Over lockdown we have seen just how much of our lives depends on forces outside ourselves. The government now tells me where I can and can’t go and with how many people; when my family self-isolated, we depended on friends to bring us food. I spent the summer working at a care home in Aberdeen, where the residents already knew this – they depended on the staff for their survival. It was quite an adjustment for me going from the empty days of lockdown to twelve-hour masked shifts, but I learned a lot very quickly. As a medical student I got to experience healthcare in a different context, and as a Christian I got to experience how faith works in such strange circumstances. The Christian life is centered around dependency on God. He gives me everything I need, I use those resources sinfully, and at the end of the day He still treats me with mercy. My survival, my present circumstances and my future all depend on His provision. Without it, I would die. And I think that’s my main struggle as a Christian: remembering this truth that I cannot provide for myself and that I am close with God only because He continues to be merciful to me. (What a relief.)
In the Bible, love is action. Our love looks most like God’s when we show love to someone who has no way of paying us back. At the start of my job I was taught that taking extra time to talk to residents is an important way of showing we care. This meant I went into the job thinking that, in order to love the residents well, I needed to take things slowly and chat as much as I could. Since I didn’t really know what I was doing at first and depended on more experienced colleagues, I fell into the role of the chatty ‘good cop’ while my colleagues did the bulk of the actual work. As time went on, this got me thinking about what love should look like in the care home. Sure, being the chatty carer makes the residents happy in the moment (and it’s what the bosses wanted too), but when I worked slowly it put strain on my colleagues. In hindsight it seems obvious, but it took me a while to realize that loving the residents well really meant being good at my job. Simple as that.
With this came the challenge to work more efficiently, and the struggle not to make the opposite mistake by viewing the residents as tasks to tick off the list. Some residents needed to be fed with a spoon, but others could do part of the job themselves. To them I would hand a fork of small pieces they could bring to their mouth, or a cup I would keep stable while they drank. While it might have been faster for me to do it all myself, it was important for the residents to do as much as they could. This reminded me of something we’ve spoken about at church over the last wee while: how God uses His people, the Church, to do His work. God’s work can seem to move so slowly, and often when He acts it can also be attributed to human actions. While God’s Holy Spirit does act supernaturally in miracles, He also whispers to us and influences our hearts, so that a lot of God’s work is accomplished through people. We encourage each other with Scripture, share the good news, lend our voices to sing and pray and worship. It would be more efficient for God to do these things directly, but a job done efficiently can be emptier than one done with a friend. The illustration our minister used was that a parent could make cupcakes faster without having their kids in the kitchen, but they let the kids crack the eggs for their benefit, not for efficiency. The God who all Christians call Father wants to teach us the family business of reconciling people to each other and to Himself. He lets me help out for my benefit, not His. He will use me to achieve amazing things, even though I might drop some peas on the floor of life in the process.
In the care home, those amazing things were often the little things. We were constantly busy, and every so often I would nip out from a room to grab fresh laundry in the hopes that I could finish that task and move on to the next before being called away to do something else. It was at these times, as I walked past the lounge, that residents might call out and ask for things, often just for company. It was very tempting and very easy to pretend I hadn’t heard or mutter some reassurance with no intention of acting on what they said. Maybe it is ingrained British politeness, but I hope it is a small demonstration that Jesus lives in me that I found myself making a special effort to listen and answer their queries, even if my answer was ‘I can’t help you with that right now’.
We can be tempted, particularly if we are jaded or desensitised (and that only takes a few weeks), to think that a white lie to a resident is just fine. It will satisfy them and they’ll probably forget, so it’s okay, right? But my God is a god of truth, and I believe lying to someone, even in passing, fails to recognize their dignity. In our truthfulness we treated our residents how we would want to be treated, and how I reckon we would treat most of our friends. Part of following Jesus while working at a care home is fighting the easy downward slip into cynicism. You can wake up one morning and realise you have been treating the people you take care of as tasks, as people who don’t need an answer, or the truth, or attention. And in a job where you see people who can do very little themselves being helped to do the same things every day, it’s easy to forget that they are the pinnacle of God’s creation. God spoke the universe into being, but it was us, humans, that He moulded with His fingers and breathed into life. We are made in his image, and this dignity stays with us when our independence, our memories, and even our words are gone.