I used to handle worship services for two different nursing homes early in my ministry. One nursing home was at the top of the hill. Church members were there or had family who were there. The walls were whitewashed and the trim was a beautiful, dark red. The meals were delicious. The lobby was perfectly tidy, and decorated, and ordinary.
The people who lived there had all customized their rooms with decorations, pictures from home, and flowering plants. The piano there was new, and regularly tuned. I felt comfortable coming in and gathering folks in the large parlor and leading them through a worship service, offering communion, singing hymns, and sharing my devotion. Volunteers would come with me from church to be a part of the service.
After going to the nursing home at the top of the hill, we left to go to the nursing home at the bottom of the hill. If I’m drawing a contrast, and what I just described was the nursing home at the top of the hill, whatever you are thinking about the home at the bottom of the hill is probably close.
The nursing home at the bottom of the hill had been shut down and re-opened. The doors were locked and we needed a code each month to get in. It smelled like urine. The rooms were not well kept, and the staff were not all professional nurses or caregivers. Some were students from the high school. The food was terrible. The worship service was stuffed back in the back of the dining hall. We often hide our best ministries down in the basement or back out of sight to keep the people at the top of the hill happy. Most, if not all, of the residents there had mental disabilities and rarely received visits from family. The piano was old and falling apart, with keys that were either broken or missing altogether. We weren’t allowed to serve communion at the bottom of the hill. Some were paranoid about it. Some had allergies. Some couldn’t swallow. Not as many volunteers came to the service at the bottom of the hill.
Every week, Dan was the first person to greet me at the nursing home at the bottom of the hill, and every week Dan greeted me by saying,
“I got my butt blown off in Vietnam.”Dan
Now, that’s not something you’d say at the top of the hill! At first it was humorous and a bit sensational. I would ask for favorite hymns as we passed out hymnals. Dan’s favorite hymn was “I got my butt blown off in Vietnam.” I asked for prayer requests and, you guessed it, Dan’s prayer request was “I got my butt blown off in Vietnam.” I would thank people for coming and shake hands on the way out. When I would say goodbye to Dan, he would lovingly wave and say, “I got my butt blown off in Vietnam.”
I came to realize that this phrase meant “Hello;’” it meant “I have a favorite hymn;” it meant “Goodbye;” and it meant “Please come back.” It meant “Don’t forget me.”
Some never stopped laughing or snickering at Dan. Yet, Dan was always the first one to greet me. Dan moved the chairs. Dan gathered the residents. Dan passed out the hymnals. Dan brought his Bible. When I would ask, “And what is faith without works?” Dan would lift up his Bible and say, “I got my butt blown off in Vietnam.” I knew that this meant faith without works is dead.
It didn’t matter that Dan was stuck in this loop, that these were the first words on his lips in the morning and may have been the last thought in his head before he died. He may not have lived in the nursing home at the top of the hill, perfectly manicured and perfectly acceptable. But I don’t think it matters. I think it matters that Dan arranged the chairs, and handed out the hymnals, and hugged everybody, and I bet when Dan died he was greeted with his favorite hymn.
Don’t forget about the people at the bottom of the hill. And don’t forget that – if what you say is perfectly manicured and acceptable – and what you do is self-centered or haughty, or arrogant, or rude, or boastful, or delights in wrongdoing – you need a lesson from Dan at the bottom of the hill. What we do matters. How we love matters. Even if what we say isn’t acceptable at the top of the hill.
Read these passages, and think of Dan: