One of the perks of small-town ministry is the opportunity to offer worship in local nursing homes -- which, in these parts, do not have chaplains on staff. Such worship tends to be very brief, in hopes that a point or two can be taken: A psalm. A reading of Scripture. A short homily -- often a reminder for staff and residents to show God's love for one another, a detail that sometimes gets forgotten. A prayer. As many hymns as traffic will allow, depending on the alertness level on a given day. And always, always the Lord's Supper -- the medicine of immortality, food for the road, something touchable in a world where tactile things tend to work better than abstractions.
I love being part of it because the responses are so gracefully authentic. Some drag up the Prayer of Humble Access from a part of their mind usually walled off. Some offer heartfelt thank-yous. And a few express highly descriptive, if rambling, disapproval of the whole business. Distribution can be tricky, but not at Shenandoah Manor, where MaryAnn, the activities director (under whose aegis religious matters fall), is perhaps the best Communion assistant ever. She knows whom to wake and whom to let slumber, she warns about biters and grabbers, and she signals who needs the tiniest possible piece to be able to swallow. Her ability to bring people into focus is consistent and graceful. She begins with a loud, face-to-face question: "Do you want Communion?" If no answer comes but she intuits a yes, she'll place hands along jawbones and encourage, "Open your mouth." It usually works.
But it didn't work with Ann Marie. When MaryAnn asked if she wanted Communion, Ann Marie gave a sweet smile and a firm nod. "The body and blood of Christ, given and shed for you," I offered. Ann Marie smiled again but kept her lips sealed.
MaryAnn: "Open your mouth."
I tapped her cheek. I've learned that sometimes the same rooting instinct that guides babies to the breast will bring folks turning to God's milk. Not this time. And so it went for quite a while, but the three of us, working together, were not able to get her mouth open. Nevertheless, Ann Marie's desire was obvious, sincere -- and I'll say it again -- sweet.
I gave her a blessing, of course. And of course, it was pretty redundant, because she was such blessing herself, all focus and patent desire for goodness.
I'm not quite a proponent of the notion that we become more truly ourselves as we age. Too often, small and unpleasant parts of our personalities become grotesquely, cartoonishly overblown as other bits of our selves slip away. But sometimes things slide into focus. Ann Marie was not the only person I encountered that week who earnestly wanted something good, something of God, but somehow wasn't able to make the necessary move, however small. But I dare say that I wasn't as compassionate toward all of them as I was toward her.
Perhaps you aren't always, either. Board members and administrators bring such gifts to their tasks, and yet sometimes those who want you -- and what you offer -- just can't take that extremely small step to open their mouths and receive the gift you are offering.
You can, and maybe you should, get gently into faces, speaking as loudly and clearly as MaryAnn does: "Do you want a blessing?" But if you have done that with love, at the end of the day, you are not responsible for anyone else's response.
There are -- always! -- other blessings.
Sometimes they are for you.