Keep It Under A Hundred

Today your Braid Blogger will make a departure from the usual reposted copy of the newsletter and write about how things went at today’s Ecumenical Healing service at Asbury Court Retirement Home in Des Plaines, IL.

This was the third time we had assembled at Asbury to put on a short program with hymn singing, annointing, and visiting with the people who live there. It’s definitely a group effort; Mary Anne sets up the service bulletins in large type and brings them, Mary plays the cranky electronic organ (and has to remember how to turn it on), Father Paul conducts the service and keeps things rolling, and Pat and Bob can always be counted on to be there, as well as David our master carpenter and Valerie, who loves visiting with people. I brought along some copies of the newsletter that I had edited down in large type, to give to the residents now that we’ve been there enough to be familiar. It’s nice to feel part of their community, and to make them feel part of ours. Once everyone has arrived, we work out who will do the readings – there’s a New Testament and Gospel to read, and a litany of prayers for healing and for others, and a couple of other things to work out. This time, Fr. Paul omitted an actual sermon on the reading (it was from Mark) because previously we’ve run a little long. We ran long anyway, as everyone seemed to want to have the blessing – that’s all right, that’s why we came.

As always, the set-up happens like this: We drift in around half an hour before start time, re-arrange the chairs in the chapel a little and discuss traffic patterns, set up the microphone stand, and cheer when Mary gets the organ turned on… it’s got tubes that take time to warm up, and the trick is to press the rocker switch under the right hand end of the keyboard and hold it for 10 seconds before toggling the power switch.

It also helps to make sure the thing is plugged in, and the despair was setting in before this was rectified. After about a minute or more, a key that had been silent suddenly gave voice, and we were ready to roll.

We made some new friends today – I have to mention Richard, because Valerie and I really got a kick out of him and I didn’t want to forget. He rides in a big powered wheelchair with two American flags mounted on it, at the front and back. He kept to the back of the space where there was room for him during the service. Way, way back. Almost in the other part of the room, but obviously keeping an eye on the proceedings.

We follow a simple format: welcome, hymn, New Testament reading, hymn, Gospel, hymn, prayers, passing the peace, and then the annointing. At first, nobody moved, and Paul had to motion for people to come forward. Then suddenly, there were two lines formed up, and we were in business.

While Fr. Paul is actually doing the annointing, I’m in the habit of standing by and holding the little metal container that contains the sweet oil. Mary Ann also does annointing, and Valerie helped her. People approach, they’re blessed, words are said, and they’re touched with the holy oil. I don’t know if they actually expect cures, but they seem to really enjoy the contact.

Toward the end, there was no one else in line, and Paul and I have made a habit of processing slowly toward the back, making eye contact and seeing if someone who wasn’t able to walk or roll forward is trying to get our attention. It’s informal, but respectful, and there’s a nice sense of occasion. So we made our way to the back, where it opens out into a great room that includes the common area and the TV room. Meanwhile, Mary noodled on the organ, playing bits of other hymns that I recognized – I heard a bit of Thomas Tallis in there, and started humming the alto part. Shared a hug with another Mary, the Asbury Court activity director. She seemed really jazzed about how it was going, and impulsively stepped forward for a blessing, too. It seemed like we were almost done, except for one person so far back that he could hardly be said to be in the same room with us.

We approached the gentleman in the big electric wheelchair with the snappy American flags, and made sure that he wanted to receive the blessing. He seemed pretty reserved at first.

Boy, was that a mistaken impression. Paul asked his name. “Richard,” was the answer.

I patted him on the shoulder afterward, and we moved on, checking to make sure we hadn’t missed anyone, and then we went to the front of the chapel to close up the little oil vessels and get ready for the dismissal and the final hymn. We finished with “Amazing Grace,” which always gets ’em going, and that’s my other role in the proceedings; I sing backup to Mary, who was a voice teacher for many years. I have an untrained but serviceable alto, secure on the notes, so I sing loud and clear to encourage shy persons to have the strength to sing out too.

In the corner of my eye, I saw that Richard had now moved up as close as possible to the back of the rows of chairs.

The service concluded, I moved around to the “door” (it’s all open at the back) to hand out a few more of the large-type newsletters I made up, and chat with people. They’re always so appreciative, it’s humbling.

Richard rolled around to the front of the chapel, where he chatting with Paul and me some more and told us about his Army service and pointed proudly at his flags. “The most beautiful flag in the world,” he said. That’s when we got his story – why he was in the chair, why he has the flags, what he used to do when he was working.

I went back in the chapel to gather my stuff, and there Richard was again, chatting animatedly with Valerie about his volunteer work with some local schoolkids, helping them with creative writing. And then he pulled out the most amazing things – little kids’ stories he’s written out in clear capital letters, about a cute little astronaut mouse named Matthew, who goes on a mission to Mars. Valerie and I were really taken with the illustrations, done by Richard’s daughter I think. They were just simple pencil sketches in sheet protectors, but they were so cute. That’s when Richard told us he’d been a technical writer and draftsman, and some of the manuals he wrote… went to the Moon! Well, I’d like to check that, but he certainly seemed like he knew his stuff. The Write Stuff, as he called his book. He stayed afterwards for almost 20 minutes, chatting with all of us, and seemed sorry that it was over when we packed up to leave.

And to think I was shy about approaching him, because he was so far back at the back.

The last thing he told us was about being a cop in a small nearby town 30 years ago, and how he used to chase speeders that would go more than 90 miles an hour through his turf. He caught them and ticketed them, too. And as he prepared to turn his scooter and head out the door, he looked at us, and said “Now remember: Keep it under a hundred!” and he was on his way. What a character!

We had at more than 40 in attendance today, and every month, Mary Ann brings more and more bulletins to hand out. Every month, she says she’ll have to bring an extra 10 or 15 copies. Many of the people are probably Catholic, likely Lutheran, but a number of them are Episcopalians who seem to enjoy re-connecting, and nobody seems to bother about distinctions between faiths or disagreements over style. Healing is healing, and so is being present with people.

Mary the activity director said something really interesting, after it was all over. We were discussing the possibilities of bringing some of the residents over for the big event on Feb. 3rd, and she seemed to be pondering how that might be done, as they have to rent something like a van for trips. And then she laughed and said again how much she enjoyed the service, and said,

“You know, it’s like you’re Carmen’s gift to us,” and I said, “well, we think you’re Carmen’s gift to us, too. ”

Thanks, Carmen, we do this to honor your memory and for the glory of God.

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