It’s safe to say that for many people in Western society, the last three places they would want to be is a funeral, a hospital or a hospice care center. While I don’t have a Barna survey to support this claim, I have observed this is true during conversations with people in and outside the church. My speculation is the result of some soft evidence (people can seem agitated, edgy, evasive or even intoxicated at funerals) and hard evidence (someone once stating very plainly to me at a funeral, “I hate these things”).
However, I think hospitals, retirement homes, and funerals are three of the best places you could go if you want to grow in faith. If the goal of your existence is comfort you should probably stay home. In each locale you will likely endure awkward silences, talk of bodily functions, and you might not even have a place to sit. Those minor hurdles can obstruct your chance for major spiritual growth. But if the goal is spiritual growth, “end of life” situations will be viewed as opportunities to connect deep truths about God with our lives.
Want to learn what it means to “wait on the Lord” like the author of Psalm 130? Sit for an hour with someone who has been wondering every day for years if this is the day they’ll enter their heavenly home. Want to experience what it means that God’s word is an effective weapon against the enemy? Go to the Alzheimer’s unit and tell the residents about the resurrection of the body and the new creation from texts like Isaiah 35 or Revelation 21. Looking to gain an understanding of the rest that our Lord promises in Matthew 11? Listen to the faith of an older brother who sits up in his hospital bed and professes, “Even though I may die soon, my burden is light because Jesus has paid for my sins and he is with me.”
A few months ago I had the privilege of preaching to approximately twenty saints in the Lynden (Washington) Christian Healthcare Center. These are people who need constant care because of physical or mental disabilities brought on by aging. Instead of telling them what they should be learning from me, I wanted to share with them what I have learned from folks like them during my pastoral visits to the care center.
My text that afternoon was John 9. In this chapter Jesus’ disciples want to know reason for a man’s blindness. Was his disability a punishment for his sin or the sins of his parents?
“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.”
Jesus gives purpose to the man’s suffering.
If suffering seems purposeless, a visit to the hospital or attendance at a funeral can be devastating. Jesus’ teaching about our afflictions is that there is a reason for it all. He says God is at work in the midst of our pain. Here are a few ways I’ve seen God at work during simple visits to the care center.
- I hear God’s voice during prayer as he reminds me to visit someone who is sick, lonely, or grieving. God is at work, prompting his people to serve him and each other.
- I read the Bible in a new way each time I prepare a text for the person I visit. This process moves God’s word from the page into the life of a brother or sister in faith. God is at work, reminding the church that his word is living and active.
- There is fellowship when God’s people gather to support each other through difficult circumstances. God is at work, unifying the church as we carry each other’s burdens.
- I see the freedom that the truth of the Gospel creates among people who are dying or grieving the loss of a loved one. God is at work. His word is not chained by grief or pain.
- I remember the physical and spiritual suffering of Jesus. “Died he for me, who caused his pain.” God is at work, blessing those who mourn the distress of our savior that brought about our salvation.
- My anticipation of Christ’s return increases. Visiting the hospital and officiating funerals make me long for the completion of God’s work, when he will finally be all in all.
You may go to the hospital, a care center, or a funeral to bring comfort and truth to someone who is hurting. As you go, I hope you will be the one who sees that all these things happen “so that the work of God might be displayed” to you and through you.