It was late Wednesday afternoon as I reached Rita’s home to arrange the music for Sunday’s service. Late for her, as she needed to fix the family meal; and late for me, for after we had worked out the details together, I still had an hour’s drive before I could enjoy my own meal.
I had been the part-time interim pastor for a year since the previous pastor had resigned, so the church had been depressed even before I started. Yet the new people God had brought among us were unburdened by past troubles, and their enthusiasm had lifted everyone’s morale. New people like Gordon and Rita, whose respective administrative and musical gifts became vital parts of our healing and our confidence to move forward in faith.
Nearing the open front door, I noticed Rita with her back to me. She was using her hallway phone, but turned around at my knock and beckoned me to come inside. I nodded, but preferred to wait until she finished her call before entering.
I could see concern behind her smile, but I followed her – and my nose - through to the kitchen table, where the aroma of the oven’s contents infused its own distraction into our discussion. Then, before we committed the details into God’s blessing, I asked if we could include the concern from her phone call in our prayer.
“Joan just told me that her dad is in hospital. He is dying of cancer and the whole family is there with him. They aren’t Christians, but she knows I am, and she doesn’t know what to do.”
We prayed for God to reveal his glory within our worship and within the pain that Joan’s family was going through. As we closed, I suddenly sensed God’s prompting to go to the hospital for whatever time I could have with this family; though Joan was the only one I’d met and then only briefly.
On a budget hit-list for demolition, the hospital was old and dark, so the quiet gloom of its corridors was a fitting prelude to the family’s mood.
Joan was waiting at the door to her father’s room, smiling faintly through reddened eyes. “He’s very low,” she choked.
She led me inside, seating me beside the bed which was surrounded by a crowded circle of total strangers. “Dad, this is Rita’s pastor!” she called loudly. With no response from him, and no time to get anyone’s names, I quickly read “Jack” on the nameplate above his pillows.
“Lord, what to say? What to do?” I prayed silently, with no guidance coming during my drive from Rita’s, and reached forward to find his hand already chilled through peripheral shutdown of his circulatory system. His arms and his legs would have been just as cold, since by now only a feeble flow of blood was reaching his brain and other vital internal organs...
Time was evaporating, so with his cold hand in mine I opened my mouth in faith, to hear the words of psalm twenty three: “Jack, the bible says that ‘in the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me. Your shepherd’s rod and staff give me all the comfort I need.’ God is here as your shepherd, Jack, to give you his comfort.”
Comatose, he could not respond. Joan thanked me and led me out to a small waiting room, where she and her husband Joe appraised me about Jack’s British Army commando career.
Immediately I realised that he would have attended hundreds of compulsory church services; that psalm twenty three would have regularly featured in their liturgy; and that God had touched my tongue with some common ground for him.
A few minutes later Joan’s sister came out to us. “Dad’s gone,” she sobbed into our embrace.
Only God knows about the silent conversations he was having with Jack before, during or after my visit, but I’m sure that God accepted him, just as he had accepted the thief who was dying beside Jesus.
Neither Jack nor the thief had anything to offer in response; but an open heart is all God wanted from them; just as he does from me and from my readers, whatever our schedules.
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