Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Ministry Here and There...

Being a chaplain at a nursing care facility is unlike any other ministry I have ever done. There are days when I wonder what in the world I am doing here, when I question if what I am about has any significance whatsoever to anyone. And there seem to be few guidelines to provide a light along the path, few resources available which address ministering to a population made up mostly of elders, of aging people in varying stages of physical and/or mental deterioration who are sometimes fully present, but at other times are wandering in worlds known only to them.

And yet, as I consider what I have just written, I wonder if ministering in this place is really so different from being a pastor in other kinds of parishes. Though the majority of the people in the pews are “all there” mentally and mostly there physically, I wonder just how truly “there” they are as, Sunday after Sunday, they sit in the same spot, speak to the same people, repeat the liturgy (mostly from memory), sing familiar hymns (they’d better be familiar or the voices accompanying the choir will be few and far between!), listen to scripture readings they have heard over and over again, and, all too often, listen to the sermon with only half an ear while the rest of their mind contemplates the activities of the afternoon ahead or worries over the problems of the week to come. As a pastor in a parish, haven’t I, over the years, asked myself more than once just what I was doing there, wondered if what I was doing had any significance whatsoever to anyone?

At least, in this unlikely parish of mine, those listening in worship truly do listen, whether or not they understand- and those who don’t have the honest decency to fall asleep in their wheelchairs, rousing only when the music of a familiar old hymn prods them from their reverie. Eyes actually fill with tears as I pronounce the age-old words, “The body and blood of Christ- for you”, and place an intincted wafer upon the tongue, and rousing “Amens” follow the words of the benediction I am privileged to pronounce. Sweeping through the halls in my white alb and colored stole to bring Holy Communion to those unable to attend worship in the chapel, I feel like God’s own angel, commissioned to comfort and attend to the needs of people hungry for words of love and forgiveness.
Yesterday, I visited one of our residents in a local hospital, and though he is mostly unable to talk, the tears in his eyes conveyed so much as I prayed with him and pronounced God’s blessing upon his day and his person and all those caring for him in that place. And in a room visit to one of our residents, soon to be discharged to the assisted living facility which has been her home for a number of years, my hand was grasped firmly as this dear woman sincerely thanked me and all of the staff here for the loving care she had been given during her stay with us. Another resident asked me to sing for her again a song we had shared a couple of weeks ago, holding onto my hand as we sang it together, over and over again. “Oh, how I love Jesus; oh, how I love Jesus. Oh, how I love Jesus, because he first loved me.” And I spent some time with another dear woman, recently returned from the hospital and growing stronger each day, hearing again about the difficulties with her daughter and grandson and offering words of support and comfort but mostly, just listening. For that’s what ministry here is: mostly listening, a ministry of presence…BEING rather than DOING.

Humbling, somehow, being in this place; a reminder to set myself aside and focus on the needs of those with whom I sit, reminding myself that sitting  and listening  and being with is often the greatest gift I can give to the residents here- and perhaps to people anywhere. We place so much emphasis upon productivity and accomplishment in our world, don’t we, seeming to measure the value of a life by how much a person can do and earn. But what about when doing and earning, producing and accomplishing are no longer within the realm of possibility? Does a life no longer have value? Is a human being of less significance in our world simply because he or she can no longer contribute economically to society? Aren’t they of value simply because they ARE, carrying with them the accumulation of wisdom and experience and knowledge imbued by years of living? And do we turn away because they remind us, in their increasing infirmity, of our own aging, of our own finiteness, of our own inevitable path toward death?
I know that I find myself at the receiving end of blessing over and over again as I walk these halls, as I sit in these rooms, as I listen and watch and wait, as I hold hands and soothe brows, as I pray and bless, as I minister in ways which once I would have considered as doing  nothing at all. And I find myself beginning my day- every day- with the prayer of Saint Teresa of Avila:

          May today there be peace within.
          May you trust God that you are exactly where you are
                  meant to be.
          May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are
                  born of faith.
            May you use those gifts that you have received, and
                  pass on the love that has been given to you.
          May you be content knowing you are a child of God.
         Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your
                 soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise and love.
         It is there for each and every one of us.

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