I had to introduce myself to her every time I visited. A thin curtain, strung from wall to wall, halved her already tiny room. The air was thick with that unmistakable nursing home odor. She’d point her two sightless eyes in my direction and ask, “Who?” I’d tell her again. Then as she sat on the edge of her tiny bed, and I on a nearby fold-up chair, we would visit as if for the first time. And as we talked, this blind, mere wisp of a woman would unwittingly remind me of who I was.
Who was I? A very different man from who I am now. I was a naïve, inexperienced pastor in his mid-twenties; now, a couple of decades and a lot of scars later, I am no longer a pastor, no longer naïve, and certainly experienced in a few things of which I wish I’d remained ignorant. Time and life and sin—yes, let us not forget that dirty word—they have their way with a man. Nevertheless, as I peer back over the years between the me-then and the me-now, I see one striking similarity. I am always a man who forgets who he really is, because I’m always focused on becoming the man I want others to think I am.
When I sat in that nursing home, with this sweet elderly woman, I was her pastor, there to give Jesus to her in word and meal. Yet what I really wanted people to think of me was that I was a professor-in-training, a man of deep learning, who knew the Old Testament like the back of his hand. I was a man who wrestled with doubt and unbelief, but I wanted everyone to think I was a man of unwavering faith. I was a mere servant, and not a good one at that, but I wanted everyone to think of me as that guy with those three Master’s degrees, who has mastered this, and mastered that, and deserved to go far and do well.
Today, older yet evidently still as foolish, I fight the same battles. I drive a truck for a living, delivering and picking up freight, but I want others to think of me as a former professor who’s published a couple of books. I am now very happily married, but also twice-divorced, but I want others to think that I’ve never screwed up, that I’ve always been the ideal husband. Some days I wonder if there even is a God, much less one who loves me, yet I want other to think I’m a Christian who’s got it all together. Yes, I am always a man who forgets who he really is, because I’m always focused on becoming the man I want others to think I am.
A woman who suffered from dementia, who saw nothing through her eyes but blackness, she would remind me of who I am. An amazing thing would happen as we talked. When we got past the superficial introductions—since she always forgot who I was—I would speak to her of our lost condition, of our sin, of the dreadful place we find ourselves in apart from God, condemned by His law because of our transgressions. Then I would tell her of Jesus, who sought us in love, who bled out His life’s blood to wash away our transgressions, who exited the tomb alive and well that we might follow Him in our resurrection.
Every single time, after she had listened, speechless, to all I said, she would respond with shock and surprise, as if this were the first time in her life that she had heard the Gospel. She would literally rejoice, almost laugh with glee, that God loved her so much that He would do all things for her. If blind eyes could light up, hers would illumine the room. Then I would open my little Communion case, pour a little wine, select a couple of wafers, say the words of Jesus, and feed her the body crucified, the blood poured out, the gift given in God’s own Son.
Every time I visited this precious child of God, I remembered who I was really was. And thinking back on now, I remember the same. She would introduce me to myself. I am a man with a life full of regret, full of failure, whom Jesus loves without regret, without fail. No matter what job I have, I am defined not by what I do but by what God has done for me in His Son. No matter how stupid or how smart I am, no matter who much I know or how little, the only knowledge that really matters is that Jesus was ready and willing to die for me. That is my identity: I am Jesus’ friend, for He is the friend of sinners.
A woman who could barely remember who she was, much less who I am; a woman who couldn’t see a thing, much less read my soul through my eyes; this woman would teach me who I was. She would see the real me, and introduce me to myself.