Recently, I found a collection of letters I’d written to one of my favorite seminary professors. I wrote them during my first year as a pastor.
December 14, 2004
Hope this note finds you very well. The semester is over—just like that—and now you can relax by the fire. Well, things are always interesting here in Kingston. I often think of you and your words of wisdom. You were right about being a pastor; it is one of the best jobs in the world. It is also one of the hardest. But, mostly it’s incredible.
The other night—Sunday night—the phone rang a little before 9:00. A nurse in the intensive care unit was on the other end. She said there was a family at the hospital waiting with a loved one in critical care. They were preparing to take him off the respirator. They hadn’t been to church in several years, but they were Methodist and they wanted a Methodist minister. “Would I come?”
And I thought about that hymn, “Here I Am”. And I thought, “Gee, this is what I said I’d do.” I said, “Lord, send me.” So, here I am. And I wanted to cry, but there was no time. Instead, I told the nurse that I was on my way. And I stopped to put on my suit and collar and grab the Bible and the Book of Worship, and off I went in the snow.
I did have a bit of trouble getting out of the driveway—the driveway’s on a hill, and I am not used to driving in the snow. And it was snowing. Real snow. And it was hard to see. And I’m afraid that I’ve done a bit of damage to the poor Rose of Sharon. I backed right into it, not once but twice, and now it’s leaning to one side.
Between the snow and my anxiety—it took forever to get to the hospital. But I made it. I got to the intensive care unit and it was dim and quiet. And there was a family huddled around the bed of their dying father and husband. Three grown children, one son-in-law and one wife all weeping, all facing one of the worst nights of their lives, and even the son-in-law is crying.
And I keep reminding myself to stay quiet, repeating a prayer over and over, “Guide my feet and bridle my mouth”. And I introduce myself and take a deep breath and move to the side out of the way, and realize I’ve been praying since the phone rang and it doesn’t feel like enough.
Then one of the two daughters rises and wipes the tears from her eyes and gathers herself up and says, “I’ve been so worried. My father was never baptized.” My mouth opens and I’m saying the words before my brain can form them, “Would you like me to baptize him now?”
“Oh, could you?!” She brightens right up; she seems very relieved. Everyone in the room comes alive for a moment or two—there in the stillness and helplessness on the edge of a hospital bed facing death there’s now a plan, some action, something can be done. There can be grace and sacrament. And they seem to sigh in relief—together, a collective family sigh, a good sigh on a very bad night. So now I think I know why I am here, though I am no more confident. And I go out to check with the nurse and buy myself a minute to lean against the hospital wall in that dim light to breath deep breathes and talk to God some more and find the right pages in the Book of Worship, the rite of baptism and a prayer for the dying, one to the other.
At the nurses’ station I ask if a baptism is OK because now I suddenly realize that baptism is about water. And I’m going to pour water on the head of a man who is hooked up to all kinds of monitors and machines. And the nurse tells me it’s fine but to put on gloves and a gown, and I do. And the tap on the hospital room sink is hard to push at first, but I find a stack of Dixie cups, and I am trembling a little and fill it too full and have to pray again to get the right amount of water to stay in the cup. And I realize that I have only baptized a baby doll before this—a baby doll in a class, and now there is a human being in a hospital bed—a real soul and a real sacrament, and I take a few more breathes and move to the bedside, grasping my Book of Worship and balancing the little pool of water in the Dixie cup. And the family makes a circle around the bed, and there is so much love in the room—over and under all the sadness. And everyone finds a way to hold hands and touch the dying man in the bed, the father, the husband, the man they love so much who is slipping away from them. And we pray together.
And I make the sign of the cross with my wet, gloved finger and baptize a dying man in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. And we pray some more and wait for the doctor. We wait together till the monitors and the machines are gone. And I am amazed that I am with this family, that I am witnessing the intimacy of death, declaring the promise of new life with a Dixie cup full of water, that this is the job I signed up for, that it’s a snowy night and I am the pastor.
And I stay until I sense my job is over, and I drive home through cold white quiet and think how incredible is God’s grace…