In the wee hours of this morning, I was called to the hospital to participate in one of the most solemn privileges that comes with the calling to pastoral ministry:
Praying by the bedside of a dying parishioner as she crosses over from this world to the next.
There in the bed lay someone I have known for a little over a year. She and her mother officially joined the church last September. Owing to my negligence in updating the parish register, I will now be adding and removing her name from the roll of active members at the same time.
Over the past year, I have walked with this person through wins and losses, successes and failures, hopes and fears. In short, we’ve done life together. And there we were last night, quickly ending that phase of our relationship much sooner and more suddenly than expected.
Surrounded by family at her bedside, the decision was made to discontinue life-support after the doctors confirmed that there was no higher brain function. When the medical staff had finished their work and left us alone to say goodbye, I unfolded my stole and began to say last rites. After anointing her forehead with oil, I kept my hand on her shoulder as we prayed.
As we began to say the Lord’s Prayer, she gave two or three deep sighs… and smiled gently. And after that moment, she was gone. I’ve seen many amazing things at the bedside of dying or recently deceased people, but never before have I seen a smile come to the face of someone whose brain was no longer functioning. I was so dumbfounded, I almost couldn’t finish the prayer.
In moments such as these, I am reminded of the deep truth that pastoral ministry is not “just a job” and I am not primarily a “professional.” This is a calling. It has less to do with what I accomplish or how many hours I put into the office each week and more to do with who I am and the relationships I form with God’s people.
In the midst of this exchange, there is a very real grace that is communicated. The predominant “low church” understanding is that the role of the pastor is to stand beside the people and point to God’s grace wherever it can be found. Some would say there is nothing special or necessary about the pastoral office, as such. The “high church” understanding, on the other hand, is that the priest is an arbiter of grace via the sacraments and the spiritual authority granted by virtue of ordination.
Personally, I am uncomfortable with both of these simplifications. I have no desire to set myself or my fellow pastors in the position of “gatekeepers” for grace. People can (and should) have dynamic, personal relationships with God that develop outside religious institutions in ways that are entirely unique to the individuals involved. So, there is a sense in which clergy don’t need to be there as the ones through whom God’s grace must flow.
However, the fact remains that we clergy are there and God’s grace does flow through us to touch people’s lives. I got to experience something of that at the hospital this morning. It feels less like a necessity and more like a gift.
The ritual itself, with someone specifically designated to serve in a symbolic presiding function, was a gift to the family as they struggled to say goodbye and commend their loved one to God’s care. It was certainly a gift to me as I was allowed to bear witness to God’s grace at work in the lives of these amazing people. Finally, in some way that I cannot explain, it even seemed to be a gift to our dying sister, even though there was no scientifically observable way for her to consciously participate in the last rites. Her smiling and passing away at the instant we were reciting the Lord’s Prayer may have been just a coincidence, but something deep inside of me is resisting that interpretation.
After we left the hospital, I went home and got some much-needed sleep. Later on, I got up and had lunch with friends at a pancake shop. In the middle of our meal, I got up to take an important phone call and was shocked to discover the deceased woman’s entire family seated at the other end of the same restaurant. We exchanged kind words and warm hugs once again, as we had several times in the days before. One close relative said to me, “I’m glad this happened. I’m really mad at God right now, but running into you like this tells me something. I don’t know.”
Once again, this our collective presence in that particular restaurant at that particular time may have been just another coincidence, but something in me refuses to believe that. I experience this presence as a gift. My privilege is to play a specific role in this unfolding drama. It doesn’t have to come through me, but it gets to. And for that gift, I am grateful.