This has been an emotionally exhausting week for me. I spent several days back in my hometown of Biloxi, Mississippi, doing what I promised my grandmother I’d never do: moving her into a care home. In this case, there was no option. Two years after a devastating stroke, it simply wasn’t safe for her to be home. Even so, I was wrecked.
Having to move some pictures from her walls at home to her new room, I was struck by the finality of it all. She won’t ever be coming home. I also winced at the indignity of it all. She insisted on her purse, as a proper Mississippi lady always does, but she had to be suspended in the air with straps to get her in and out of her hospital bed, because her legs no longer work. “This is,” I said, “just not the way it should be.”
On the phone with my wife, I told her that I hoped that I die the way her father did, this year, suddenly, in seemingly good health, not like this. I didn’t want to contemplate being confined to a bed, dependent on others for everything from food to being turned to avoid bedsores. As I said those words, I was struck with what was at the root of all that: my pride and idolatry. I was reminded, once again, of what a hypocrite I am.
I’ve spent my life, after all, arguing that human dignity does not consist in how “useful” one seems but in the image of God. I’d made that case, days before, in Washington D.C. arguing for the protection of unborn children. I’ve done the same in recent days regarding orphaned children with special needs, Middle Eastern Christian refugees escaping persecution, and trafficked women and girls. I believe that, for all of them, and I believe it for my grandmother. It’s just hard for me to believe it about myself.
That’s because, when it comes to myself, I’m a recovering social Darwinist. I tend to judge my own worth by how “needed” I am—by what sermon I’ve preached, by what book I’ve written, by what legislation I’ve pushed forward, by how good a father I’ve been to my sons that day. I am accustomed to people seeing me as having a certain amount of “power”—for some that’s influence to get things done, for others it’s anointing to preach and teach God’s word. I tend to believe that that’s who I am.
That’s why I said I didn’t want to be confined to a bed. I don’t want to be dependent. I want my children to see me, right through to the end, as Dad who can fix anything. I want my former students to still see me as offering wisdom and counsel. I want my wife to see me as the whirlwind of activity she married. I want my allies to see me as the joyful prophet, the social conservative with a social conscience. I want to be needed, and not needy. And that’s my problem.
After encountering the risen Christ by the Galilean lakeside, the Apostle Peter heard a disturbing truth. “Truly, truly, I say to you when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted,” Jesus said. “But, when you are old, another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go” (Jn. 21:18). Peter was an activist. When Jesus was arrested, he drew his sword and tried to fight off the arresting armies (Jn. 18:10). Later, he boldly called the hostile crowd at Pentecost to repentance (Acts 2:14-26). He refused to yield when the authorities told him he couldn’t preach Christ. There he was, casting nets and bringing forth fish. But Jesus told him his end was what he feared the most. He would be carried to crucifixion.
The same is true for all of us. The Israelites after the exodus grew tired of waiting for God. They molded a golden calf that could lead them forward with power. But God had another way. He drove them to dependence, to hunger for food only He could feed them with, so that they would know that “man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Deut. 8:3). That is not punishment; it is grace. Jesus taught his disciples to pray for “daily bread,” (Matt. 6:11) to know that every encounter with God should drive us to a realization of our own dependence on him—and on one another (it’s “our” daily bread; not “my” daily bread).
Caring for the elderly ought to remind us that we are not defined by our activity. We are frail children of dust, and feeble as frail. All of us will be here one day. Even if we die suddenly, in a blaze of glory in our prime, rather than after years in a care home, we will still be here. We will, after all, all be skeletons one day, waiting for the voice of Jesus and the Spirit of God to give us breath. Caring for those we love should remind us that they have lost no “dignity.” This is still the person God used to shape and form us. And, along the way, it can remind us of what’s important—not all our doing but the simple truth that we are dependent children who need one another, and who need a Father, to live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
As I moved my grandmother’s things from her house, I leafed through her Bible, large-print King James Version, and noticed pages and pages of notes in one of my favorite books, that of the prophet Isaiah. Most of them were handwritten passages from the prophet—most of them related to the coming of the kingdom, the abolishing of the reign of death. My Ph.D. dissertation was in the area of eschatology. I’ve preached and taught Isaiah a thousand times. But something tells me, I won’t really understand it until someone has to feed me through a straw.
Even so, Jesus says, “Come, follow me.”