I know what it means to live week to week, paycheck to paycheck.
I don’t know what it means to live day to day, without guarantee of a paycheck.
I don’t know what it means to be completely dependent on grace and mercy. I may indeed be completely dependent, but I seldom realize it. I can think about tomorrow with some confidence. I can finish one meal while already looking forward to the next one. Sure, I’m fully aware there’s no guarantee. Nevertheless, I’m not sure the word “needy” has ever really applied when it comes to the way I actually go about my business and function each day.
This makes it hard for me to grasp the prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Today, at lunchtime I sat in the hallway of a nursing home. The middle aged man in front of me was sleeping with his chin on his chest, slumped down in a high-backed wheelchair. He has a terrible disease, one which causes the progressive breakdown of nerve cells in his brain. He has been in a facility for years now, has done relatively well for someone with his disease, but there he is. And there he will be tomorrow, the next day, and the day after, until who knows when. Day after day after day.
And there I am, sitting in front of him, praying the Lord’s Prayer.
It’s a prayer he knows and sometimes when I pray it with him I get intimations that he understands and is following along. A word of it occasionally wiggles its way out of his mouth. He may be coherent enough to say thank you for when I pray. But most of the time he just sits there with his chin on his chest, or he lies on his bed on his side, curled up and staring at the wall.
I’ve met his wife and his pastor. Each of them comes at various times to feed him and sit with him. The pastor told me he often has to forcibly lift his head, fighting stern resistance to get food to his mouth. He never knows when the patient might have an outburst. It’s a characteristic of his disease. He might flail his hands violently and buddy you better get out of the way. The minister took it flush on the jaw once. Human strength, even in extremis, is remarkable. It can hurt you. Most of the time it turns out there’s no problem at all in the dining room, and there, sitting in his high-backed wheelchair he gets his daily bread.
Today in the hallway, I choke a little just saying the words.
I know that I’m going to walk out that door in just a few moments. I’ll walk down the hall, walk to my car, drive to my next visit and, sooner or later I’ll stop somewhere and have lunch. I’ll use my debit card, order a salad, and sit in my car and eat it. With my own hands, at a place of my choosing, using my own money, mobility, and sense. Later this week, my employer will deposit another paycheck in my bank, and I’ll be able to have lunch each day for the foreseeable future. Maybe even buy someone else lunch on occasion.
As a caregiver, I don’t often have to deal with this kind of survivor’s guilt, but that’s what it feels like today. It feels wrong for me to pray “Give us this day our daily bread” with this man in this place on this day because I sense the disconnect when I say that little word, “us.” It feels like I ought to say, “Give him his daily bread, Lord, I’m covered.”
I could get all spiritual here and start talking like I used to talk: I’m needy too. I’m just a beggar. I need grace and mercy just as much as the next person. If God doesn’t provide for me, I’m sunk. There is no inherent difference between my patient in the nursing home and me. He just has a physical condition that makes his daily need for God’s grace and mercy apparent. If I could look behind the scenes and see all the ways God protects me and cares for me, I would understand that I too, am just the same as the man in the high-backed wheelchair.
All true enough, but largely irrelevant to the way most of us live and think each day. When we do say it, it’s mostly spiritual posturing, the old humble bit, the right language to draw a knowing nod from those in our crowd. The words cover an existential fear so pure we’re obliged to avoid it. It’s possible I won’t really know the meaning of “Give us this day our daily bread” until I require someone to force my head back and put a spoon of puréed mush in my mouth. Honestly, I’m not looking forward to that, whether it happens tomorrow or twenty five years from now.
Will someone come and wheel me to the dining room then? Will someone sit with me and perform that lowly service? Will someone pray the Lord’s Prayer with me when I can only occasionally mutter a word or two in recognition of it? And will they find themselves choking when they get to the line, “Give us this day our daily bread”?
I can only hope so. That’s probably really what I’m praying for as I sit in this nursing home and try not to see myself in that high-backed wheelchair.
Until then I eat every lunch in defiance and fear of that day.