I once had a church with a very small senior high Sunday School Class. Small, but extraordinary. They came from two high schools, and the valedictorian of each school was in the class. One other was in the top five of their class. The other two in the top 5%. All were headed to college, basically on merit scholarships. One of them was under appointment to the US Naval Academy.
Their teacher was a single mom who was an R.N. A cancer survivor, she had been abandoned by her husband following her recovery for a trophy wife. She first worked as a pediatric ICU nurse and when that got to be too much, switched to geriatrics. A passionate and caring Christian, she was a superb life mentor but by her own admission, outmatched intellectually by her “Mensa Sunday School Class.”
Jan was the teacher’s name. She believed firmly that Christianity was not about knowledge but application. Love was not a concept. It was a lifestyle. So she urged her students to adopt a grandfather.
The grandfather was a man named Tom in a nursing home that our church provided ministry. He had been married but they had no children. He had outlived his wife and any family he had had. Tom was very much alone in the world. And he was quiet, sometimes crochety, not an easy man to like.
The kids were undeterred and regularly visited him after school, or sometimes during the Sunday School hour. They brought him out of his shell. He didn’t become a motor mouth, but he did begin to talk a little. They learned he liked chocolate milk shakes. So when they would visit, they would bring him a shake. The cool offering warmed him up.
Tom contracted an illness and after a while was hospitalized. The hospital was not as convenient as the nursing home, but the kids continue to visit him–sometimes one-on-one, often armed with a milk shake. As he grew sicker, he grew quieter. Yet Jan and her Mensa Sunday School Class moved beyond the awkwardness to walk through that valley with Tom.
Tom died. And the nursing home contacted me to do the funeral. “He has no family,” they said, “but he deserves a decent burial. His only religious contact is with these kids and you’re their pastor. Will you do his funeral?”
The funeral was actually held in the chapel of the mausoleum where his remains would be laid to rest. A cold room, decorated in somber colors, illuminated almost too subtly other than to suggest death. A couch was placed before Tom’s closed casket, and as his family, the kids crowded with Jan on this oversized piece of upholstered furniture.
As I entered the room, I saw the kids squeezed awkwardly onto that couch. Uncertain about what was happening or what they thought. At the back of the room was someone from the nursing home, standing next to the undertaker. A sad scene, inviting sadness.
But then God spoke to me, and this is what He prompted me to say. “Kids, you all know Tom had no family. No one in this world to love or to be loved by. And if you kids had not entered into his life there would only be three of us in this room right now–myself, the undertaker, and the lady from the nursing home. And we are paid to be here.
“But because you entered his life, you became his family. You are the people who brought love and happiness to his last days. You are the people that he still mattered to God and that someone cared whether he lived or died.
“Your love and attention for a lonely old man was the best gift he ever received, because you put God’s love into action.
“So on his behalf and in the name of God, thank you. Thank you for being God’s people and Tom’s family.”
As I reflect, I simply ask – is there someone lost and forgotten, abandoned or uncared for, who needs to encounter the love of God with flesh on? Are you that person?
(C) 2011 by Stephen L Dunn
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