Yesterday I received a phone call from the daughter of one of my congregation’s oldest members. She called to tell me that her father was now receiving Hospice care at the assisted living home where he’s been residing the past few months. I thanked her for keeping me in the loop (it’s always nice when the pastor is informed of these things, believe me. We don’t like to be shocked any more than the next person.).
I visited with this man this morning. Without divulging any confidences, I want to share him with you, because his life is an amazing testimony, not only to faith but to what we have come to call “The Greatest Generation.” My visit with him also illustrates one of the most touching aspects of serving as a pastor in the Church.
This man served in the army in World War II. He survived the Battle of the Bulge. He was present for other less popular conflicts in the war as well. As his pastor he shared with me many things about his experiences, but also didn’t share the half of it I’m sure. He is supremely grateful to have survived when many of his buddies did not. Grateful for each day that he could get up, go to work, and come home to a wife and children when many of his friends never got that chance. A man with a quick wit, always good for a funny story and a kind yet mischievous smile. Even today when we visited, he was still able to flash me that smile.
He is dying. He is in his mid 90’s and he is aware of what’s going on in his body. Yet even so he can’t understand how this happened. In his mind he is still a 20 something strapping lad. I so applaud that thinking! How many of us, me included, aren’t half as old as he, haven’t gone through anything like the experiences he’s had, and yet feel as old as the hills? There are certain people through my 19+ years of pastoral ministry that have stayed with me and will stay with me – and he is one of them. He makes me smile. I am proud to have known him, and I told him so.
One of the more daunting tasks of a pastor is to journey with people through illness and death. It’s a terrible privilege. Terrible because of the circumstances – terrible to be surrounded with grief, sadness, anger, doubt, fear. A privilege because you are allowed into to a sacred moment, where time almost stands still, where no one questions what is most important, because it is clear then what really matters in life.
Many people run away from scenes of death and dying as fast as their legs will carry them, and it may also be the first instinct of the pastor as well. But it is our call to enter into that space and provide the presence of God (not to BE God, but to represent faith, to be a sign that God has not and will never abandon us). Even after more than 19 years I struggle to find the words to say, though I know better. There really is nothing to say to make the situation better, to make the pain go away, to truly ease the fears. This gentleman today took great comfort not in any words I said, but in me holding his hands.
At the end of all things*, these are the things that matter: loving, being loved, a smile, holding hands, making a connection to another – BEING together. That is “wonder”ful, powerful, mysterious, and holy.
*quote from JRR Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, Frodo to Sam on Mount Doom, “I am glad you are here with me, Sam. Here at the end of all things.”