Yesterday afternoon, I spent some time visiting with shut-ins at one of our local nursing homes. It is the week before Christmas, and even though there is a lot of getting-ready to do, both at home and at church, I squeeze in a few more visits. In fact, it wouldn't be the week before Christmas without some visiting.
I began with the newest resident. She has just been in the home for a couple of months. I come bearing a prayer shawl for her, not just because she is a new resident, but because her only son died not long ago. For many years she lived with her sister and her one son in a little house not far from the church. The son took care of them, and they took care of him. Her sister had died several years earlier, after struggling with dementia. Then, this fall, her son died suddenly. Now she lived here. I brought her a prayer shawl, and we talked about Christmas. She wasn't sure whether she had any plans, but thought she might go back to the farm, the place where she grew up. (The farm is like heaven to her, or the Garden of Eden, perhaps). She loved the prayer shawl, even though it was cold from being in the car. I read the gospel of Luke, chapter 2 to her, and asked her what was her favorite part of the story. "The whole thing," she said. I told her I think I liked the shepherds out in their fields the best, imagining what that was like. We also sang a couple of Christmas songs. She liked all of them, too. I told her that people still remembered her at church, and thought of her. It was true. I named some names.
Then I rode the elevator up two floors to visit another resident. Her cabinets and walls were lined with photos. I am always captivated by the picture on the wall behind her bed. It is an old picture, a little girl held against the cheek of a young woman with long long hair and glasses. It seems like it ought to be a picture of her mother, but it is a picture of her aunt, who took care of her after her mother died, but before her father remarried. "Did you stay close to your aunt?" I asked her once. "No," she said. "Did your aunt ever marry or have other children?" "No," she said.
She asks me about church; she wants to hear how we are doing. I tell her about the Christmas program, and how good it is, and that we have a baptism this Sunday, and two baptisms on January 5th. They are signs, I think, but don't tell her that. But I know this is what she wants to know: are there children coming to church? If so, perhaps God is with us.
Finally, I walk over to the other side of the nursing home. I ride the elevator with a number of noisy pre-schoolers. The nursing home is adjacent to a day care center, and the children came over to sing Christmas carols and bring cheer to the 4th floor residents. They run ahead and lag behind, and the two adults with them need to remind them to walk in a straight line. They spontaneous break out in a chorus of "Jingle Bells", and I join in.
Perhaps God is with us.
I knocked on the door of the last woman I would visit that day. She will be 104 on Christmas Day. She can't hear very well, and she can't see much at all, but she was glad I stopped in. I asked her what she would be doing for Christmas, and she said that she would be visiting with some of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She had just had one child, a daughter, who died. But she had grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and (she thought) even great-grandchildren. It was hard to count.
Sometimes when I visit at this time of year, I bring her a small poinsettia or a tiny potted pine. After all, it is her birthday. This year, I did not, but one of the potted plants from years past was still going strong. She has a nice bright window.
We had a good conversation, and I wished her a Merry Christmas.
It wouldn't be the week before Christmas without these visits. I don't think I could write my Christmas sermon without them. I am not sure why. There is nothing like reading Luke 2 with someone who has heard it for at least 90 years. There is nothing like discussing Christmas plans with someone who is not so much interested in receiving presents. The holiday whittled down to its most essential elements.
God with us. Here.