Ministry of Presence


Much of what we do as clergy can get lost in the sameness of life.  The humdrum of life marches every forward moving us along with it.  Sometimes we go from meeting to meeting, Sunday to Sunday just going through the motions and then there is an event that changes it all.

If you have been reading these pages for a time, you know that also to being a pastor I also serve as chaplain to the local fire department and as a hospice chaplain.  I have had some of my most intimate ministry experiences in the most unusual places.  The bumper of a fire truck, leaning against a telephone pole in the middle of the night outside of a burned out house, or at the bedside of a dying woman.

Yesterday I was called to the bedside of one of my hospice patients.  I knew she was not doing well and had planned to visit, but the nurse called and made it all that more urgent.  At that point, much of what I do is for the family.  The patient, the person, is ready and is transitioning to the next phase of their life.  I don’t like the phrase “pass away” as that is not a precise description, but a transition is more appropriate.

In any event, I arrived, and her two daughters were in the room with her.  I had met one of them when I admitted her mother, but the second was one was new.  We sat and talked about many things and then the question came, “Why is God allowing my mom to suffer?”  I don’t get this question as often as I thought I would, but it is never an easy answer.  Sure there is the textbook answer but I have found that those answers are not very good when the person is asking is watching their loved one die an agonizing death.  Much of the seminary dribble seems to go right out the window at those moments.

I looked her in the eye and said, “I don’t know.”  I followed that up with, “what I do know is that God never promised us a life where we would not suffer.  He never promised us that we would not die in pain.  But I hold on to the fact that he did promise us that we would not go through it alone, and I feel his presence her now with us.”  She looked back at me for a long time, well what seemed like a long time anyway, and she thanked me for those words.  I told her I was going to write them down so I could use them again!  We all had a good laugh!

We talked for a while longer and then they asked me to pray.  I never force prayer on people rather I let them run the visit.  Who knows what their faith life is like and most of the time I feel I am more of a friend than the minister and if that is what they want then that is what they need.  I introduce myself as Peter, the chaplain from hospice.  No pretentious father or minister just Peter the Chaplain.

So I took out my prayer book, I stink at extemporaneous prayer, so I use the prayer book, and I selected the prayer for the terminally ill.  This is a prayer for comfort and a prayer of forgiveness and reconciliation.  I prayed this prayer and as I said Amen, she took her last breath.  We stood there silent for a moment just watching to see if her body would move and it did not.  She had received the assurance that she was not alone, that God was with her, as well as her family, and this stranger and she very quietly slipped away.

One of the daughters turned to me and said you released her!  I joked and said I needed to be careful who I used that prayer with.  I must add here that just before I prayed I joked that I better not say the wrong prayer because I did not know what would happen.  We all laughed.

So there we were, some crying a little tear and some just grateful that God was faithful to his promise never to leave us.  Oh sure we may leave him but he never leaves us!

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