Listen To Article
Your great-grandpa wasn’t sure where he was Sunday, but, as you know, that’s not unusual. For some reason, he was expecting a trip to the cemetery, brought it up several times: “Is that the way they do it now, before they go to the cemetery?” We asked about it, but he wasn’t sure why he was saying it. The cemetery was with him for reasons he didn’t understand.
First Church, who did the chapel that afternoon in the Home, had rounded up a whole gaggle of kids for a bell-choir, then stood them up front to wiggle those colored bells on cue. Some residents, I’m afraid to say, wouldn’t have recognized what was going on if there’d been a chorus of hippos up front; but to those who could see and still discern, there is no greater balm for the senses than little tykes praising Jesus. To them it was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
There wasn’t a chair for me beside your great-grandpa, so I sat against the wall beside a woman whose daughter played a piano duet with her own little granddaughter. Four generations of that great-grandma’s family sat so close to me I could have touched each one–four generations. Just think of it. That great-grandma’s son is a resident. Alzheimers. Way, way, way too young.
Great-grandma dropped by on Sunday to visit her son, but also because it was her own church making music. Her daughter-in-law is one of those pianists who lights things up the way my mother used to, giving play to every last note on the keyboard. Those old folks loved it. The pianist’s son was there sitting beside his father, who’s the resident. His daughter, the one who played the duet, sat beside him, a sweetheart child with a thin braid of her own long blonde hair strung around her head like a tiara.
The chapel was filled with song. With all those First Church guests joining in the singing (we only sing oldies–lots of residents can’t read the words any more), it was heavenly.
That great-grandma?–the one who watched her daughter play a piano duet with her granddaughter, the little blonde with the tiara?–that great-grandma shooed me over to a man who was once my friend and colleague, a man so stricken with Alzheimer’s that he barely lifted his head. “Go talk to him,” she said, pointing her finger at me, then him. “I told him you were here. Just go now and say hello.”
I wish it were easier for me to do things like that. I’ve done it before, and it hasn’t gone well. But I listened. I went over and sat there for a minute beside my old friend, and it didn’t go well this time either. No matter. She was right to make me try. Sometimes life is like that. You need a nudge.
The sermon was cute. Most of the audience doesn’t really tie in to what any leader saying; but the preacher–he’s a teacher–was wonderful. He brought his own kids along and pulled them up front with some props, his little boy armed with a hammer and saw. “You know how to use those things?” his dad asked him (it was part of the sermon). The little guy shook his head as if he’d be a whole lot happier in the back of the room. It was a hoot.
When it was over, we wheeled your great-grandpa down to his end of the Home for a cookie and coffee. A half hour later, your grandma and I were still talking with him about chapel, but your great-grandpa didn’t remember a thing, not even the bell choir. He kept talking about the cemetery. It was as if he hadn’t been in the chapel at all, and he and your grandma sat closer to the action up front than just about anyone.
The truth is, Jocelyn, I fought back tears the whole blessed time. It was embarrassing, but the confluence of so much sadness and so much love blew out your grandpa’s emotions.
Just that morning, I’d watched and heard you profess your faith up in front of a packed church a half hour away. To say I was brimming with joy is understatement; but I hope you’re not sad to hear that I never shed a tear, not a one.
But a half an hour chapel in the Home wrung tears from my soul because you were a part of it, you and your profession, even though you were nowhere near. You’re old enough to understand why, but I’m your grandpa, and it’s my job to say what I’m going to so listen up.
I fought tears because I couldn’t help think that the goings-on in the chapel was a snapshot of the world you’re walking into, just having told all those folks in your church that your only comfort was in belonging to Someone else. What thrilled me to tears was the chapel of life that afternoon–its bouquet of joy and sadness, of brokenness and love, loss and gain, laughter and rich, abiding tears. That’s the world you’re in–you and me and our own four generations.
What you professed on Sunday morning is a commitment to love as you are loved, a commitment to this world God loved so greatly he sent his son to die. Your grandpa couldn’t help but think that his precious granddaughter, sworn into the service of the King, was walking into world that is, at once, a veil of tears and an astonishing gift of grace.
You know that already; you’re no longer a little girl with her hair in a single braid like a tiara. You already know sadness, and want, and need, and love, and grace.
It’s all of a package in this world He’s set before you and all of us, the world He’s called us into, a world where, at some time or another, all of us come to think about a trip to the cemetery.
That’s the troubled, beautiful world into which He calls us, a world where he promises, no matter what, never to leave us alone.
“walking into world that is, at once, a veil of tears and an astonishing gift of grace” So true, so poignant, so beautifully written
Thank you, James, for this beautiful reminder of what the seasons of life might look like.
I recall going to a mental health hospital (also called a “Home”) on various Sunday afternoons while my father was a minister at First CRC in Oostburg. I don’t remember very much as I was so young but I do recall how delighted the residents were with our singing and the preaching. There was one resident that everyone liked and exchanged greetings with although he claimed he was deaf in one ear and could not hear anything in his other ear.
Your piece reminds me of Karl Barth’s short booklet on the delivered sermons he gave in a prison at Basel, Switzerland. “Deliverance to the Captives” was the booklet’s title. One of the Barth’s was entitled: “The Criminals with Him.” In it he talked about Christian community.
Barth was asked one time about the greatest theological truth. He replied that it was that “Jesus Loves me this I know…” Barth preached: “Christian community is manifest wherever there is a group of people close to Jesus who are with him in such a way that they are directly and unambiguously affected by his promise and assurance. These may hear that everything he is, he is for them….To live by this promise is to be a Christian community. Which is more amazing, to find Jesus in such bad company, or to find the criminals in such good company?”
Jim, I loved this very much.
Priceless piece, Jim. Thanks!
Thank you for this. You always speak my language, Jim.
Thank you, Jim, for this beautiful essay. You “storied” the truth into Jocelyn’s heart and into ours too.