This is the text of a message I presented to the people living in a 55+ community in Georgia:
In August 2015, I flew down to Delray Beach, Florida to help my mom move from her two-bedroom condo to a studio apartment here at Ashwood Meadows. I have a photo of her as she sat and watched strange men pack only a few of her pieces of furniture and some clothing. All of her things in the condo could certainly not fit in her studio apartment. The expression on her face was a picture – a mixture – of great sadness. And Emptiness. Resignation.
But when I took the photo, I was oblivious to what SHOULD have been clear. Her heart was bleeding as she helplessly watched strangers wrap and pack and stack what were much more than mere furniture and dishes and towels and pictures. She was watching her memories, her expectations, her life’s fullness slip from her fingers.
Each time I look at that photo I regret so much not having recognized her heartbreak. But I was a man on a mission. I needed to get her close to me. I thought she was no longer safe to live by herself.
Many centuries ago, the psalmist wrote: Psalm 133:1-3 “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, coming down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard, coming down upon the edge of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon coming down upon the mountains of Zion; For there the Lord commanded the blessing—life forever.”
These words of the Psalmist don’t mean nearly as much to the modern reader as it meant to those living in the Hebrew culture during the time of David. The king painted for them a word-picture worthy of a Rembrandt or a Claude Monet masterpiece, for it invokes a sense of serene camaraderie among themselves. A unity among each individual member of the nation. A familial-type friendship embodied in their care for one another. Such relationships move beyond words spoken through the intellect of the mind to the poetry of the heart.
Unity and harmony. Such things should be – such things MUST be – the signature song of each Christian. What is it the Lord Jesus said to His disciples – the Twelve as well as to you and me? We find it in John 13:35 “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Love for one another.
Here also is what God tells us through St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (4:1-3) – “Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, 3 being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
“I IMPLORE you,” he writes. I beg you. Walk in a manner worthy of your calling. With humility, and gentleness, with patience, with tolerance for each other. Those are pretty serious words of commandment, are they not?
Listen: Don’t think for a moment that the people around us, the ones in the dining room and the activities room and on the bus taking you shopping or to the doctor’s office – they will know you – they will know US – as Christ’s disciples if we “have love for one another.”
They will know we are different – a GOOD different – because they see and hear us acting and reacting with humility and gentleness and patience in situations that would cause THEM anger and frustration. They will recognize our diligence to preserve the unity of the Spirit among EVERYONE here at Ashwood in the bond of peace
Some of you may be familiar with the story surrounding Boy’s Town in Nebraska. In 1918, an orphan named Howard Loomis was abandoned by his mother at Father Flanagan’s Home for Boys. Howard had polio and wore heavy leg braces which made walking difficult for him, especially when he had to go up or down steps. Within a short while, several of the orphanage’s older boys were carrying Howard up and down the stairs.
One day, Father Flanagan asked one of those older orphans if carrying Howard was hard. The young man replied, “He ain’t heavy, Father… he’s m’ brother.”
I know you know this, but we so often forget the reality of it – every person in this room who follows Jesus as their Lord, Savior, and Master – we are ALL related as brothers and sisters in Christ.
The Holy Spirit commands us through Paul once again: (Galatians 6:2) “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.” And that commandment is immediately applicable to everyone in this room. The person next to you is your blood brother or sister, bought with the blood of Jesus – just as YOU have been bought. And so, as we carry each other’s burdens – especially burdens of loneliness and sadness and awkwardness, trying to fit into this community – when we carry one another’s burdens we fulfill the law of Christ and can find ourselves saying to ourselves: “She ain’t heavy, she’s my sister” – or “He ain’t heavy. He’s my brother.”
I want to remind us now of the story of the Good Samaritan in the tenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. An expert in the Law of Moses asked Jesus, “Who is my neighbor?”
In reply, the Lord told a story of a man who’d been attacked and beaten by robbers who then left him half dead. As it turned out, a priest traveling along the way spotted the beaten man lying on the side of the road. But the priest ignored him and kept walking on his journey. Soon, another religious guy passed along the same road, and he also ignored the bloody stranger. Finally, a Samaritan – Samaritans were hated by Jews – a Samaritan passed by. Here is what we find in verses 33 and following this text:
“And when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’”
Jesus then asked the religious expert, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The man responded: “The one who had mercy on him.”
Then Jesus – the point made as only the Lord could make a point applicable to our own hearts – said in answer to the original question of “Who is my neighbor,” He said: “Go and do likewise.”
My brothers and sisters here at Ashwood – EVERYONE is your neighbor. Everyone.
So, go and do likewise.
Most of you sitting here – as well as most of those who live in this building – most of you know what my mom was feeling as she watched strangers pack and stack her few possessions. Most of you know what it’s like to watch your few and very precious memories placed into cardboard boxes by strangers.
Most of you know what it’s like to leave close friends – knowing you will probably never see them again this side of eternity. You know what it‘s like to fight despair over the turn of events in your life. You also know what it is like to move into a strange place and to try to fit in to new surroundings with new people who are themselves trying to fit in.
But like ‘I’ didn’t see my mother’s brokenness, it is likely many of us here at Ashwood do not see THEIR brokenness. Their bruises. Their bloodied spirits.
Brothers and sisters, I wish I did not have to say this, but I have to say it because I know how difficult it is for some even in this room to feel truly WELCOMED in this new home. And how difficult it is breaking into already established cliques.
I know this because I hear things.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!
I read the book of Job every nine months or so as I make my way through the Old Testament each year. And each time I read his story, especially as I continue to grow older, the poignancy of his story tugs at my heart again and again.
You likely know the story. Satan came to court before Almighty God and challenged Him over Job, whom God called righteous and blameless. Satan said to God:
(Job 1:9-11) “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have You not made a hedge about him and his house and all that he has on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But put forth Your hand now and touch all that he has; he will surely curse You to Your face.”
And so, the story begins. In short order Job simultaneously lost his abundant wealth and his seven sons and three daughters.
Just stop a moment and think what he – and his wife – suffered when in one fell swoop, they lost their children and every penny they’d worked for all their lives. All gone.
But – and true to his hateful nature – Satan was not yet satisfied. He requested and received permission from God to take Job’s health. So monstrous, so overwhelming were Job’s combined losses, the narrator tells us:
(Job 2:11-13) “When Job’s three friends . . . heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him because they saw how great his suffering was.”
Oh, they meant well, didn’t they? But for some inexplicable reason, his friends, who started out with the intent to comfort and sympathize with Job ended up doing just the opposite. Instead of LISTENING with sympathy to their friend, they piled on the allegations, chapter after chapter after accusatory chapter.
We could spend a long time talking about the lessons inherent in this Biblical book, but for our purpose today, listen to what Job said very early in the story: (Job 6:14) “For the despairing man there should be kindness from his friend; So that he does not forsake the fear of the Almighty.”
Did you catch that? For the one who is suffering, who is despairing, who is desperate, who feels lost – there should be kindness. Why? So that the despairing one not turn away from God.
You think that can’t happen? You think that DOESN’T happen? Of course, you know it happens. We’ve all had enough life-experiences to know that we are each vitally important to the encouragement of others, to help them to stay the course, to persevere in their walk with Christ – which can sometimes be a very long and lonely road . . . especially when you’re old and can no longer remain fully independent and still have to try to fit in to a strange place with strange people and far from friends and even family.
In 1965 Pope Paul VI wrote his encyclical titled “Gaudium et Spes” (Joy and Hope). In it, he says something that ought to be very troubling to Catholics and Protestants alike. Here is a portion of paragraph 19 addressing atheism:
“For, in general, atheism is not present in people's minds from the beginning. It springs from various causes, among which must be included a critical reaction against religions and, in some places, against the Christian religion in particular. Believers can thus have more than a little to do with the rise of atheism. To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral, or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion." (Emphasis mine)
Our attitudes toward others might not result in their turn to atheism, but our aloofness and indifference toward others certainly can push them away from the only ONE who can heal their heartaches and loneliness.
Let me close this way: Christian! Do you think you’re here at Ashwood by accident? Do you think you’re here because of YOUR decision, or your family’s decision? If you do, then you do not know what the full sovereignty of God means.
No, you’re here because God placed you here – using whomever He chose to use and by whatever process – God placed you here. And I would be hesitant to say He brought you here primarily to make YOU happy. It is more likely He brought you here so that you might be useful to HIM in this place for whatever purpose HE has in mind for you AND for those with whom you interact here in your new home.
People here NEED your kindness. Your friendship. Your listening ear.
Set yourself to be a good neighbor – a Christ-centered neighbor. No more gossip. No more dismissive looks at others. No more rolling the eyes. No more sarcasm. And maybe think about getting to know others better by rotating your place in the dining room. Invite others into your cliques. Be as Jesus to EVERYONE in this place – including the staff and management.
Remember and practice the so-called Golden Rule: Do to others as you would like them to do to you.
We cannot erase the memories people have of the day they had to leave their homes and their friends. But we CAN help them fit in here, to find a place here where they can make new memories – GOOD memories.
And maybe – just maybe – when we act more like Jesus, Jesus will become more attractive to those who are not yet followers of the Master.