In my first appointment as a pastor I was an Associate Pastor serving under a Senior Pastor and beside a Visitation Pastor. I was happily navigating the process of stepping into the roles that were determined by my job description when a crisis developed.
It was Thanksgiving and the tradition at the church was to have a Thanksgiving Lunch for those who did not have family in the area. As all of the pastors had family obligations, this was primarily a lay driven activity. The problem became that as time went on the people who were making the Thanksgiving Lunch aged and new more able bodied people did not step up to help. The elderly folks felt a great need to have the lunch so it went on even though it was beyond the leaders physical capabilities.
One of the wonderful men of the church who was from that stoic WWII generation kept the Thanksgiving Lunch going and worked very strenuously. Apparently, something at the lunch required that he use a ladder. He knew he had over exerted himself but he kept quiet and he and his wife went home after everything was cleaned up.
Not long after his return home, he realized he was in some sort of medical crisis. He thought that if he sat in his chair it would pass. It didn’t. His wife called the ambulance and they headed off to the nearby hospital.
As I was relatively new to the congregation and certainly new to being a pastor I was the last person the church people thought to call in the crisis. First, they called the Senior Pastor and they didn’t get a response. They tried all of his numbers, left messages and checked in with his friends but they couldn’t reach him. Next, they went through the same process with the Visitation Pastor and they desperately hoped to reach him as they were close friends. But, alas, no one knew how to reach him. Finally, late into the crisis, someone called the committee chair who oversees the pastors and he realized that their last hope was to call me. When I got the call I immediately gathered up my 2nd grade daughter and we rushed to the hospital.
I was preparing her for her first emergency run to the hospital while my seminary training was scrolling through my mind. I had already purchased a Book of Worship for my car and a small Bible so I knew I had those resources with me. I mentally flipped through services for crisis situations. I was as prepared as I could be.
When we arrived at the hospital, I saw a little cluster of folks huddled together so tightly it looked like they were in danger of falling to the ground if they separated from each other. I searched out a waiting room for my daughter and approached the group gently and in hushed tones concerned that I might be invading a space in which I wasn’t wanted or welcome. The group broke apart as they told me that there wasn’t any hope. He had experienced a major heart episode and they were going to take him off of life support immediately.
I quickly told his wife that we have a Service with the Dying that I could lead if she was interested. I was tentative but serious in my desire to be of help in the situation. My heart was pounding. Would I find the words? Would I know what to do? The wife was stoic and yet very fragile. She almost whispered that she would like the service. To be sure I heard her correctly I asked her again and then we headed off to complete the task.
I had no time to prepare and had never done or seen anyone else do the service. We went into the room and the wife almost fell to the ground immediately upon seeing her husband. One of their male friends stood at the feet of the bed and seemed to will us all to “keep it together.” The two women stood quietly and tentatively beside the wife understanding that we were walking in a very fragile space.
The friends tried to decide if they wanted to take off his wedding ring. His hands were swollen and the gentleman struggled to try to take off the ring. These are the absurd types of choices one has to make in such moments. Does he die with his wedding ring off or on? Finally, the wife said, “He has had that ring on for more than 50 years; it isn’t going to come off now!” The strength and resolve of that statement bolstered us all.
The nurses came in and unplugged the equipment and took him off of life support. I don’t know why there was a rush to do this but for some reason everything seemed to be happening at a frantic pace. I began the short service. It was only a few paragraphs long. When I said the last line of the last prayer which was: “May you rest in peace and dwell forever with the Lord, Amen.” he took his last breath.
We were all stunned. It was that fast and that simple. We couldn’t quite believe that his life was over in one breath that perfectly coincided with the last sentence and the completion of the service. His last breath was his Amen to life on earth. His wife checked his pulse and his breath. She told herself as she told us, “He is really gone.”
After his release, there wasn’t anything frightening in the room. The frantic rush was over. The terror had ended. There was purity and holiness in the midst of the shock and loss of a lifetime partner, lover, and friend…but there was also peace. The air in the room seemed to blow around us and we were all able to breath. Faith embraced us in that powerful moment.
The wife, now widow, was never able to express with words the power of that moment. We looked at each other over the years and I could see that she knew what I knew and that was that God was with us. Our small little gathering that day became the church and together with the movement of God we experienced the gift of her husband leaving us as faithfully as he had served us.
The other gift of that incredible moment was that when I said, “Amen.” I became a pastor. Everything else in my life that lead up to that moment was simply a prelude. In that brief pause I stepped into holy space. Getting my graduate degree from Duke did not make me a pastor. The special ceremony that was held at Annual Conference did not make me a pastor. Getting my first appointment did not make me a pastor. The day I was called to be present with this man and his beloved was the day I was invited into the Holy of Holies, experienced the movement of the Holy Spirit and became a pastor. It was a powerful, Amen.