Sunday, October 19, 2014
“It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” ― Arthur Conan Doyle
Sometimes, you are in the right place at the right time to bring real comfort to the dying and/or their families. When I was the pastor of St. James UMC in Stoneham, Massachusetts, for the four years I was in seminary in Boston, I was often called to be with parishioners while they were dying as it was a very elderly congregation (some younger folks joined while I was there, so we did have children around). It was also not unusual for the husband or wife to be Methodist and the spouse to be Catholic as Boston and the surrounding area was about 80% Catholic. I frequently participated in Catholic weddings and funerals or had a priest participate in a service at our Methodist church. In fact, I was the first ever Protestant to preach at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Boston to a packed church—but that’s another story. I was well known at the local hospital because I spent so much of my time there with the sick and the dying. One day, the social worker there called me and pleaded with me to come give the Last Rites to a Methodist man who was dying and refusing to see the priest that his Catholic wife and family had brought with them. The family was extremely distressed that the husband and father was going to die without the rites of the church. I explained that the Methodist church didn’t do Last Rites, but the social worker implored me to do something. I promised to come immediately and had a friend drive me so that I could take my handbook of Methodist services and with a pencil change the anointing service for the sick and the funeral service for the dead to fit the needs of the family. I had several paragraphs and sentences altered by the time we got to the hospital. I had a small, purple hospital stole that I wore on visits, and I also had anointing oil with me as I always carried it—for the entire twenty years I was a pastor. I went into the room of crying and wailing family members, got to the bed of the dying man (who was unknown to me) and proceeded to put on my stole (I always wore a clerical collar so that helped, too) and anointed the dying man as I read the amended words from the two services in my book. When I finished, the dying man squeezed my hand and passed away. The family had stopped their wailing while I was doing the service and was praying. I slipped out of the room as the family surrounded the bed. Once outside, the social worker who had called me was waiting. She hugged me harder than I’ve ever been hugged and told me she could never thank me enough. I have long since forgotten the man’s name and have never had any contact with the family in the twenty-five years since it happened, but I have always thanked God that I was able to be of that little service for those few minutes to bring comfort and peace to one family. It doesn’t take long for everlasting moments to occur if you are obedient and available for God’s use. On another occasion, I had stopped in to see a parishioner in Rogers, Arkansas, at St. Mary’s Hospital. He was dying of Hodgkin’s Disease which is not a nice way to go. He was unable to talk and and would write me notes to communicate. We were friends and he had helped my son become a programmer for Wal-Mart. It was late, his wife had gone home and the hospital was unusually quiet. He started writing and motioned me to his bedside. He had written, “Death is near. Will you hold me?” Of course, I put my arms around him as best I could with all the tubes and wires hooked to him, and while I held him, he shuddered and died. I was praying the whole time and was unaware of his passing until the nurses watching his monitors rushed in and pulled me away from him. I will always remember the smile that was on his face as the nurses worked on his now lifeless body. I was devastated by his death but strangely happy that I had been able to give him the comfort of the hug of a friend and the comfort of God while he died. I stayed until the wife came and did what I could for her before leaving around midnight. I was only with him for about ten minutes that night, but they were an amazing ten minutes. Once again, I thanked God that I was able to be His voice and His hands when one of His own needed to know that He was there. There is nothing special about me, this is something that God needs from every one of His servants. The anointing of the sick is one of the oldest rituals in the church dating back to the earliest days of the church and it is not designed for clergy but for the laity to help each other. We have to be God’s hands and voice for each other for we are His and it is our obligation if we love God and love each other. If you can be there for someone at the moment they need you in order to feel or see or know God’s presence—you will know the special feeling that only comes to those who serve with love. It is never enough for you, but it is always enough for God. Let go. Let God.