Another last visit

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Photo by Justin Schüler on Unsplash

I got the phone call last Tuesday just before I headed out the door to visit some church members. But it wasn’t the person whose name showed up on the screen. It was her daughter. Mom wasn’t eating, couldn’t get out of bed, and was receiving twenty-four-hour hospice care. I knew I had to get out there later in the afternoon before they started a second form of medication to get ahead of the pain. It would probably be my last chance to talk with her.

When I arrived I thought, “This must be the place to be.” The driveway and cul-de-sac were full of cars. Inside, I was met by the hospice chaplain, the daughter, and two other hospice workers were in the kitchen. The only thing that surprised me was the quiet. The little Yorkie didn’t come barking to greet me at the door. Yes, this was a different visit.

Just six days before, I had been to this very same house. When I knocked and walked in, the dog came racing to find out who it was and got dibs for my attention. Inside, P. was sitting on the pale green living room sofa, waiting for my arrival. We talked and laughed and caught up on all that had happened since my last visit about a month ago. She was tired from a busy day before, but glad to have some company.

As the usual afternoon storms rolled in, the Yorkie found a secure spot on my lap, nervously shivering after each clap of thunder. She wasn’t going anywhere.

She wasn’t going anywhere during this latter visit, either. Lying quietly at P.’s feet, she was subdued though glad to see me. I can tell. And I know exactly where to scratch.

After a quick conversation with a daughter and the hospice chaplain, I went to the bedroom, where P. was now camped out, on oxygen, wondering when the pain medication would do more than make her feel sleepy. At the side of the bed was a picture of her late husband, whose hospice bed we had sat beside just eleven months ago. It was his retirement picture, signed by all of his colleagues. In a way it was his chance to repay the favor and sit by her bed.

P. had a smile for me and chuckled, “Well, here we go. Not a pretty picture, huh?”

“Looks like you had a rough weekend,” I said.

She said, “Yeah, but what are you going to do?”

We talked a little about how she felt, between sips of ginger ale. Since she was starting to doze off, I didn’t hesitate to ask, “Would you like communion?” As always, she said, “Yes.” As I got the bread and wine ready, I suspected it would be the last time I would bring the sacrament to her. As I spoke the words of our Lord, she closed her eyes to listen. I touched her hand, she opened her eyes, and ate and drank her Savior’s gift of grace and life. I assured her of God’s forgiveness and we prayed.

It is easy to pray in situations like that. We thank God for the care he provides, we commend ourselves into his hands, and speak the prayer our Lord taught us. A quick benediction, and I knew it was time to go.

I got the call Thursday night that she had died after a few days of being unresponsive. I was thankful for the opportunity to visit her that one last time.

Two years ago, I did a memorial service for P.’s mom. Last year for her husband. And now it will be her turn. I am impressed and moved by how she graciously handled both life and death, kind of like Paul describes in 2 Corinthians 4: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor. 4:8-9). The worst this world dishes out is nothing compared to the grace God pours into our lives. I am thankful for people like P. who lived out this truth.

The only thing P. worried about was her two grandsons. How she loved them and how they loved her! I wonder what they’ll remember the most about their grandparents. Knowing them and the family, it will be something that brings joy not sadness, and that’s just the way it should be.

The Yorkie didn’t see me out as she usually did. She had work to do. And I understood,.

 

 

 

 

One last visit

Sunset_2007-1Today would probably be my last visit. The last time I saw J. he didn’t look too bad. He had lost some weight, had lost some strength and had to use a walker. The cancer was there, but he didn’t purse treatment. He’d had ninety-one good years, fifty-five of them with an amazing wife. A life well-lived.

Today when I went to visit, I didn’t know what to expect. When I got to the door, his wife said, “He won’t know you’re here.” But when I got to his bed, he looked at me and whispered, “Hello, pastor.” A couple of weeks into hospice care, he had stopped eating and drinking, and slept most of the time. Death crept closer with each moment. But he was home, in his own bed, without pain and with his wife, continuing to live a good life.

Our conversation was brief as I prepared the sacrament, a foretaste of the feast to come. A little bread dipped in wine would be his portion. His wife would receive the rest as she sat on the other side of the bed. I silently thanked God for this moment, probably the last, to give him communion. To give them communion together. I’m no expert, but I knew he didn’t have many more conversations left in him. I knew this would be his last meal on this side of the heavenly banquet.

This family is one of the few who have been at our church longer than me. They joined about a year before I arrived, so I have known them for a long time. I thanked him for his faithfulness, and reminded him, as I had for the last twenty-one years, of God’s faithfulness. I reminded him of Jesus’ sacrifice, God’s forgiveness, and that place prepared for him by his Savior. After a prayer and the Lord’s prayer, I made the sign of the cross on his head as I spoke the benediction. A reminder of the sign of the cross made on his head and heart at his baptism ninety-one years before, in anticipation of this very moment.

I don’t quickly forget these moments. As a pastor, I get to be a part of many families’ final moments with loved ones. I get to be there in those moments when the temporal and the eternal touch, when heaven meets earth, and when loved ones leave this life for the next. I could tell that God had blessed this family with love, acceptance, hope, and strength. Rather than falling apart as death drew near, they fell into the arms of their Savior a familiar place they had been many times before,

Before I left, I saw and talked with D., his wife. I made sure she was getting the help she needed, got her to promise she would call when anything happened, and talked about J.’s memorial service. For someone as frail as she was, she had strength and composure that I can only attribute to the Holy Spirit. I guess that’s why He’s known as the Comforter and the Helper!

 

 

 

 

 

 

When the pastor came to visit me

empty apartmentIn 1979, I had just moved to New Jersey into my first apartment to begin my first job out of college at Bell Labs. After a few visits, I found the congregation who would be my church family for the next three years, Luther Memorial in Tinton Falls. Gorgeous location just a stone’s throw away from the horse farms in Colts Neck. The congregation immediately welcomed me, got me involved in the choir, youth ministry and teaching on Sundays. I got to play a lot of trumpet for worship, too. In fact, they gave me a key so I could come and practice there, since the paper thin walls of my apartment prevented me from playing at home.

Before long, the pastor called and asked to come and visit. “Sure. Anytime.” Continue reading

In and out of the hospital

I just got back from visiting two of my members who are in the hospital. It’s unusual to have seen them four times; most hospital visits are very short. Thankfully, both are improving and should be home soon.

As I was driving home, I realized that in my get-togethers with my fellow pastors, both locally and denominational conferences, we don’t talk much about hospital and nursing home visits. We talk a lot about vision, attendance, programs, finances, buildings and staff. But we don’t say much about pastoral care. Is pastoral care still a prominent part of pastoral ministry today?

Reviewing one of my call documents, I see that the congregation authorizes and obligates me to, among other things, “visit the sick and the dying.” IOW, it’s part of my job description. This is no surprise to me, of course. It was modeled for me, I was taught to do it, and I’ve always assumed that hospital visits or visits to the sick at home would always be a regular part of my week. In my experience, these visits tend to come in bunches. There may be none for several weeks, then suddenly there are four or five people to visit. And then just as suddenly, everyone is back home and back on their feet again.

I generally enjoy going to the hospital, and always learn something new when I am there. After I return from a visit, I always ask my wife (a nurse practitioner) about what I saw and heard, and she teaches me something more about medicine. I am thankful that my mom (also a nurse) had me volunteer in a local hospital as a teenager. Because of that experience, I’ve never been uncomfortable in any part of a hospital. Plus, I get to see the healing power of God at work through doctors and nurses, treatments and medication, and spiritual care. It’s the same kind of thrill that those who witnessed Jesus’ healing miracles must have felt when someone could walk, see, hear, or speak again. When God’s at work, I don’t want to miss it.

So let me know if you’re in a nearby hospital. I’ll stop by.

Learning to just listen

Yesterday, I visited with a couple who have been attending our Sunday worship services.  At one point in the conversation, they shared with me some personal information, and added that they were very nervous about talking about it.  They didn’t know how I would react.  They wondered if they would still be accepted.

As I sat there listening, I also sent up a quick prayer, “Just help me to listen, Lord.”  Though there were lots of things I could have said in response, I just needed to listen and hear their story.  I did say I appreciated their honesty, and asked a few follow-up questions to make sure I understood the situation.

I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to share any of our conversation, but I can share some things I’ve learned about myself.  In the moment, I did try to ask myself how Jesus would respond.  I like to think he would have simply listened, which could say more than any verbal response.  I also wondered, “Why are they sharing this with me?”  Clearly there was a level of trust and the hope that their admission wouldn’t change anything.  Whether I like it or not, I represent, to some people and to some extent, God himself.  I hardly feel up to that role, but that is how people approach a pastor.

Over the years, I’ve learned that I don’t have to fix things or set people straight on the spot.  I can talk it over with God, trust him to be at work in a situation, and realize that some situations take time to resolve.  And that’s OK.