It is difficult to find Christians who actually want to participate in ministry. At the veteran’s home where I’m the Chaplain, local churches consider preaching at the chapel service once a month a viable ministry. I’m not so sure. In reality, the once a month preaching “ministry” gives preacher wannabes a place to practice without embarrassing themselves too much. After all, most of the residents fall asleep when a guest preacher fills the pulpit. I suppose the leadership at the wannabe’s home church assumes a nursing home is a safe place to send the novices. Frankly, if the wannabes aren’t adequate to fill the pulpit at their home church, they shouldn’t take their act on the road to the vet’s home either.
One of our regular visiting preachers opens his monthly visit with the loud declaration that “God has given me a ministry and it is YOU.” I’m not sure how he arrived at the conclusion God had given him any kind of preaching ministry. Not to be uncharitable, but the fellow is terrible. He reads his sermon in a loud melodramatic voice not unlike a junior high actor in his first performance as Hamlet. One would think he would improve with time. But each month’s presentation is just as bad as the month before. To his credit, his theology is fairly sound – most of the time – and I can only pray the residents take something beneficial away from the service.
The visiting preacher stumbled badly when John loudly proclaimed that he didn’t want to “sit through any more of this.” I wheeled him out into the hall and crouched down by his chair so he could speak with me face to face.
“I gotta get ahold of my wife” John says. “She was supposed to meet me here – I’m only here for the night you know.”
I rub John’s bony shoulders a moment before speaking. “I tell you what, why don’t we go have a cup of coffee at the canteen.”
John sits silently for a long moment. “Well, I suppose that would be okay.”
“Great.” I stand up and move behind his chair. “Hey, once we get settled in with our coffee, you can tell me that story about the pranks you played at boot camp.”
He nods in reply and we move off down the hall as the sing song voice of the preacher resumes behind us.
You may be wondering why I don’t tell the wannabes to take their act somewhere else. Well, it’s rather tricky navigating the minefield of state-sponsored religion. The operative word is inclusiveness. Any attempt on my part to limit access to the chapel service is hazardous. Theoretically the state doesn’t really care who comes to the chapel services as long as anyone can. In reality I have the authority to screen candidates; ironically, it seems the state want’s me to screen for ability more than theology. In other words, they (again, theoretically), only want the best for the vets. A bumbling oaf with no natural talent as a public speaker is a safe candidate for exclusion. A good speaker with a crummy theology is not. The other problem is that I’m a chicken. The two men who visit us on a regular basis have been coming here for quite a while; their association with the home began before I arrived six and a half years ago. As much as I would like to redirect their efforts, I don’t feel it would be a good idea to rush into anything just yet. That’s my excuse, anyway, and I’m sticking with it.
“Clem has been yelling for you pastor.” Two of our CNAs help Clem shuffle down the hall with his walker. “He said he had to go see you at the chapel.”
A few minutes later Clem and I are sitting in the chapel. One of the CNAs brought his wheelchair and he fidgets constantly with the seat belt while he tells me about the strange events he’s endured recently.
“There are people doing unauthorized operations on me Reverend.” He is hard to understand and I move so my good ear is closer. “They come in at night and do operations that nobody said they should do. I didn’t want to get you mixed up in this but you’re the only one I can trust.”
I listen while he describes intruders coming in through the window and other frightening episodes; “they all think I’m crazy but it’s really happening” he says. We talk for an hour or more and end our time together with prayer. Clem thanks me and I notice that he is no longer fiddling with his seat belt.
The fact of the matter is that both of the wannabes would probably do a pretty good job in a real ministry here at the home. This brings me to my point. Real ministry is about serving someone else not massaging one’s own ego. Ministry is about laying your life down and demonstrating Christ’s love to the unlovely. What my men need is time with people who are willing to sit and talk – willing to sit and listen. True ministers are willing to overlook the odor, the dementia and the drooling. They are willing to spend more than a half hour once a month with men who won’t remember yesterday’s visit. They are willing to hold the hand of an old man and to comfort him even if it means they risk picking up a skin disease in the process. Unfortunately it’s hard to find Christians who are willing to minister.
What the men and women at the veteran’s home need is friendship. And once a person gets to know the residents, they’ll know how to preach to them. When I fill the pulpit at the veteran’s home chapel service, the congregation remains awake. Why? Because I’m having a conversation with them. I know them and as I speak I wander around the chapel, speaking to them by name during the conversation. My chapel sermons aren’t theologically deep. But since I know my audience, I know what it is that they need to hear each week.
“Sonofabitch! Get the hell out of my way!” Dan kicked as hard as he could at the backside of a fellow resident’s wheelchair. The other man slowly turned his head one way and then another, unaware that he was the target of Dan’s fury.
“Dan, hey Dan, settle down” I put my hand on his arm as I pull his chair away from the fray. “What’s going on?”
“That sonofabitch ran right into me” Dan says, shaking with anger. “You give what you get, I say – you give what you get.”
I sit facing Dan and keep one hand on the wheelchair so he can’t break away to pursue the other man. “Do you remember what we talked about in chapel this week?” I ask. “The Bible tells us to think of others more highly than ourselves.” With his attention on me Dan begins to calm down a bit. “Like in this case when Bob backed into you; the Christlike thing to do is to see if you can help him get to where he is going, not kick him.”
Dan’s eyes grow wide again; “Sonofabitch had no right…”
Real ministry is a long term process and it requires a person be willing to “get their hands dirty.” It’s easy to read a sermon once a month to a couple dozen sleepy old men in wheel chairs. However, if you want to truly make a difference in the lives of people you need to live with them a while. Certainly we need preachers and preaching. Yet old men in wheelchairs need help living out the things they hear on Sunday just like anybody else. There will be plenty of times when you wonder if you are making any difference at all. But I can guarantee you that you have a much greater chance of making a difference for the kingdom of God when you’re in the trenches and not just behind the pulpit.