Remember that political ad in which the White House phone rings at 3 a.m. and someone has to answer? I know the experience. Sort of.
My phone call came late one afternoon. The caller, a church attendee I knew only casually, said he was at the hospital where his wife, Josie, was dying of cancer and might not last the night. Could I come right away?
Even though this call came many years ago, I'm still embarrassed when I remember that my first thought was something like: Where is our pastoral care staff person? I don't do hospitals. I'm the one who preaches, who leads, who casts vision. Oh, and I'm the one always telling people (from the pulpit) that I love them and care for them.
The caller said his dying wife was terrified. Despite the sedatives she'd been given, she was almost violent and could hardly be restrained. "Perhaps you can say something to her that will help her to relax and go to sleep," he said.
The hospital was a 20-minute drive. As I arrived, a family friend met me and escorted me to the room. On the way she described how Josie was thrashing about in fear. Occasionally she would scream. No one, the friend said, knew what to do. Even the doctors and nurses seemed stymied.
I took a deep breath and entered the room. There were maybe eight people around the bed: a doctor or two, nurses, Josie's husband and a daughter. Then I saw Josie in the bed.
"Josie!" I said as I approached. I said her name firmly, as if to establish my presence with some authority.
"Pastor Mac!" she responded. The circle broke as everyone stepped back to make room for me.
Frankly, I wasn't sure what was appropriate for the moment. It's awkward when even the physicians relinquish their space at the bedside to me. All I can remember is that something inside of me said, "Take charge; be a pastor!"
"Josie," I said, "this is a terrible moment for you, isn't it? You must be very frightened."
"Yes, Pastor Mac," Josie replied her eyes darting toward her husband and her daughter. "I don't know what to do. I can't leave them. I have to get better." Then she repeated, "I don't know what to do."
What she really wanted to do was sit up and get out of that bed. I sensed she was about to become agitated again, so I put my hands on her emaciated shoulders and, as gently as I could, pressed her back into the pillow. I remember the powerful silence in the room as everyone else looked on. No one objected to what I'd done so far. Perhaps they thought I knew exactly what I was doing.
An idea came to me. I leaned closer so my face dominated Josie's line of sight, and said: "Josie, listen to me. Look into my eyes. I have a thought for you."
"Yes, Pastor Mac?"
"I want you to listen to some words from God. Just listen! Okay?"
I began, "The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything that I need." I recited Psalm 23 slowly, deliberately, carefully pronouncing each word. Then, "Did you hear me, Josie? 'I'—that's you, Josie—'have … everything … that … I … need.'"
"Yes, Pastor Mac, I heard you." She repeated, "I have everything that I need."
I went on. "God makes me lie down in green pastures. God leads me beside cool waters. God restores my soul."
I simplified the psalm a bit and repeated the words. "God … makes … me … lie … down … God gives me cool water … God brings strength to my heart."
"Did you hear that, Josie?"