For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘pastoral visits

communion-table1He was one of the great saints of the church, and he was dying.

I had been visiting him and his wife in their home for several years, because his health had been too poor to come to church. Every time, they prepared an elaborate meal, setting out the best silver and china, special candles and napkins for Holy Communion at the dining room table. I told them over and over that they did not need to go to such trouble, but they insisted. Because of the fancy meal, my visits would often last four hours or more, yet still he protested that we didn’t have enough time.

I could tell that the elaborate preparations had become a burden. As he grew weaker, I urged him to put aside the extravagant meal and just let me pay a pastoral call. He refused to let me come unless he could meet his own high standards of hospitality. If he was unable to cook, he would not let me visit. We talked on the phone, but I did not see him for several months.

When he called me from the doctor’s office, it was late Epiphany, February-cold. He never used a cell phone, so I was startled to hear his voice. There were no more treatments left. He would be starting hospice care. They were preparing to tell their children. A man of deep faith, he was not afraid of dying, but he was shocked that his life, even after nearly 90 years, was coming to an end. He protested that he just didn’t have enough time.

The next day, I reached his wife on the phone. She immediately acquiesced to my request to visit, with only the holy bread and cup for our meal. When I arrived, we embraced, but he grew agitated that he was not able to provide his regular hospitality. “I just wish we could sit down at the table. I don’t have anything set. This is not how it should be.” I tried to reassure him that I was there to minister to him, as he had ministered to so many others before. My words seemed a formality, but his distress was real, as if an admission of his deteriorating condition.

Then his wife spoke: “After Easter,” she said. “After Easter. We’ll talk about it after Easter.”

It wasn’t even Ash Wednesday. We doubted he would live through Lent, much less regain enough strength to host a meal again. Yet her words comforted him, and me. After Easter. He calmed, and we spoke at length of life and death, of love and faith. The reminder of resurrection freed us to face the reality of his condition. Easter was more than a date on the calendar, it was the promise of eternity.

I returned every week after, twice a week towards the end. At every visit, he would speak of the meal we would share. “After Easter,” his wife and I replied. “After Easter,” he echoed.

He died a month later, kneeling beside his hospital bed in a posture of prayer. We buried him on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

I always miss him this time of year. We never did have enough time. Whenever I miss him, his hospitality, his faithful example, the meals we shared, I think to myself, “After Easter.” We shall sit together at the resurrection table, where Christ himself is host, with all the time in eternity to share. After Easter.

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I spend a lot of time making pastoral visits to aging members who are no longer able to attend worship, whether visiting them at home or in senior living facilities. Currently, there are 20 households on that list, and I try to see most of them every 4-8 weeks, depending upon their situation. I celebrate Holy Communion with many of them at every visit, although some prefer it only at holiday times.

Most of the time, I wonder about the value of these visits. Yes, it is a comfort to lonely or isolated individuals that the pastor comes to see them, to express the church’s ongoing care and concern. Sometimes—oftentimes—visits from lay people can accomplish the same message even better. We often just chit-chat, catching up on news from the church family. We pray, but we don’t talk about the deepest things of the heart.

Until we do talk about those things. And then things get very profound, very fast. Although I always try to invite those deeper conversations, it still catches me off guard when people venture there. I am surprised by how much people yearn to unburden their hearts to me. They move swiftly sometimes from chatting about the weather to disclosing deep secrets of their past. We visit five, ten, 20 times and tell the same pleasant stories, until the one time I come and they open up about the guilt and self-doubt they harbor, the questions they have about God and salvation, the fears and anguish they bear for themselves or members of their family.

I become a secret-keeper, a holder of stories, a bearer of burdens. I hear stories that break my heart, things I can never forget, sadness that cannot be overcome. Long after the teller of the story has died, I remember.  On the next visit, when we return to talking about the latest church social or who’s been in the hospital lately, I wonder if they will want to talk about it again. Always, I pray, and through those prayers I try to surround us with comfort and forgiveness and hope, to release the story to God’s hands.

I am honored by these confidences, even though sometimes they can feel overwhelming. I am humbled by the trust people place in me, even when it leaves me emotional and exhausted. Most of all, I am grateful that God knows too. I do not carry these stories alone, and it is not upon my shoulders to provide the healing, forgiveness, hope and courage they require. All I have to do is show up every few weeks, ready to talk and to listen about whatever—just as prepared to talk about whatever has been going on, whatever the weather is, and whatever matters most, whatever the Spirit summons. And trust that whatever happens, it matters.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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