Almost twenty years ago the phone rang and a familiar voice said, “Pastor, this is Dorothy. The doctors say Don won’t make it through the night and he is asking for you.” I told her I would be right there. I got dressed, put a ball cap on, brushed my teeth and jumped in my jeep to head to St. Joseph’s hospital in downtown Denver.
Don was a thin man when he was healthy; his respiratory illness had withered him still. He reminded me of the actor Hume Cronyn. He was a kindly and soft-spoken man. I never heard a cross word come out of his mouth. He and his wife were faithful, loving, and loyal members of the church. They were favorites.
But after all the prayers, and all of the steroid treatments, Don’s lungs were filling with fluid and growing weaker by the day, and then the hour, and now the minute.
As I drove downtown my mind raced for words of comfort: verses of scripture, lines from hymns, prayers I might offer. I asked God to give me words to help. I felt a need to be infused with wisdom beyond my years and answers beyond my education.
Somewhere on Sixth Avenue, a snake of a thought entered my brain. I don’t know how it got in there; maybe it had been there all along and just needed the warmth of this pastoral moment to stick its head out of its hole. But slowly and surely it slithered its way to the forefront of my mind and curled up there as if to give warmth—or maybe to take warmth in a reptilian way.
“They didn’t call anyone else, Joe. They only called you. He wants you to help him pass through to the other side. See, you are somebody.”
If you read that again, you can hear a hiss.
I felt a swelling in my heart. I felt pride. I sat straighter in the seat. I hung my hand over the steering wheel and did my best to look cool and official in the darkness of that early morning drive to the hospital. No one was there to see the swelling of my chest or tilt of my head. It was just me, that hissing thought and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
How could I siphon off the energy from this tender moment and use it for ego-enhancement? I was disgusted with myself. At the parking lot and with every step to the glass doors and inside the elevator, I prayed that God would forgive my macabre and inflated sense of self-importance and the fleshly arousal at the death of a saint and replace it with something to say or do that would help bring comfort.
My breath grew short and shallow; my mouth went dry as I entered the room. The hum of machines was muted and the smell of hospital was stringent. I was filled with awe. My ego was hiding in its hole; after all, it is a coward in the presence of eternity, and death was ripping a portal into that eternal realm right there in the room with Don. Soon the Holy Spirit would scoop up this saint and take him home. This is no place for the trivial.
I prayed the only words that came to me, “Father, help us.” I couldn’t remember any scripture, hymns, or poems. My head was an empty vault. That’s all I had. I repeated it over and over. “Father, help us.” I put my arm around Dorothy and held Don’s hand until his chest quit rising and falling and he died.
We stayed in the room as long as the medical staff would allow. Then they asked us to step outside. I held Dorothy while she wept in my arms in the harsh light of the hospital corridor. We walked to the little side room where various members of the family were waiting and weeping. I told her I would inform the prayer chain at church and we would begin the planning of meals. She nodded and thanked me for coming and went to each family member—one by one—and they hugged and wept.
I watched from the hallway as an outsider now. It was okay. Don was in better hands and so was Dorothy.
Inside my heart is a toxic cocktail of grace and ego. I am a needy pastor who needs to be needed and at the same time, a dispenser of the grace of the living God. For the life of me, I do not understand why God chose to use such dirty vessels to dispense the elixir of heaven—but He did.
And I do.
Father, help me!