Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Who the…?

Last year I’d been buzzing around the backpackers’ hostel as usual, when I’d suddenly found myself doing a double-take at a new guest. It wasn’t because of his manner, or that I may have recognised him, or even that he had done anything out of the ordinary.

No, this guy had stood-out from the other 400 guests because he was old.

I guess I have a bit of a soft spot for retired folk. A significant part of my childhood was spent in the old folks’ home where my mum worked. We had elderly neighbours. My best friend at my last job in the UK had been a 70-something security guard. In 2004 I found myself visiting auntie Dorrie in hospital. Oh, and Grampa is one of my favourite Simpsons.

Yes, it seems as though God always keeps old man stashed somewhere in my life.

This guy’s name was Lionel, (although we called each other Sherlock Holmes and Moriaty in those early days) and over the coming months we spent quite a bit of time together chatting. Well, actually he chatted and I listened. That’s the great thing about talking to the older generation – you can let them do all the work.

Having travelled the world, Lionel had chosen New Zealand as the place where he wanted to spend his retirement. Unfortunately, New Zealand hadn’t been too keen on that idea so, undeterred, he’d come here for an extended holiday instead. He did all those backpacker things – sleeping in dorms, fruit-picking, even applying for a Working Holiday Visa. (alas, he was over 30 – even I’m too old) I understood how he felt – about mid-twenties.

Lionel’s plan finally skidded through the barriers when he’d suffered a stroke and been admitted to Auckland Hospital with a paralysed arm, and barely able to walk. He was soon scheduled for repatriation back to England.

But the only place where Lionel really wanted to go was back to the vibrant youth hostel on Queen Street. Even if he’d escaped the hospital and made it back across town, I really couldn’t see them accepting him back again though.

The irony of course is that, away from a brain-achingly boring hospital ward, I think that, mentally, it would have done him a world of good. Hospitals are like that – they can perform miracles on your body, whilst paradoxically suffocating your state of mind.

On Sunday, with two days to go before Repatriation Tuesday, God wonderfully enabled me to wheelchair Lionel back to the hostel for a day trip.
There was much laughter and smiling from all our friends, and it was great to see his mental energy returning to normal. This was the first time I had seen him here since I had got back from the UK last September, yet to sit chatting with him in the lounge area again, it really was as though not a single day had passed.

But we had a few practical tasks to carry out too…

We checked his food reserves in the kitchen, and collected a few odds and ends he had left behind.

There was a suitcase to collect from long-term storage.

And, having not seen his room in over two months, Lionel was convinced that all his gear was still strewn out across it.

I knocked on his old room door, shouted “Housekeeping!”, turned the lock and we entered. The bunks were still there, but other people’s belongings now lay cast over the bedclothes. I squeezed the wheelchair past where different travellers on different journeys through different lives had now wedged their different suitcases wherever they could find some exposed carpet. We maneuvered the fridge open, and I checked down the sides of the beds for his things. I also photographed the view through the window for him.

Suddenly Lionel rather bleakly remarked that there was no point in looking any further, and asked to go. As I closed the door again behind us, it seemed as though this was the exact moment that his unwanted journey from New Zealand all the way back to the UK was actually beginning.

The hospital had asked me not to take him out on the street, but with half an hour to go we careered across the busy intersection anyway, under the giant Santa, and up to the first floor of Whitcoulls. Here he browsed through various magazines, while from a distance I watched him and pondered the priceless value of ordinary everyday life.

Finally it was time to go. The cab driver stopped off at Foodtown and hopped out to buy a bottle of wine that he wanted. Now there’s service for you.

As I headed home myself on the bus that evening, I reflected that I had had a really nice day out myself. Sitting listening to Lionel talk for hours was one thing, but today I had had a purpose, and we had gone somewhere and done something together.

The following night at the hospital, I ran the risk of ruining all that. It was time to say goodbye.

Some friends had tried to convince me that I had to preach the gospel to this ageing wheelchair-bound lost soul. But I couldn’t do that. Lionel was my friend, it would ruin everything if he thought I’d only hung around him due to some zealous ulterior motive. But I thought I had to say something, even though no-one has ever listened to my opinion on anything.

I took a deep breath, and walked into the ward for our final hour. We chatted and talked for one last time, and he gave me his umbrella to take with me. Then, at a suitable moment, I just said “Lionel, you know what I believe about God, don’t you? Well I don’t want to know what you believe. But I would be grateful if you just decided for yourself whether you think I’m right or wrong. Don’t tell me, I don’t want to know, just decide after I’ve gone whether you think I’ve got it right or wrong, that’s all.”

As I sat on the bus going home later, I realised with a start that I’d left his umbrella behind at the bus stop.

This morning Lionel was put on a Thai Airways plane, to travel first class for 26 hours back to England with two nurses – which the British consulate have volunteered to pay for. They promised that once Lionel has paid them back, they will be happy to return his passport to him.

“You’ve certainly been a good friend to him,” remarked my boss Phil the other day.

Have I? I haven’t spent time with this man because I enjoyed his company, in fact listening to him for long periods of time has been something of a struggle. I’ve done it purely because I believe it was the right thing to do. If Lionel had thought I’d been doing it out of “charity” then I think he’d have felt offended and patronised, and certainly not interested.

I try to follow Jesus, but this really isn’t the love that Jesus felt. Jesus would have cared. Jesus would have been interested. Jesus would have done it because he’d wanted to, rather than just because he felt he ought to.

Or is the line blurrier than that? He definitely didn’t want to go to the cross.

I have very very rarely ever felt love for anyone. But someone once told me that “acts of service” are a form of love.

I hope so, because it’s the only sort I seem to have.

curious link from a year ago


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