November 14, 2017
I was ordained into the “professional ministry” on October 21st 1984 at the age of 30. I felt anything but prepared. Feelings of inadequacy surged through my veins at the thought of being a “minister.” Honestly… they still do. I so deeply respected the ministers whom I had known that the notion of sullying their profession was overwhelming. That’s not to say I “liked” all of them… just respected them. The thoughts of incompetence far outweighed the moments of clarity and experience. No one in seminary told me it would be like that. I had been called to Ross Community Presbyterian Church a few weeks before my ordination and the service of laying on of hands was the culmination of years of education, but little training in being a pastor.
Not long after October 21st I got a call that the husband of a faithful member of the church had been admitted into the hospital having had a serious heart attack. He was a member of the church as well, but had not attended in years. Such is the case with too many spouses, men in particular. I had little, if any, experience with visiting anyone in the hospital and NO experience with intensive care. Back then the ICU was very different from what it is now. There were no televisions, newspapers, radios, books, calendars or clocks allowed. Patients lay for hour after hour, day after day with no idea of the time, the date or any current events. I think the idea was to keep them calm and allow for no excitement or stress.
The man I went to visit was named Bill, like myself. I had never met him before, so I had to ask a nurse which cubical was his. When I walked in, I introduced myself as the new pastor. It was just awkward from there. Very awkward. Did I mention that it was awkward? He was very weak and hard to understand with the oxygen mask covering his mouth and nose. I don’t really think he wanted to talk anyway. I stayed for only a few minutes and then tried to graciously excuse myself because, like I said, it was awkward.
I had no idea how often I was supposed to visit him… another thing we never discussed in Seminary. Every day? Every other day? Twice a week? I just didn’t know. Concerned that I might fall short of expectations, I visited him every day for over a month and prayed with him on each visit. To this day I have no idea what people expect regarding the pastor and visits to the hospital. I have no formula other than, the more severe the illness, the more regular the visits. Distance is also a factor. I once visited a church member in Franklin PA and another in Jamestown NY but only once. I walked/visited with Bill through the intensive care unit to the step down unit (also new to me), until finally he was transferred into a regular room. After a few weeks it got less awkward. Did I happen to mention that it was very awkward at first? Anyway, I learned about his life and his profession. He had been raised in the church, but grew disenchanted and dropped out. He had even been a Deacon at one time. He was retired from a job with the county and was old enough to be my father. That in itself made it awkward for me. I am reminded of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4: 12: Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity.
I dropped in one day and the first thing he said was, “I’m going home.” And then he said these words, “Thank you for all that you have done.” I was confused and naively responded, “I haven’t done anything.” He then looked at me with a very serious and puzzled look on his face and said, “You don’t get it, do you?” I think I may have said, “Get what?” He responded with these words that have rattled around in my head for over 30 years. “When you come into my room, Jesus walks into my room!” Honestly even now I have tears just typing that. I had no words. What does one say to that? Please understand I know he was not likening me to Jesus. He was trying to say that I represented the presence of Jesus when I visited him. Over 33 years later and I still have no response to that. Not many of us get the privilege of being in that position. Or the honor. Or the burden. I am a poor substitute or representative for Jesus. And yet I get the opportunity to walk with people down a path into His presence… if they want to.
The truth is, there are many more failures over the past 33 years than there are successes. I’m sure that too many would say I drove them away from Jesus. They might say that I am a poor representative of the Lord of the Universe. For that I grieve, daily. No lie.
Back in those early years I used to wear a clerical collar on occasion It was in the days when I thought being identified with clergy and being called “Reverend” was… cool. And it gave me a status that pleased me and in some ways put me above others. I know… I’m sorry. There was also the additional bonus of being able to go anywhere in a hospital without being questioned. I care little for those things any longer. I avoid anyone knowing I am a minister in strange company. Why? Because as soon as they discover a minister is in the room, their honesty, sincerity and vulnerability go right out the window. And honestly, I don’t want to hang out with phonies all day! I would hope we/I would be able to represent Jesus without the outward formalities of our “religious positions.” Maybe a day will come when someone will say that when I walked into a room Jesus walked in, but they won’t know I’m a minister. I can only hope.
I should add that Bill regularly attended worship after his time in the hospital. He was still there when I left 12 years later.