Last Words

Sharon Amstutz

My father spent the last year of his life in a small facility for memory-impaired people. It was a busy place – my father roamed the halls all day, and many nights, with his brief case looking for the meeting he was supposed to be in. Elizabeth watched the door like a hawk, waiting for someone to come and take her home. Phyllis sat in her wheel chair and yelled obscenities at anyone she didn’t like the looks of. Mary played the piano, but was otherwise silent. Tom leered at women visitors and made inappropriate comments as they passed. To the best of my memory, only one or two of the residents there could accurately give you their name and hold any sort of a meaningful conversation.

Because it was a small place that worked hard at being as home-like as possible, we all pitched in. A son visiting at lunch would help set the tables and serve plates to the residents. If my visit coincided with snack time I would help take cookies around to the ‘elders,’ as they were referred to by the staff. And here is what I noticed: almost without fail, the resident would say “thank you.” It was automatic. Even the ones who were usually aggressive, or very confused, or, like my father- had difficulty finding the appropriate words to communicate. But hand them a drink or a Popsicle and their “thank you” was immediate and clear. Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases had taken their ability to dress themselves, to recognize their closest family members, to remember that mashed potatoes should be eaten with a fork, not hands but it hadn’t robbed them of gratitude.

I hope that the ability to express gratitude is not a generational thing, but I worry that it is. These were the people who had lived through the Depression and World War II. They knew what it was like to go without, and to work hard for what they had. They appreciated what was done for them or given to them.

Will our last clear and intelligible words be “thank you?” When everything else is stripped away, will gratitude be what is revealed at the very foundation of our beings? Or are our caregivers more likely to hear, “I don’t like chocolate – don’t you have sugar cookies?” Or, “Is that all?” Or, “You didn’t do that right – you should have brought them on paper plates, not napkins.” Or, “These aren’t as good as the ones used to make.”

Gratitude is tough- it’s easy to say “thank you” when someone holds the door open for you at the store, or when your waiter puts your dinner plate in front of you at the restaurant. But what about the rest? When the dinner at church Wednesday night isn’t to your liking? When your substantial and cool/warm house isn’t up-to-date? When your crunching knees impair your otherwise near-perfect health? When the brand-new day ahead is dark and rainy?

Jesus left us here to practice being the Kingdom of Heaven together. That’s what the Church is all about. The hope is that, like Moses and the burning bush, people will see how amazing it is that we forgive each other 70 x 7, and share what we have so no one is ever in need, and enjoy being in community with each other, despite the fact that we have almost nothing in common besides being transformed by Jesus, and they will be drawn to us to see how such an impossible thing could be. And maybe we could add being grateful – and expressing our gratitude- to that list of things we can practice. Gratitude for the work of all our committees. Gratitude for the efforts of the hard-working staff. Gratitude for the person who steps forward and volunteers to spearhead a project for the church. And above all else, gratitude to God, for, well, everything.

Re-thinking Outreach

Sharon Amstutz

Several years ago I went to visit my father in his retirement community out in Tucson.  One night we went to dinner in the dining room and I found myself watching the couple at the table next to us.  The woman was tiny and frail; she didn’t look well at all.  He seemed fine.  When they finished eating and got up to leave he took her arm.  Then my father made an interesting comment.  “I’m never sure who is helping whom.”

He was right.  I assumed he had taken her arm to help her out – she certainly looked like she was the one in need – but as I watched I saw that she was in front, and he was following her lead to the door.

I thought of that couple again this year when we were in Guatemala.

Traditional views of mission work have depended on a model that suggests that we are ‘unevenly yoked,’ that there is an imbalance of need and power; one party is ‘weak’, poor or without necessary resources, and the other party has what they need.  One party gives, the other receives.

It doesn’t take you long in Guatemala to come to the same conclusion my father did:  We are never sure who is helping whom.  Yes, we have financial resources that can make things possible for the church there to do things they couldn’t do otherwise, whether it’s re-doing Sunday School classrooms or reaching out to the homebound in their congregation and the community.  We can help them do ministry in their own setting just a bit better.  But we would be mistaken if we thought that they were the tiny and frail ones at the table.   In the end, they have been the ones leading us to a greater understanding of what it means to praise and trust God for life itself, not just the goods, freedoms and privileges that accident of birth have bestowed on us.   They have shown us what life looks like when you don’t have a lot of other stuff and activities and priorities to crowd God and true Christian fellowship out of the center of it.   When I visit them, I imagine that that must be a lot like what the early church looked like.

We are already thinking ahead to next year’s visit (mark your calendar for June 30th-July 8th), and hope to have a small group from Bethel visit us in the coming months.  Take a moment to read about this year’s trip on the Tales From Our Guatemala Mission blog.  We have so much to learn from them about being disciples and the church of Jesus Christ, and I treasure this time together.  But for now, the one thing I have gleaned so far is that I need to have a far better appreciation for what God has done for me already, and spend more time being grateful and joyful than thinking how much better life would be, if only_______.

Maybe I’m wrong, but that probably holds true for all of us.