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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Habit Forming

Ray and Jan arrived as associate pastor and spouse at the church of my childhood and youth in the early 1960s. In the 1970s at a different congregation they oversaw my seminary field education. Ray preached at my ordination. For fifty years they have been pastor, mentor, friend.   These days life is challenging. Ray struggles with advancing Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Jan’s physical strength is not what it used to be, declining just as Ray’s needs grow. In January Ray was admitted to the hospital, then a rehabilitation center. Jan, weakened by a tough New England winter and long days and nights with Ray at the hospital, ended up in the hospital herself. Eventually they were both discharged to a rehab center together. They are now at home, coping with an array of home health care assistance and the support of their children. Last week Jan reflected on their difficult circumstances. Here, in part, is what she wrote:

Early in January, Ray had another problem which again required the EMTs and this time he went to the hospital. Spent several days there with tests of all kinds and was eventually transferred to an Acute Care Rehab Center for help in regaining stability and strength.

Meanwhile I had a fall and ended up at the hospital where eventually the decision was that I too needed strength and stability. Surpise, surprise! Now comes the interesting (at least to us!) part….we were both transferred to a rehab facility where we were able to share a room!   There for 3 weeks we had the advantages of an excellent Physical and Occupational Therapy department where they were able to help us move toward our goals.

While there we met a wonderful staff of caring individuals who helped us through the daily tasks that had become difficult for us. We were called “Papa and Mama” and had the opportunity to learn about people from different countries. When it came time to leave, we would have loved to bring many of them home with us, for they had become important members of our lives.

This is not the way we intended to spend the beginning of this year! But there were hidden blessings even here. One was hearing nursing aides singing softly as they went about their duties. One was hearing them talk about their faith in open, gentle ways. They seemed to care genuinely about the people for whom they were giving care.

One night a patient was unhappy and set about showing this by yelling terrible, angry words at the staff. We were appalled, but touched when another patient went to her own door and said “that’s enough of that!!!!” The next morning another patient stopped by our room to chat a bit and express his dismay at the earlier bit of racist, verbal garbage that had been strewn about.   And at the end of this short talk, he said “we need to pray for her!” That blew me away! He was right, of course, but how sensitive to put it into such words.   How often our prayers are needed for those who are out of touch with the reality of love. I’ve reflected and continue to reflect on these words. Perhaps you may want to do the same. 

Why some people respond to very difficult, even painful challenges and losses in life with bitterness and resentment while others respond with grace, gratitude, and compassion is often a mystery. I don’t know that we’re born with these traits and I don’t think we learn them.   They are, instead, something we practice over the years until they becomes habitual, literally habits we don’t think much about. Jan’s spent a lifetime practicing seeing the good, calling forth the true, acknowledging the beautiful.

So when the police officer is particularly gentle when helping Ray off the floor at home after a fall, or when the EMT takes the time to walk her to the car across the icy parking lot after loading Ray into the ambulance for a trip to the emergency room, or when an aide hums an old hymn while making up their beds at the rehab center, Jan is grateful. She’s more than aware of the grim situation. But she sees the beautiful in all of it, too. Staying in touch with the reality of love is a habit for Jan, one that perseveres in the most trying of circumstances. And when she sees that habit slipping away, she prays it back, or is grateful when others pray it back for her.

I want to be like Jan when I grow up. But I know it won’t be because of a sudden conversion, or the result of a new year’s resolution. It will be because her way of seeing others has become my habit as well. It will be because I have tried to practice the art of staying in touch with the reality of love every day in the most concrete ways. A practice that literally will have become habit forming. Perhaps you may want to do the same.

John H. Thomas
March 5, 2015

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