Yesterday I had the opportunity to accompany my CPE mentor on a pastoral call to a man in a nursing home. It was an opportunity I was excited about, since the whole purpose of my CPE (clinical pastoral education) internship is to learn to learn to do one-on-one pastoral care with people who are in spiritual need. My job (as I then understood it) is to listen to people as they recount their sufferings, offer them some Jesus and a prayer, and give them peace.
Sebastian (not his real name, but I assure you his real name is equally fantastic) was an old man, lying kinda half on, half off his tiny twin bed. The bottoms of his feet were exposed under his thin, green blanket. The remnants of his mostly uneaten lunch sat on a table next to him, along with a pile of peppermints. An oxygen tube was connected to his face, and his breathing was slow and deep. His thin arms and hands lay crossed on his chest and he moved them back and forth above his head when he spoke. He couldn’t sit up to talk to us, so he continued to lie fully horizontal on his bed. At first I wasn’t sure he knew who we were or what was happening. My heart began to weep for him, because he seemed so small and so weak in that tiny, miserable room.
And then he spoke, and his voice tumbled out of him, low and deep and strong, rumbling like water over hundreds of ages-old rocks.
He spoke of the trees springing up out of God-in-earth, beautiful creations that mortal humanity can only ever mimic in weak facsimiles.
He spoke of the God in him, the him in God, and the him in you and me through God.
He spoke of the God of Moses, the great I Am who is, was, will, and always is to come.
He spoke of the women in his life who had raised him, women he described as good Christian women. Mothers, grandmothers, and aunts who taught him that all he could do was love and serve God as best he could, and leave the rest up to God.
Most of all, he spoke of the God who is always there. “What is alone, who is alone, how is alone, where is alone?” he asked. How can there be an alone when there is God? Though our human hearts might try and fail to love and be near God unconditionally with our whole hearts, God can never fail. God is always there. God’s love endures forever.
I’m not going to pretend to be an expert in liberation theology. I’d studied some texts, heard some words from classmates and teachers, and thought “yeah, I can get behind that!” But I hadn’t really experienced it or considered the impact of what it means until I met Sebastian, until I literally sat at Sebastian’s feet and heard him theologize to me in a way that was deeper, truer, and more passionate than any pastor or professor I’ve ever had. I came to this man to offer him peace, and instead I was the one who was changed. It wasn’t about me bringing God to Sebastian, it was about Sebastian bringing me to God, to him, and even to myself.
When I think of it, it’s a little like that forest Sebastian talked about. When humans go into a forest expecting to cut it down and make it into something for themselves, we always come up short. Nothing that we make with our two mortal hands can ever compare to the majestic beauty that is creation. But when we walk into a forest in humility, bathing ourselves in the glory of nature, we are changed forever. We are brought deeper into one being with God, the earth, each other, and our own selves.
I’m going to close with the poem Sebastian recited to us from memory. It’s called ”Trees” by Joyce Kilmer.