Calvin R. Malcor
When I was a teenager, our boys' Sunday school class visited northern Arizona. I still vividly remember crawling with perspiring hands to look over the edge of a cliff and its sharp drop down to the Little Colorado River. (It didn't take me long to back away!) Today there is a particular group of people in your community who, spiritually speaking, are "crawling" toward an edgethe end of their life. Soon they will experience death and be ushered into eternity.
I am speaking of the residents of nursing homes and care centers. They easily identify with the psalmist: "We finish our years with a moan. The length of our days is seventy yearsor eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away" (Psalm 90:9"l0).
People in such institutions, for the most part, are in their seventies and eighties (and beyond). Many of them "moan" over poor health, ungrateful children, lost friendships, fear of the future, disorientation, etc. As we look into their faces and sense their needsarms that don't work, legs that cannot move, voices that can no longer speak, eyes that are unable to see clearlyhow we long for the day when the Great Physician will make all things new!
Living on the edge of eternity, these people are coming face-to-face with the grim realities of dying and deatheven those who are believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. His children are not really afraid of death, for he has taken that sting away (1 Cor. 15:56-57), but they are fearful of the dying process. The compassion and help of humanistic caregivers, despite their sincerity and dedication, focus on "death with dignity" and that's about it. The church, however, has the responsibility and privilege to share the gospel, the good news that the Good Shepherd will be with his people as they walk through the shadow of death and into the glory of heaven!
There are certain frustrations in working with residents of nursing homes. One of the primary difficulties is dealing with seemingly little response because of age and infirmities. Various interruptions during both chapel services and personal conversations may occur: loudspeaker announcements, clanging of dishes and trays, visitors, foot traffic, groans and cries, etc. But this is where the Reformed faith makes the labor so satisfying. We believe that God takes his Word and always accomplishes his purposes through it when it is faithfully presented (Isa. 55:11). Who knows the depth to which the Holy Spirit applies the gospel to the hearts of hearers (including nearby staff and visitors) in nursing homes?
On the positive side, most residents greatly appreciate a visit. It has been estimated that 85 percent of those who live in nursing homes do not have regular contact with relatives or former friends! Long ago James wrote, "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world" (Jas. 1:27). In our proper desire to seek after holiness and purity in our Christian walk, we must not neglect "to look after orphans and widows." (Note that both of these groups have already had some experience with death.) Down through the centuries, the church, in the name of her Savior, has established orphanages, cared for widows, met the needs of the elderly, built hospitals, assisted the poor, and generally alleviated the sufferings of humanity. A ministry to nursing homes reflects the compassion and sacrifice of Christ himself (see Luke 10:33; Mark 10:45).
One of the greatest challenges to anyone preaching, teaching, or sharing the Word of God is to set forth clearly that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone! Many residents in care centers have spent decades in churches where the "gospel" message has been to trust in Jesus plus do something else. As they approach their entrance into eternity, they must come to understand that their clean living, church membership, Bible knowledge, kindness to neighbors, belief in God's existence, etc., will not give them victory over death and eternal life in heaven.
Have you or your congregation become involved in a regular nursing home ministry? This is a particularly good opportunity for those who have been hesitant to become active in an outreach project, because this ministry is usually conducted in a nonthreatening environment. Both the administrative staff and the residents normally welcome such guests with open arms and great appreciation. You don't necessarily have to spend a lot of time preparing, and you don't have to be a Bible scholar or a professional musician. If you have a love for people on the edge of eternity and a willingness to use your talents and abilities, you can have the privilege of being the Lord's servant both to warn and encourage: "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 6:23).
Mr. Malcor is the associate pastor of Covenant OPC in San Jose, Calif. He has served as a chaplain for Nursing Home Ministries, Inc., since 1993. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 1997.