It’s a lesson I’ve learned well as a nursing home volunteer. I invariably get far more out of the time I spend visiting the elderly than they themselves do – in large part because my heart is so often changed even by visits that I might once have found tiresome.
Such changes of heart were once described beautifully in “women’s novels.” One prime practitioner was author Anne Parrish, who wrote of it in her 1936 novel, Golden Wedding.
This enchanting story traces the life of a very imperfect woman named Laura from the late 1800s well into the Great Depression. She is married to an even more imperfect man who becomes quite wealthy through hard work and long hours at the office; one of the compensations he offers his wife is letting her father, a failed musician but highly successful drunk, live with them.
Laura’s relationship with her father changes her, little by little, in ways that no one else would ever notice. As Parrish wrote:
“When she thirsted for solitude, she would make herself go to her father. Always, after a time, she felt at peace, the hardness in her breast became a heart again. She would listen, not with concealed impatience, but with the true patience that is self-forgetfulness and loving-kindness, to tales of his youth ...”
Parrish had it exactly right. Too often, I begin a less-than-fascinating visit with one eye on the clock, thinking about moving on to the more interesting friends awaiting me down the hall. But then, as each old man or woman talks on and on, something amazing happens: I really start listening to him or her. I forget about my schedule and To Do list and allow myself to become engaged in these tales of a distant past. And I discover once again an unfathomable joy, unknown to me before I became a follower of Jesus Christ.
In 2 Corinthians 5, the apostle Paul described the transformation underlying this change as becoming a new creature in Christ; and I think that’s a terrific picture. But this phenomenon was perhaps best captured by the prophet Ezekiel more than 2500 years ago, in a promise the Lord made to the nation of Israel: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.” (Ezekiel 36:26)
Whatever the explanation, it’s something that any follower of Christ can experience routinely in the here and now, via “the true patience that is self-forgetfulness and loving-kindness.” I hope you know it well -- and if you are not doing so already, that you'll consider exercising it on behalf of "the least of these," the elderly men and women populating our nursing homes.