Today I went to see an older woman from my church whom I’m going to call “Alice.” Alice lives in a nearby retirement home. She had a scary fall in church a few weeks ago and has not been to church since then. It’s been eating at my heart that I didn’t respond to her fall as quickly as I could have when people came to tell me about it. Alice and I have a particularly affectionate relationship. After the 9:00 service, she always sits on a bench in the front lobby to wait for her ride, so I usually sit down with her for a moment after I’ve finished shaking hands with people. It makes her smile really big when I give her my attention, and that fills my heart with joy, so I look forward to this moment at about 10:12 am every Sunday morning. Since Alice hasn’t been there the last few weeks, something in my life has been missing, so I needed to go see her.
I was a little bit dismayed when I called Alice on the phone this morning because she didn’t seem to recognize my voice. I said that I was “PASTOR MORGAN FROM THE CHURCH!” and she said back, “church?” as if it were a word she’d never heard before, so I told her that I was coming to see her and she said, “That would be fine.” I wrote down her address from the church database and put it in my GPS. I didn’t realize that she actually lived in a retirement community until I arrived at the guardhouse. When I got inside and onto her hallway, I started to look for her room but then I saw her coming towards me with her walker.
She smiled when she saw me, but I wasn’t sure she recognized me. It wasn’t the same kind of euphoric smile that she would give me at church when I saw her on the bench or in the handshake line. But she seemed genuinely grateful for my company. We sat down in a couple of rocking chairs at the end of the hall, and we had a beautiful but very atypical conversation. Alice would ask me questions that were abstract and mysterious like, “Do you think they’re going to do it better now?” At first I would ask for clarification: Who are they? What are they doing? Are the nurses being kind to you? But these questions tended to confuse Alice, so I learned not to ask them. I simply affirmed what she was saying in whatever way seemed most honest and appropriate.
She asked me, “How did you get to the place?” I started off asking her if she meant how I found her retirement home or how I got a job at my church, but then I remembered that she wasn’t asking for those kind of details, so I said, “I usually ask God how to get there, and God tells me, but I don’t always listen.” Then she grinned and said, “God talks to me too.” I wanted to say something about the joy that I felt every Sunday morning at 10:12 am and how empty that moment had been every Sunday that she wasn’t there, so I said, “You know, God talks to me through you.” She smiled and nodded.
After we had been sitting about half an hour, she said, “It’s hard sometimes to put the words together.” And it really hit me how words are such clumsy and impotent tools for representing reality, because despite the fact that our conversation hadn’t made a lot of sense from a logical perspective, we had communicated far more deeply than many people with whom I’m shared a lot more detailed demographic data and agreeable anecdotes. I can’t put into words how intimately I felt God’s presence today sitting with Alice. Or why. But I know that I did. I simply felt overwhelmed by what an enormous gift that she had given me by taking the time to sit with me. That’s the only way I can think of to describe what I experienced. Perhaps since I’m a person who has a bad case of verbal diarrhea and eloquentitis, I needed to be reminded of how irrelevant words are compared to the experience of true presence.
Alice held my hand for a few minutes after I prayed with her and it made my eyes a little moist. Then she said, “I’ve got to get back to work. You be good now.” I hope I get to sit with Alice again. I don’t know how to explain, but somehow I think that’s what heaven must be like. It’s hard sometimes to put the words together.