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FIRST-PERSON: How a bad joke helped me guard my heart

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WAYCROSS, Ga. (BP) – As a child, I would visit my great aunt, who lived in a nursing home. When I entered the building, I was greeted by a resident who spent his days sitting by the front door. When he saw someone enter, he would shout, “I bet I know where you got your shoes!” He was a stranger to me, and as a child, I found the experience unsettling. Not wanting to be disrespectful, I responded with a sheepish “Where?” He broke into a wide smile and said, “On your feet!”

It was a mildly funny joke, but what made it remarkable was that this exact interaction happened every time I passed by the man who sat by the front door. When I entered the building, “I bet I know where you got your shoes!” When I left the building, “I bet I know where you got your shoes!” The first time, I found it slightly amusing, but after the 100th time, I was tempted to be annoyed. But I would give a perfunctory laugh out of politeness and respect. As a child, I did not understand dementia or why this man told the same joke over and over again.

After our interactions with the man, my mother would speak a word of instruction as we walked down the hallway. She would say, “Be careful what you put into your heart and mind. Some day you may lose the ability to disguise or hide what is truly in your heart. On that day, your words will reveal what is truly in your heart.”

That silly joke and that important lesson made an impact on me. Our words reveal our heart. Jesus said it this way: “For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34)

It may be that you can exert some control over your speech for the sake of appearances, politeness or social appropriateness. You may use vile language during the week but never utter a curse word while at church. But someday, stress, external pressure or physical or mental diminishment will steal from you the ability to control what the mouth reveals about the true nature of your heart. To this day my memory of the man who sat by the front door serves as a testimony to me to guard what I fill my heart and mind with.

I witnessed this truth more recently with a man in my church. When I first met him in 2012, he was already in the grips of dementia. Our conversations generally consisted of about 20 things that he remembered. He would tell me that he was married to his wife, served in the Navy, was a member of Central Baptist Church, that I was his pastor, and he was 85 years old. As dementia took more from him, his conversations grew shorter. Eventually, our conversations included only two things. He would tell me that he was married to his wife and that he was a member of Central Baptist Church.

When I visited with him, I was reminded of the principle my mother taught me so many years earlier. It was heartbreaking to see him struggle with dementia. Yet even in his physical brokenness, he bore a beautiful testimony. As his ability to put up a mask crumbled, what was revealed was that he loved his wife, and he identified with Christ. That is a good testimony indeed.

No one can determine what will happen tomorrow. It may be that I come to the end of my life while still actively preaching, doing church ministry and participating in family life. Or it may be that because of physical or mental decline, I must endure many years of diminished ability. I may become the man who sits in the hallway of a care facility, looking forward to the next passerby to tell them the one joke I can remember. Whatever befalls me, I pray that what is revealed about my heart is that I have been transformed by the living God and what flows from the fountain of my heart will be pleasing to God.

Ben Smith is pastor of Central Baptist Church in Waycross, Ga.

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