I’m still in a hospital room in Tennessee with my mother. Advent seems so far away this year with the exception it seems more traditional than ever. By traditional I mean that early on, Christians marked the Advent season with solemnity, fasting and prayer.
This commemorated the tense, hopefulness that the Messiah would come and rescue His people. Of course this season has been transformed into one of extreme gaiety and crass, narcissistic commercialism, one where we celebrate ourselves instead of commemorating the birth of the Saviour of the world. Clearly it is giving Christianity a bad name.
No church visits for me this week. This hospital room has become church for me. During this time I’ve reflected on Christian attitudes and practices toward those in hospital. A long-time pastor friend of my mother has visited three times to pray for her. Her natural pastor, albeit unknown to her due to his recent assumption of his position, was called but never even returned the call. A few friends have come to visit, but due to the vast number of friends and people who know her, I’m surprised so few have taken the time to see her.
Jesus, in Matthew 25:39, presents the separation of the sheep and the goats. “When did we see you sick…and go to visit you?” He responds “…whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” Those who showed such love toward their neighbor inherit the kingdom and those who did not are condemned to the eternal fire. Pastors tell me that congregational attitudes toward the sick, dying, and shut-in have changed. No longer is there a strong willingness to practice inclusive Christianity by visiting the sick. Most expect the pastor or someone else to fulfill these duties, but certainly not personally.
In recent memory, I recall the wife of a friend in Anchorage was dying in a local hospital. The choir with which I was singing was invited to go sing for her. Less than half of the choir showed up to share a couple of songs. She died shortly afterward.
I’m not angry with church people for a Christianity lite attitude toward those in the hospital. But unfortunately, this same attitude is shown toward the hungry, homeless, the thirsty, those needing clothes, and those in prison. A church committee or program is not likely to address this issue. And community initiatives will similarly fail to meet their objectives as well. Only a change of heart, one that recognizes that Christ is in the business of making heart repairs, provides the solution. Personally taking responsibility for those in need around us is the only way.
The things I write about in this column are true, exactly as I experience them. The dying mother in this room taught her children, early on, to care for those less fortunate. We would visit those shut-in, sick, and afflicted, every weekend, singing praises and bringing a bit of church spirit to them. She would invite the stranger to a meal. Our home was always open to strangers.
Barbara Brown Taylor’s latest book An Altar in the World recounts how the various situations of life have become altars to her, a very practical view of the Christian life. Whether doing laundry, visiting the sick, pulling thistles, or interacting with people in her life, these experiences can all become altars, or reminders of encounters with God. Likewise this hospital room has become an altar for me. As you observe Advent, don’t forget the weak around you. These actions may become the most important Christian actions you’ll ever make.