Posted in Moments of grace, Stories

I’m not going to the hospital

Photo by HH E on Unsplash

It’s been six months. Six months since hospitals, nursing homes and assisted living began restricting visitors. That means I can’t go to the hospital. Or the nursing home. Or the ALF. I cannot go when the phone rings and I hear,

  • “Pastor, we had to call 911. They’re taking him to the emergency room.”
  • “Pastor, I’m having surgery next week.”
  • “Pastor, they moved her to hospice care.”
  • “Pastor, we just had a baby girl!”
  • “Pastor, I haven’t had communion for three months.”

In a pre-2020 — pre-CoVid-19 — world, my weekly schedule would include pre- and post-surgery visits, monthly nursing home rounds, homebound communion visits and emergency room prayers. It’s all part of pastoral care in a congregation. I cannot do any of those things now. It feels like you cut one of the legs off my stool.

A lot of visitation and prayer has been replaced by phone calls. It is a gracious alternative, but let’s face it, it’s not he same. It’s not the same as holding a hand for a prayer. It’s not the same as communion at a bedside. It’s not the same as one final face-to-face conversation. It’s not the same as reading scripture to a long-time friend struggling for every breath. It’s not the same as making the sign of the cross on a forehead while speaking words of benediction.

In the past two months, I have been able to visit some of my members in their homes who feel comfortable with an in-person visit. For many, it is the only contact with another person for months.

Others have decided to wait. For a vaccine. For a cure. For the number of positive tests to decrease. For their family to tell them it’s OK to have visitors. I’m always available, but I always respect their wishes.

This reality leaves me feeling like I’m not doing my job. Yes, you can watch me preach on YouTube. You can watch my bible class. You can pray with me on a phone call. But it’s not the same, is it? Pastoral care was designed to be analog, not digital. In person, not remote. Face-to-face.

In the past I have often sighed as I headed out the door for yet another hospital visit. Now I am looking forward to a quick prayer of thanks for the opportunity to do that again.

Posted in Stories

Behind the zipper

The symptoms were obvious and ominous. High temperature, coughing, a feeling of weakness. After a week of this, on-again, off-again, he decided he needed to go to the emergency room. My wife was working, so I grabbed a mask, hopped in the truck and headed down to pick him up.

He was ready to go when I got to the house. But he could barely stand up and walk. It’s was a good thing that we were going that night. Had we waited a day, things might have been much worse. Somehow, as I was gathering up hearing aids and a list of medications, he made it out and into the passenger side of my truck. Without his hearing aids, our conversation was limited. I called my wife, working in the ER that night, and told her we were on the way.

After I pulled up to the ER entrance, I walked around to the passenger side to help him out. He could barely stand, much less walk the twenty or so yards to the door. A tech by the entrance heard me say, “I’ll see if I can get a wheelchair” and brought one out. With some difficulty, we transferred him to the chair and got him inside. He had a few questions to answer, I got a visitor tag, and the guard handed me an N95 mask to wear, “If you’re going where I think you are going.”

They took him back right away while I parked the truck. I had to wait a bit before my wife came out and said, “Come on back.” We turned left and went down the hall to a part of the ER that was draped in plastic with zippered entrances, an isolation unit for suspected Covid-19 patients. My wife looked at me and said, “If you go back there, we probably won’t be able to go on our trip.” I said, “I know.” But he wouldn’t be able to hear and I couldn’t just let him go back there alone.

So that’s when I went… behind the zipper.

It wasn’t all that exciting. In fact, it was eerily quiet. Because fresh gowns, masks, face shields and gloves were required of the doctors, nurses and techs every time they came in the room, their appearances were few and far between. I sat there in shorts, t-shirt and an N95 mask, wondering when I would get sick. Had we gone one day later, I would not have been allowed back there. Policies and procedures are subject to change, like the wind.

I stayed for about six hours, as we waited for tests, test results and the decision to admit him. He didn’t want to watch TV, and was finally able to snooze a bit, so I spent my time reading on my phone and keeping family up-to-date. I called his out-of-state son so they could talk. Finally they were ready to take him to another room, and it was time for me to head home. No one was allowed back in that part of the hospital.

As I write this, that happened a full eight weeks ago, and thankfully neither my wife nor I had any symptoms of illness. We did spend a couple of weeks staying further apart from family, just in case. It turns out he only had to stay in the hospital a few nights, and was discharged home. His wife had to do the ER thing later in the week, but she wasn’t admitted.

We were blessed. I am still careful. People are still getting sick. So far I’ve stayed healthy. I don’t take that for granted. I just give thanks each day.

Posted in Moments of grace

A little and a lot

I didn’t realize the irony until I hit “start live video” on my phone about 6:45 am on Easter morning, just as the blue began to take over the dark night sky. I hadn’t done a sunrise Easter worship service in over fifteen years. Why? Well, fewer and fewer people showed up for that service. I decided we could skip that service and put more effort into the two later gatherings. Now the number in attendance was zero because we were all staying home to be safe from catching or spreading CoVid-19. And there I was preaching to an empty room!

It’s usually about the numbers, isn’t it? A crowded room of worshipers generates more energy than a sparse gathering. Increasing attendance indicates a successful church. Declining numbers indicate that something is wrong. Empty pews make you start to feel like a coach with a losing record. If no one buys tickets, the circus leaves town, right?

This year, though, none of the rules apply anymore. In the middle of March, we closed the doors of the church as we sheltered in place at home, only going out to buy some food or take a walk around the block. I used the technology of a livestream on Facebook to send liturgy, hymns, prayers and a sermon into the homes of who knows how many as I stood in front of an empty room. I was preaching to no one and everyone all at the same time. And you know what? The numbers didn’t matter. They were irrelevant. I couldn’t tell who or how many were watching.

In a room full of people, other thoughts wander through my head as I lead worship, say prayers and preach sermons. I am constantly wondering, “Where is so-and-so?” Or, “Who is that, I don’t think I know them.” Sometimes, “Oh, that must be visiting family.” Occasionally, “Wow, I haven’t seen them in a long time!” Once in a while, “Where is everyone?” And on other occasions, “This is great! Look at how many people are here!”

None of those thoughts enter my mind when I’m standing in front of an iPhone on a tripod in the middle of an empty room. I’m simply focused on the task at hand. I’m more aware of my voice and my words and my pace. I pause more often. I am immersed in the moment.

That moment is gone. Next Sunday, we will be worshiping together for the first time in seven weeks. We will sit a little further apart and refrain from shaking hands, but our faces and voices will once again fill the room. Rather than focusing my gaze on one small camera lens, I’ll be engaging folks sitting in many different places throughout the semi-circular sanctuary. A camera will still send the message to those who choose to stay home and those who cannot attend.

But I believe the lessons of that moment will linger. I doubt the numbers, high or low, will make as much of an impression on me. But at least I won’t feel like a shepherd without sheep this week. I won’t worry about looking good on camera. I’ll know immediately whether I’ve connected with my audience.

I’m not going to pretend that I will no longer be excited by big crowds and disappointed by sparse ones. I know myself better than that. But I think that like the apostle Paul, I’ve learned a little more about being content with a little and with a lot.