(This was written in April 2012)
I thought I’d tell you a story about my friend, Randy. Randy, who is my age, lives at a nearby Care Center–nursing home we used to call them. Near as I can tell he has lived there for more than 10 years. I’m not sure from what Randy suffers, some mental deficiency and some physical ailments. He often worries among other things about the Russians attacking us, being arrested by the sheriff, four “girls” at the nursing home who are mean to him, demonic possession, and people who can hear him through his radio. He often tells me of his current work as an Army Chaplin.
He is well known by area church staff because he spends his days calling local churches asking for prayer. And, he is a prolific letter-writer to various Christian ministries asking for material; the same letter written to the same ministries, over and over–sometimes he gives me letters to post when he is afraid someone is reading his mail. Many ministries respond; his bed is often littered with magazines, tabloids, tracks, CDs, and booklets sent from them
I first met Randy over five years ago. I had only been a pastor a few months when I took his call. “Of course I will come and visit,” I said in answer to his request. I was a new pastor and this is what pastors do, I reasoned. The care facility staff directed me to his room and I was immediately overwhelmed by the smell. He shared a room with three other men; Randy’s space was a curtained area about 6’x10’. I introduced myself and carefully sat on his bed…bladder and bowel control–“incontinence” in polite circles–is another of his conditions. We talked for a few minutes. Almost the first words out of his mouth were, “The Lord’s been good to me today.” Imagine that, living as he does. I prayed for him and promised to return the following week.
For a long time it was hard for me to visit Randy. There was the smell, the repetition of conversation, mostly one-sided as Randy rambles on about feeling 14 years old (he says they give him 14-year-old pills), how his bones hurt, how his mind is weak, on and on he drones. I looked for excuses so as to not stay long. Then that first spring arrived and he asked if we could go to the local McDonalds for coffee and a smoke. I put him off for a while, it would take more of my time, I thought. Finally I relented as I imagined how much I would like to escape that small enclosure if the tables were turned.
A new phase of our relationship began and our weekly ritual became going to McDonald’s so Randy could smoke three cigarettes and drink a large coffee with three sugars. I drank a Sprite. For a short while he wanted those small cherry pies–selling 2 for 1–but that didn’t last long. Our few minutes together in those early meetings in his room had now expanded to more than an hour together. That first summer turned into fall and into winter. Still we went to McDonalds. Sometimes it would be just too cold for me to sit on those freezing, stone picnic table benches with him, so Randy would smoke, then come inside for more conversation, and then go back out for another cigarette. Sometimes in the sweltering heat of summer I would find myself drifting in and out of sleep as he continued to talk on and on. Always I battled to stay focused on Randy. We looked at the mountains, at clouds, and we watched for the local seagulls. For more than four years we went weekly to McDonald’s for his coffee and three cigarettes and my Sprite—Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter—we would sit together at the outside picnic table so Randy could smoke.
The most important thing you need to know about Randy is how much he loves Jesus. “The Lord’s been good to me today” is not an empty phrase to him. He talks incessantly about Jesus, reciting Scripture and preaching the gospel to me. And, he used to tell me how he preached at the nursing home, too. I believe him; anyone sitting near Randy would hear him talking about Jesus, if to no one else but himself. I usually ask Randy how the Lord has been good to him that week. He often replies that it is because I’ve come to see him, other times it is because the day is beautiful, or he has taken a shower, or he has seen the seagulls at McDonald’s; Randy notices so much more than I do and is thankful to God for it all.
Randy has been in and out of institutions his whole life. Now, his whole world is the smallish nursing home, the occasional trip to McDonald’s with me or another man who visits him, and sometimes to the hospital when he gets sick. “The Lord’s been good to me today,” he continues to say.
If there is any lasting inference on your part that I have been a selfless saint in this, let me finally dispel it. Our time together can drag for me, I often arrive distracted by the “important” things of church or life. Each week our conversation is the same. During winter days those ice-cold benches are miserable. Summers are hot. Smoke from his cigarettes burns my lungs and eyes and my car smells of tobacco (Randy can’t have his own cigarettes). He often calls me at church and it is never convenient to hear him drone on, even about Jesus. I often must force myself to make time for him during the week when he calls, and I struggle to be mentally with him when we are physically together. He always promises to pray for me, and I’m sure he does so much more often than I remember to pray for him.
Nine months months ago our relationship changed again. Randy suffered an infection that for reasons unknown to the nursing home staff has affected his legs; he now slowly shuffles with the help of a walker. As a result, he has changed rooms; he has an 8’x12’ space with a window in a room he shares with another man—it feels so spacious! But now he is often sick or weak when I visit and we haven’t been to McDonald’s in months. As I look back on the heat, the cold, the smoke, the mind-numbing conversation, the drudgery…I miss it. Our trips to McDonalds were something we shared together, it was part of what made our relationship what it is today.
“The Lord’s been good to me today.” I’ve begun to wonder why God brought us together. Perhaps it is because ever so slowly Randy is helping me to see how the Lord is good to me, how God loves me. Randy can’t do anything that the world would consider as productive. He can’t delight people with his conversation or impress them with his abilities. He can’t wash his own clothes, buy himself new shoes, order a book from Amazon.com, get himself to the barber, and he can’t be trusted with a razor to shave himself. Someone must give him a cigarette at the designated daily smoking times, ensure he showers, and bring him his meds. He moves slowly in a very small world. He certainly can’t “do” anything for me, he is even unable to meaningfully listen to me; the deepest our relationship gets is when he extends his hand and says, “I’m your friend, Pastor Mike,” and he promises not to turn me in to the police, to take me to court, or to use me. All Randy has to offer me is himself just as he is.
There are many obvious lessons to be learned from Randy and my relationship with Him; God knows I need to be reminded of them. But anymore I rarely think in terms of God “teaching” me. Rather, through my experience with Randy, God continues to conform me into the likeness of His Son. I believe with all my soul that the Spirit unites us with the Son who leads us into oneness with the Father, our Father; my growing unity with Christ, the two becoming one in love, is itself the transformational journey. Jesus says that when you do for the least of these you do for me. After more than five years of visiting Randy, enduring the smells, the mundane, the repetitious, and the heat and the cold I have begun to realize how much I love him. Maybe, through Randy, I’m just beginning to experience what it really means to be with Jesus Who endures the smells, the mundane, the repetitious, and the heat and the cold of His long-term relationship with me. Perhaps this is simply what it is like to experience Jesus’ love as He never leaves nor forsakes me, a lowly creature with nothing to offer Him but myself, just as I am.