“I thank God whom I serve with a clear conscience, as did my fathers, when I remember you constantly in my prayers. As I remember your tears, I long night and day to see you, that I may be filled with joy. I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you.” – 2 Timothy 1:3-5
Dear Disciple of Christ,
I expect (and hope) that you have found blessings in your occupation, that you have some memories and accomplishments that bring you joy and satisfaction in what you’ve done. Needless to say (though it is my joy to say it), pastors are extraordinarily blessed in what they do. We get to focus on the faith, that which sustains all of us in tough times and in joyous times. We get to serve the Lord as any disciple would want to if they had all the time we have to serve. AND we get to serve with other dedicated witnesses to the faith, avid disciples of Christ. Much like Paul writing to Timothy above, we thank God for those who serve the Lord with joy and sacrificial commitment. I’d like to highlight one of those saints from my church in Brooklyn and later as a resident in a nursing home located between Brooklyn and Queens. She is one who remains in my thoughts and heart after forty-five years of ministry.
Margie was a member of my church in Brooklyn, one who had been a life-long disciple of Christ and a life-long Lutheran. She had one spinster sister (Etty) and one who had been married but was widowed (Jennie). The three lived together in an apartment not far from church. They considered worship in the community of faith a regular rhythm of their lives much as I do (coming to worship weekly whenever they could – when their health allowed it). They were “old” when they joined the church, having transferred to Trinity after being mistreated by a pastor at another church. The mistreatment? He began to regularly warn the sisters of their eternal futures being in jeopardy if they were not even more regular in worship. (Seems to me I’ve met some of those Pharisees in the Lutheran Church over the years – focused on the law more than on the gospel). The three sisters really wanted to be in worship and rued the days they could not. Rather than frustrate that pastor, they came to Trinity. In any event, we were blessed to have them with us in our community.
As years went by, the sisters did not get any younger (duh!). Sadly, Jennie died of hypothermia in the apartment one winter night. That left Margie to care for Etty who was nearly disabled, struggling physically in her old age with her hunchback and having more and more difficulty with balance and walking and some mental faculties. Just about each week “they” would have a fall (not just one but both of them). The often fell together as Margie would try to assist her sister to the bathroom during the night. Etty would start to go down, Margie would try to stop her fall and the next thing they knew, both were on the floor. At that point, Margie would struggle to crawl over to the phone (the old ones with cords and dials – you remember them!), pull it off the nightstand and call the landlord who lived upstairs in one of the six apartments. He would graciously come down and lift the two sisters off the floor.
With that happening more and more, Margie finally determined that it was necessary for them to go to a nursing home. Though Etty was opposed to the idea, Margie knew the best care she could provide Etty was to enlist more caregivers. Margie worked hard to disperse their worldly possessions to people she knew and felt could use what they had left at the end of their lives. It was a great joy for Margie to do that, as she did even in the nursing home (Martin Luther Home) when at Christmas the residents got various gifts (like pillows and shams and the like). She always quietly gave them to me on my visits whispering, “Pastor, can you find out whose they are – I don’t need them?” As the time to close up the apartment came closer, Margie moved Etty to the nursing home. Margie visited every day, taking two subways to get there and back. Etty was so unhappy that she not only attempted (and was successful a few times) to bite the workers, but regularly verbally abused her sister for “putting” her there. Margie patiently and lovingly absorbed the assaults each day, knowing that sometimes love is not received well by those who are loved.
Before Margie could finish closing up the apartment, Etty died in the nursing home. I wondered if Margie was going to change her mind, still having some strength of her own but, no, she proceeded with the plan and, soon after, moved into the nursing home on her own. It wasn’t long before she was relegated to a wheelchair and finally died there herself. Lest you think this is just one sad tale of woe, perhaps reread the text I chose with which to honor Margie and hold her up for our imitation. It was what Margie did in her earlier life that she did in the nursing home.
Margie always kept the note pads that the home gave as birthday and Christmas presents. She regularly wrote to disciples she had taught in Sunday school and others she met in her life until the day she died. The home was three stories high with the most able bodied on the first floor (as kind of a “show” to visitors and possible new residents). The middle floor had the less capable residents and the third floor was known as the “nearer my God to Thee” floor. Residents were daily taken out of their beds and strapped (secured) into wheelchairs and lined up in the hallways. Most just stared off into the distance, lost in their own thoughts and dreams and remembrances of days gone by. It was sad. It was a place almost no one went to until they were brought there by the staff because of their condition. No one, that is, except Margie. Every day Margie would slowly push her wheelchair to the halls of her floor and then by elevator to the other floors. She would, one by one, greet the other residents, stroke their hands and “converse” with them, you know, the way chaplains do.
That was, in effect, what Margie was. It was how she saw herself, not as a worn out old lady, unable to do anything, but as a disciple of Christ who would serve Him until her last breath. She was a witness, one worth imitating in my ministry. It was through Margie that my perspective that visitation is primarily presence was confirmed. Nothing speaks more love than being with someone in their struggles, their decline and their death.
I might ask who your model of discipleship is and who you give thanks for, but the more crucial and personal question is whether you are one of those models. If you would like a full life, being a disciple to the very end, then practicing that discipleship now is crucial and essential (since practice makes perfect).
May God bless both of us in our service as God blessed Margie in hers for her whole life.
Peace in His service,