What do you say to someone whose only child has died? What do you do for the patient who has been told he or she has a few months to live? How do you handle the man whose manhood and pride is shattered because of a job loss and subsequent economic crisis, even though he still tithes faithfully to the church? As a male pastor, what approach do you take to the young lady who needs pastoral care but can’t trust you because she has been abused by every man in her life? Or vice versa? These are just a few questions that we find ourselves standing face to face with at some point on the course of our ministry journeys.
One such question arose for me a few months ago, on the evening of Wednesday, March 22, 2012. At the beginning of our weekly church Bible Study, a fellow preacher said that she needed to see me at the end of the night. An hour later, I almost forgot her request and had arrived at my car to retire home for the evening when the Spirit of the Lord disturbed me and made me feel compelled to go back inside. I admit that I did not feel like being bothered with the sister clergy but He kept pressing me to go back. When I returned to the building we walked right into each other.
It was at that exact moment, 7:54 PM, that she told me that my presence had been requested by a sick woman and her mother. Because of my hectic schedule and the demands of life (school, work, travel, and more) I asked if it was alright for me to go that night. I knew that Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday would be impossible, and because I did not know her condition, I did not want it to be too late.
I had heard the murmurings of this middle age woman’s illness but had dismissed it from my mind all along, not because I was callously insensitive, but because this one was too much to bear. The news literally sent shock waves through my psyche. Nonetheless, at 8:27 PM on a warm Wednesday night, I arrived at Sinai Hospital to take a trip to the sixth floor to face my friend and my feelings.
When I arrived I knocked. A nurse was visiting with her so I had to wait for about 5 minutes. I literally breathed a sigh of relief. Now I would have a few moments to compose myself and figure out exactly what to do and say. The way I was thumbing through my cell phone doing nothing, you would never have guessed that I was preparing myself. I imagine it was nervous energy.
When the nurse gave me the okay I walked in. I was pleasantly surprised by how well she looked! The very first thing that this ailing middle age woman asked me for was a hug. As she laid flat on her back, we hugged so tight. Then she offered me a seat. She has always been a very polite and reserved woman and this encounter was no exception. It was clear that I was not just there in the capacity of a minister, but I was there as a young confidante and friend.
My ministry that night was very simple. I had been sent by God to offer the ministry of presence, to listen, and to pray. That was my preaching. It was not a lengthy homiletical presentation or exegetical discourse. Instead, it was sitting attentively as she shared her experience for 40 minutes.
Typically, I don’t spend that amount of time at a sick visit, especially at that hour of the night, but the Spirit told me that I needed to sit. So, sit I did. Perhaps our being acquainted since I was in diapers made it permissible to bend the rules. Every now and then, when her tone would change to one of resignation, I would softly say to hold on and keep the faith and each time she would receive it. That was my preaching.
As this lovely lady shared what she has been through she managed to rattle off an upcoming ministry engagement of mine that she had seen on a local TV station. She even threw in how proud she was of me and my success in ministry. It was then that I began to feel my emotions creep up on me. Do you know how much it means as a minister for someone to be proud of you? Considerate of my time and the hour, she said she wasn’t going to keep me too late and the conversation ceased. Then we had a moment of silence together; it just seemed to naturally occur. Finally, lest I leave any stone unturned, I asked her to pray.
I moved to the chair by her bedside, grabbed both of her hands, and began to utter the words of prayer. “Father, we stretch our hands to thee, no other help we know…” If there is a such thing as a magical prayer this was one of the most magical ones I had ever prayed in my entire life! I felt the words I was speaking and for some reason I just kept saying “God, we know you are able.”
With that, we shared our “see you laters.” I told her that I was going to call her mother, but since it was after 9 o’clock I would wait until the next day. She said “actually, it’s not too late.” So, I took her mother’s number down and left for the night. As I came off the elevator to leave, the Eternal directed me to dial her mother.
I was proud of myself and felt a sense of relief that I finally went, although a part of me wished that her mother, whom I had watched break down in church two weeks earlier, was there. I heard so much noise in the background that I was alarmed and I asked her if she was okay. She told me that she wasn’t feeling well and was waiting for her brother to come take her to the emergency room.
Mother has a pacemaker and was feeling pain in her arm. I quickly asked for her address because I knew she lived close by and I immediately rushed the 2 ½ miles from the hospital parking lot to be at her side. I told her that I was going to stay with her until her brother arrived. With her symptoms I didn’t want her to be alone and potentially faint.
When I arrived at the door, she was waiting. I was able to talk and share with her in the lobby of her posh condominium about the physical effects of the stress of possibly losing her only child. It hasn’t been that long since she buried her husband of over 50 years. Within 20 minutes her brother arrived and I told her that I would call and check on her the next day.
As I walked to my car for the silent drive home, I realized that I walked away from this ministry moment with a lot, most notably a greater sense of ministerial compassion and responsibility. The experience of prayer that night was indescribable! It renewed my own faith in our great God! I thought I already had faith but the Lord showed me that night that it was possible to achieve another level of faith.
I also learned that the tables can turn very quickly in life. I very distinctly remember this sister in Christ offering anything I needed on the sad occasion of my grandmother’s passing, yet I also remember her saying that evening that little did she know she would have to send for me first. What a lesson on humility this was for a young man! You can be on top of the world one day and down the next. You just never know.
The greatest lesson is that tragedy can hit anyone. I’ve seen it hit the rich and I’ve seen it hit the poor. I’ve seen it harass a male and I’ve seen it harass a female. I’ve seen it come against the gay and I’ve seen it come against the straight. I’ve seen it raise its ugly head at conservatives and I’ve seen it raise its ugly head at liberals. No one is exempt from the vicissitudes of life.
At the end of the day, this is ministry. So what I sacrificed a few hours of sleep! So what I ran some of my car’s gas out! So what I was up later than I wanted or needed to be! At the end of the day I preached a meaningful sermon because this woman and her mother were able to see a sermon versus hear one and “whatsoever I did for the least of these, I did also unto thee” (Matthew 25:40, paraphrased). AMEN.