that seminary requires. I didn’t feel particularly called to serve the elderly—then again, I had never done it. My first day on “the job” was less than encouraging. I really had no idea what I was doing, and I thought the naps, the lack of response, and the general ambivalence was proof of it. Week after week, I tried to make things interesting to keep them more engaged. Yet, week after week, they never remembered what we had talked about before.
I was going to get them to learn. I was in seminary, after all. I study under some of the greatest biblical and theological scholars around. If I can’t get them to learn, then what am I doing? Do they even want to learn?
Since I started the Bible study about a year ago, we have studied Genesis, Exodus, John, and Acts. And week after week I would leave thinking, “They got it this time,” and I would come back thinking, “No, maybe they didn’t.” It felt like I was spinning my proverbial wheels. “Maybe this is proof that I shouldn’t minister to the elderly,” I thought to myself. “Whatever I’m doing, they just aren’t getting it.”
It was me who wasn’t getting it.
Today, as I was driving to the Bible study (a solid 25 minutes from campus) I was going over and over in my head how I could finish the book of Acts with a bang. My efforts yielded little in the realm of innovation. So I walked through the front doors and checked in with Mary at the front desk. I said my usual “how are you?” and received the usual “well, I’m old.” And I gave my usual laugh and “good to see you” and walked up the stairs.
When I got to the study, the room was packed. I had a strange feeling that something was going on that I knew nothing about—everyone was staring and smiling. So I walked in and sat down. As I was about to ask for prayer requests, Evellyn got up from her seat and walked towards me. She had a white envelope in her hand. She leaned down next to me and said, “We took up a love offering for you. We wanted to help you with your gas money. We love having you here with us. Thank you for taking the time to be with us.”
We love having you here with us.
Thank you for being with us.
They didn’t thank me for all they had learned. They didn’t thank me for how smart I was. I had missed the point. I was so concerned about getting them to learn, even though it was they who were patiently enduring the efforts of an inexperienced seminarian. Not only that, but I was arrogant enough to think that in their 70’s, 80’s, and even 90’s that they couldn’t possibly know as much about the Bible as I did. But, that wasn’t even the point. They thanked me for something that I was not even intentionally doing. After 1 year and 4 books of the Bible, what communicated the gospel was not my teaching, but that I was there with them.
Presence—one of the things that set Jesus apart from the other teachers of the law. He moved towards people, even people that were viewed as unproductive members of society. And of course he taught them, but he loved and was present with them first. Jesus’s incarnation was the very heart of this reality. Leaving his throne, he moved into a broken world, taking on our own weakness. God came to be with us—and that’s where he always wanted to be.
God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. And even after the Fall, he still made provision so that he could dwell with us. He gave them instructions to build the Tabernacle and said
I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. (Ex 29:45)
After centuries of prophecies about the Messiah who would come to his people, we read that
the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (Jn 1:14)
Even after Jesus ascended into heaven, God’s desire to dwell with his people was unwavering. Jesus told his disciples,
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (Jn 14:15-17)
And yet, even this is not the final word. In the last book of the Bible, in the last chapter, John records,
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (Rev 21:3)
If it is the desire of God to be with his people, why do we often neglect the importance of being with his people? Pope Francis once said that the pastor should be so close to the flock that he comes back “smelling like the sheep.”
These wonderful people at the nursing home reminded me of this reality. By simply being there with them, they experienced the gospel of Christ. I pray that I and we do not neglect this very important part of ministry.