I spent yesterday afternoon with a friend who had been referred that morning by his physician to Hospice. Treatment is no longer an option for his condition. It was now time to make him comfortable – treat the symptoms of the disease at home, not in the hospital. It was a transition day from curative to palliative care.
And yesterday was intake day – the day to meet the Hospice team, to sign papers and rearrange his day to day life to accommodate care takers, nurses, social workers, chaplains and others as needed. My friend lives alone – so coordinating the comings and goings of this well-meaning care-taking crew took some thinking through. But he was on board, understood everything – from why his doctor referred him to Hospice to what lay ahead, day to day.
He answered all the nurses’ questions, embellishing a few with some sweet stories and remembrances. Mixed in with the medical history were some reflections about end of life – what he had always thought it would be like. He was happy to be home and was clear he did not want to ever return to the hospital.
Unseen or heard by the nurses, he expressed ‘how surreal this all was.’ He said something to the effect that life looked so differently just yesterday. More than a few times he whispered, ‘so surreal.’ And I noticed that if he paused too long at that thought, tears would well.
But for the most part it was a business-type day – insurance calls, equipment orders, meds explained, care takers to organize and he made his way through as the business-as-usual person he is. He had visitors coming in the evening, someone to make him dinner and someone else to spend the night. Today a new cadre of caretakers and nurses will visit and stay as the team sets in motion his care-taking for the near future.
I woke this morning with an ache in my heart and thinking how scared he might be waking this morning in this new reality. And in my mind’s eye I saw his face – like a close up from the scene of yesterday’s meeting. He was sitting across me, the nurses to his right, their heads focused on the paperwork they were completing. He was answering coherently all of their questions. I was looking at his face and thinking how healthy he looked – always has – bright eyes, good color, looking at least ten years younger than he is.
But the shot that I saw wasn’t of the room – it was his face, just his face and it was like the camera zoomed in to catch him in the private moment when tears welled up. His lip quivered. I could see him trying to re-set the vision he had before him – to be present in the moment and not allowing himself to look back. Or ahead.
I had resisted in those few moments speaking to the fear he was holding back. I could see him trying himself to ‘not go there,’ by squinting and putting his gaze elsewhere.
In ministry I’ve walked with others through the final season of their lives. It has been a blessing – probably one of the most meaningful blessings of pastoral ministry – to be called at a moment’s notice to pray, or to hold a hand, or to just ‘be.’ I’ve been present when people have died suddenly and unexpectedly, with others over time, and with families in the hours after a loved one’s passing.
But I haven’t before been at the start of a final season with anyone, like I was with my friend, yesterday. And I found myself feeling badly that I hadn’t spoken to the fear I had seen on his face and in his tears. Was that the moment I should have paused the intake session to let him have a moment – or more – to just cry? To pray? To breathe?
And the wondering turned into an evening then bedtime prayer that the Lord show me the way with my friend in the coming months. Where did he need me? What would he want to talk about with me? Did he want to be left alone with just his family?
Though he lives alone, he is not alone. He is a beloved member of his community and his worship community – of a church. That’s the word the Lord sent me this morning in the passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians – to the church in Ephesus- to the local body of Christ. Paul’s words remind me that in our churches we are to bear with one another in love.
I thought of the worship community that my friend is a part of – a sweet, small but mature body of Christ. One of the most active ministry’s of that community is a Prayer Shawl ministry. They gather and in collective prayer they knit shawls, pocket crosses and baby blankets for persons going through a season of trial – physical, emotional and spiritual. Perhaps it was Paul’s use of the word ‘knit,’ that triggered the thought of my friend’s church community.
15But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.
His church is joined and knitted together in other ways. They hold a weekly Healing Eucharist where they pray, get anointed and lay hands on one another – to ‘promote the body’s growth in building itself up in love.’
And as Paul writes, amongst that community are a variety of saints:
11The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, 12to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.
His church – all the members of that little body of Christ, will be walking through this season with my friend. He is not alone. He will be visited by the pastor amongst them, the teacher, the evangelist, the prophet. Each gifted differently to share with him, as he has done with them over the years. Bound together in Christ, in faith and in love he will greet each new day surrounded and held up by this little body of Christ. Like a cloud of witnesses that will hover all his remaining days.
I was comforted this morning with this reminder.
Speaking the truth in love. That is what the Holy Spirit whispered this morning.
Just speak to your friend in love. Truth is, he may be scared – was scared – and does need to talk about that. But yesterday wasn’t the time – he had to get to the other side of the new reality – he had to do the paperwork to set things in motion to this new season. And…most importantly, he is not alone – nor are you. You, too, will be surrounded and held up by the saints of his church. They will show you the way.