Last week, God met me in a place many would consider unlikely. Once a month, my friend Marilyn and I trek out to a senior’s residence, where we dig up some old tunes to sing for and with a small group of seniors. Trouble was, I really didn’t have the energy. June is always a super busy time of year for teachers, with loads of loose ends to tie up, field trips and other year end activities. The previous week’s headache battle was done, and it left me worn out. Rather than needed rest, what lay before me was my motley crew of kids, hyper with holidays ahead and needing my direction. With that challenge, it felt like the last thing I wanted was to add another activity to my plate and head out to sing with the seniors.
When you walk into a senior’s home, it’s like walking into another time zone. Busy “to-do lists” evaporate at the door when you see people who sit out their days in pain and limitation, with time interrupted only by meals, activities in the home and perhaps a visit from a loved one if they are lucky. We are the able-bodied ones and there to serve them, but there’s something about these fragile folks that loosens my grip on all my precious lists.
Celtic spirituality has a great phrase which I will use to describe this place. Thin places are where the dividing line between the holy and the ordinary is very thin. Ordinary things somehow seem sacred and become a window to God. This small room where we sing feels like a thin place. These people are dependent and vulnerable and so very human. Job descriptions are no longer important.
There’s a famous Catholic writer and priest, now passed away, named Henri Nouwen, who came to one such unlikely thin place. His job had seemed to rob him of any inner sense of God. He had become so caught up in doing that he was burned out and no longer able to give. It was in this state that he visited L’Arche, a Christian community for mentally and physically handicapped people. He suddenly found himself just sitting with people whose limitations were unimaginable. All he had to do was sit with people who couldn’t talk or walk. They didn’t need his words and didn’t even recognize that he was a world-famous writer. These broken people ministered to him in his brokenness by giving him a silent place to sit and slow down, resting only in their shared identity as God’s children. L’Arche became a place of healing for his burn-out, and Nouwen became a life-long supporter and champion of L’Arche, even going on to write books about it.
Marilyn and I are just ordinary people, but there’s something transcendent that happens in that room when we sing. They sing along whether they know the words or not. Yvonne doesn’t remember much about her life, but she knows the words to some of those old songs and she closes her eyes and it looks like she’s in heaven as she sings along. Eileen also has memory loss, but doesn’t hesitate to beam at us when we catch her eye. Mary is no longer able to walk and will sit on her grand wheelchair until machines lift her back into bed, but her soft blue eyes come to life, especially when we sing her favorite song “You Are My Sunshine”. If we talk about the meaning of some of the songs, she affirms it with a quiet exclamation – “It’s true!”
Some of them go to sleep as we sing, some just tap their feet, others sing along, but we all get enlivened by the music. They are not perfect people – they have their cranky days like we all do, but it often seems there’s a third invisible presence in the room that feels sacred.
For much of my days, I worry way too much about my job, and habitually make mountains out of small problems that seem to turn out ok despite me. These people give me a place to remember what matters – a smile, a kind word that lifts the spirits, and most of all an open heart. A hospitable space opens up where I can just be myself. I don’t have to impress anyone with being “together”.
There’s a Bible verse that seems to capture the mystery of what happens here. 2 Corinthians 12:10 says that “When I am weak, that’s when I am strong.” It’s one of those riddles in the upside-down world of the Bible. Our society always rewards and even reveres the strong, the young, and the beautiful people, but there is something about resting before God in our weak, dependent and vulnerable state which can make a person more open to love.
As much as I fight weakness myself, whether physical or emotional, I can see that’s it’s exactly those places that break down my ego and make me more open to the love of God. Weakness turns into strength. It’s a strength which is not my own doing, but comes from remembering that who I am is not my job or my to-do’s, but a beloved child of God.
And so it was that last week, the music stitched us all up in some way, as it usually does. We’re all broken people, yet mysteriously met by God’s love in the music and the conversation. The lists still awaited me, but I was reminded of a deeper calm beneath the ripples on the surface of the water.
I was glad I had stepped out of what I thought was so important that Tuesday night. Sometimes the last thing we want ends up being the first thing we need.