The busses started pulling up in the drop-off circle drive in front of the Wesley Covenant Chapel at The United Methodist Church of the Resurrection up to thirty minutes before the start of worship at 10:30. Timing isn't easy. Staff get people up, dressed, fed, toileted, loaded on the bus, travel to church, and begin unloading. There are so many variables in this whole process, and what a tremendous effort staff make. On this July day, there are twenty wheelchairs and enough walkers to line the whole perimeter of the chapel. We try not to separate anyone from his or her walker; that's dangerous business. Last month, one lady took a lovely metallic blue one for a spin back to her bus after the service. Halfway there, she announced that she didn't normally drive one of these things, but she might have to get herself one (especially with that nice, padded seat). Another lady back in the chapel's voice was getting rather shrill as she called for her walker to be returned to her. We got all that straightened out in due haste.
Great care had been taken to prepare the chapel for this special worship service. The first two rows of chairs were removed to allow for wheelchairs, and many of the aisle chairs were removed so walkers and wheelchairs could fit right in. Fitting in is what this service is all about. No one should be set apart or in the aisle. This is a Christian community whether or not the Depends leak a little or the congregants know who they are. God knows their names. That's enough for us.
The congregation was in for an extra treat today. Silver Link staff person Rob doubles as the Youth Orchestra Director, and the group had just returned from a thirteen-day mission trip to New Mexico. Many of the youth came to help at this service, greeting people as they arrived and escorting them to a seat in the chapel. Oh, the joy of having a young person see you and talk to you. One on one. Just you. It doesn't get any better than that.
The last bus arrived a little late. The young activity director was a little disheveled and rather flustered. She said, "I didn't remember it was Church Friday, and they were all ready to go when I got there. I loaded up as fast as I could. Sorry!" No matter, but her flock didn't get their regular seats. Yes, even people with dementia have "their seats" in church. We got them settled in "acceptable places," and the service began.
We greeted the congregation and opened in prayer. Together we sang "Down by the River to Pray"; and on this hot, July day they remembered the summer baptisms in the farm creeks of their past, ice cream socials, and fanning themselves to cool off in the hot sanctuaries that did not have air conditioning. The next section of the service was designed to fully awaken their spirits and tap into their long-term memory, where their faith journey remained intact. They worshiped in a United Methodist Church this day, but they were not necessarily United Methodists by tradition. Our goal was just to help them remember that God loves them and to help them recall their own faith.
And so we spoke of summertime -- the music bands played in the town park as evening fell and the stars graced the sky, of games such as "Kick the Can" and "Red Rover." You could almost see the Holy Spirit settle down upon them and open holy windows of memory. They looked wistful, and gentle smiles formed one by one. The vocalist sang the old song "Summertime"; and they were all right with us, worshiping, ready to hear God's word in Scripture and message.
The text this day was from Matthew 22: 36-40 (NIV): "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." Rob spoke of the mission trip, and the many ways the young people encountered God in this time. Young Shelby talked of Being a Light in the Darkness, and we all sang "This Little Light of Mine." The older adults remembered teaching Sunday school, raising their own children in the faith, and planting seeds in other youth that may have rested somehow in this young person.
The youngest of the Youth Orchestra, Grace, then spoke of "Making Ourselves a Sanctuary to Show Christ's Love." They loved hearing her speak; their eyes were bright with pride -- as if she were their child. As she finished, she pointed out the candle carts that had been placed in the front of the chapel. She told them she was going to sing a song called "Sanctuary"; and as she sang, all the other young people were going to come to each of them individually to ask for prayer requests and then to light a candle for them. People who often didn't speak, did; and those who remained silent still had a candle lit for them. Tears streamed from the congregants and the youth. It was a moment to remember forever.
We shared Communion, and as the liturgy was read and the elements consecrated, people's mouths began to fall open in anticipation of receiving this sacred, holy meal. They longed to receive; they needed this gift of bread and the vine. For at least some, this day would be the last opportunity to recommit themselves to Christ. A number of people have passed away in the days shortly following this Special Worship Service. Perhaps they finally felt complete.
The service concluded as we sang "The Old Rugged Cross." The organ left off in the third verse; and as the vocalist continued, the voices of the congregation became stronger and louder and more assured. Staff cried as they heard voices rise from residents they'd never heard before. After the benediction, brief fellowship awaited as they made their way back to their busses and cars. A homemade sugar cookie and paper cup of water were handed to them, along with a little construction paper card made by the Sunday school classes that said "Jesus Loves You."
We never ask for an offering; they don't have any money. But this day, a woman from a Dementia Assisted Living kept trying to make her way to Rob. The activity director was right behind her, getting Rob's attention in the massive walker reunion that was occurring around him. The activity director said, "She wants to give you something. I have no idea what it could be; she doesn't have anything to give, but she loved the service." The lady reached into her dress pocket, and Rob reached out his hand. Into it she placed a little package covered with Scotch plaid cellophane containing two shortbread cookies squirreled away from snack time back home. His breath caught in his throat and he said, "Thank you." She gave everything she had in praise and thanksgiving. Thank you, Jesus.
It's amazing how many lives can be changed in forty-five minutes when the doors of the church are opened to those many would consider the least of all. People are welcomed home, enfolded once again in a church family where ability or disability does not define them, and they remember how much God loves them (and how much they love God). Those volunteering are changed as they realize a simple greeting and touch can be transforming for those they serve and for themselves as well. Those leading the service are profoundly reminded of why they answered the call to ministry in the first place: to love God and love others. Forty-five minutes. A simple effort all of us can, and should, make.