Let me take you into the skilled nursing facility where I’m the Dir. Of Spiritual Care.
COVID has changed everything. It started with a few residents, and then a few more, and a few more after that. We started moving residents in an attempt to keep people safe. To stop the spread. To keep our residents as safe as possible. We worked long hours, moving residents in their beds, moving all their belongings. We did this in full PPE. It was like a giant math story problem that we had to crack.
Because death is all around us.
The thing we fear in long term care even more than death is the State. The state health department who won’t show up and say, “You all worked really hard. You really care for these people” but who will look for everything we did wrong or didn’t do. They are the law – like the 600 plus laws the Israelites lived under, we will be sited for bugs in the light fixtures, extension cords in resident rooms, outdated food in the fridge. Do you have expired meds in your bathroom? If so, you would be cited. Out of date sour cream in the fridge? You would get a tag. Do you ever serve your meatballs a bit cold or your juice a bit warm? They’d get out the thermometer and check and then tag you. And those are just the easy ones. They will second guess every clinical decision made and go through the files with a fine-tooth comb. In skilled nursing care we have a saying, “If it isn’t documented it didn’t happen.” We are the second most highly regulated industry in the nation – behind nuclear power. A state survey is often soul crushing because it is condemnation for all that didn’t happen.
Because the Law is all around.
And sin is all around us and in us. I tell you as a confession with no pride, that I felt despair on Sunday evening, after 6 hours in moving residents, when I received a group text from our administrator begging more staff to come in and help because we were only 1/3 of the way finished. Resentful and then self-accusing, “Well, you’re the chaplain. You don’t get to complain. It is a privilege to be a servant leader. Bear one another’s burdens.“ The Law always condemns and twists the good into a tool of torture. I cannot free myself.
Sin is in you and it is in me and trying to free myself from these thoughts is futile. Instead, all I can do is cry out to Jesus, “Lord have mercy, I am struggling. Save me from myself.” I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed by what I have done and what I’ve left undone.
I wonder, I wonder, if the little boy, years ago in my first call, understood this. While swinging his dangling feet, this preschooler was reading a book. A kind elderly usher sat down next to the little boy and asked the budding reader what had grabbed his attention.
It was a book about Jesus that told his life’s story. As you can imagine, there were glossy pictures of his birth, with beautiful angels dancing in the sky, there were pictures of Jesus calling fishermen, there were bright pictures of Jesus as a young boy teaching in the temple, pictures of Jesus telling the little children to come to him, there were pictures of crowds following Jesus and pictures of Jesus healing people. And then, of course, there were the hard pictures, the pictures of Jesus carrying his cross and the darkly painted picture of Jesus dying on the cross.
We may think this little boy would have a favorite picture, one that he turned back to over and over again. Indeed, he did, but it wasn’t the brightly dancing angels, it wasn’t supernatural walking on water, it wasn’t even the picture of Jesus surrounded by the little children his very age. This little boy’s favorite picture was the darkest one in the book. With an earnestness that makes you believe anew, this sage when asked what his favorite picture this sage with an earnestness that makes older weathered people believe anew turned to the darkest picture in the book; to the picture of Jesus dying on the cross and then he said, “Jesus did it on purpose.” Jesus was up on the cross on purpose! Jesus choose to be on the cross – he did it intentionally.
I imagine this little boy has learned what “on purpose” means. He is learning the difference of true intentions and accidents. When another child bumps into him at daycare, the teacher tells him, “It was an accident. She didn’t do it on purpose.” Or when, his pancakes flop to the floor, as he tries to cut them with his knife, he tells his mother, “It was an accident. I didn’t do it on purpose.” I imagine this little boy has learned that sometimes in life, things just happen – we bump into each other, we make messes, we hurt each other – not on purpose but just because that is what sometimes happens in life. Things you do ‘on purpose’ are not accidents but show our true intentions. Sometimes those are mean-spirited and hurtful, planting a new crop of sin with hearty roots. Sometimes those are lifegiving, kind, and respectful; planting a new crop of hope with hearty roots demonstrations of loving and serving our neighbor because God first loved us.
So, when this little boy pointed to his favorite picture in the book, he did so, knowing it showed Jesus’ true intentions. Jesus did die on the cross on purpose to free us from the burdens in this world that break your heart a thousand times if not once. God meant for this to happen so that God would conquer sin, death, and the Devil once and for all. John 3:16, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have life everlasting.” Jesus died to bring healing and hope and new life both now and eternally for you. For me. Because death is all around us. Because the Law is all around us. Because sin is in us.
In the end, when our last breath is taken and we return to dust, the great victory is heaven is a gift freely given not because of any effort, skill, or merit on our part but entirely on the grace and goodness of God in Jesus Christ who calls sinners home.