It was Good Friday. My house looked more like a set for "Rescue 911" than a place of solemn preparation for the pinnacle of the church year.
Barbara, my wife of 15 years, had just gotten home at 3 a.m. after a long shift as a registered nurse at a physical rehabilitation hospital. Her heart started to pound more than a hundred beats a minute. Her pulse raced so fast we couldn't measure it. We tried massage and relaxation exercises, but nothing helped. She said her heart felt as if it were going to explode. Desperate, I called 911.
In the darkness, the emergency medical services unit arrived in our parsonage living room and worked on my normally healthy, 43-year-old wife.
I followed the ambulance to the hospital, my thoughts as heavy as my foot was on the gas pedal. In the early morning hours when many churches were singing "Go to Dark Gethsemane" and reflecting on Christ's agony on the cross, I was deep in my own darkness. Barbara had always been the trim half of our marriage. (I can't stay away from bratwurst, and I have the waistline to prove it.) She had been working long hours to help pay off both my seminary and her nursing school debts. Was it too much for her? I wept as I thought the unthinkable.
At the emergency room, it took two hours to stabilize Barbara's heart. My wife lay in a hospital gown, hooked up to IV tubes, breathing with the aid of an oxygen mask. It looked wrong; it didn't fit this youthful, active woman.
When her atrial fibrillation was finally controlled, Barbara was admitted to the intensive care cardiac unit. She had another episode on Saturday, which the doctor again brought under control. It wasn't a heart attack, he said, but because her father died of heart disease in his 50s, he wanted to be cautious.
Around noon on Saturday, Barb finally slept. I too was exhausted. I felt 10 years older. After calling family members, I realized she needed her rest more than she needed my presence.
I returned to our empty parsonage, facing an Easter I couldn't cancel and didn't have much heart for.
I prayed, wept, and pleaded for God to give me the strength to be both a good husband and a good pastor. Lent had been a hard season in our rural area, with frequent blizzards and ice storms. The people expected—and deserved—a real Easter. As at many churches, Easter was our best-attended service of the year. They needed a worship leader who could invite them into the presence of the Risen Lord.
The question pulled at me. How can I celebrate Easter when I'm living Good Friday?
I called a couple of local pastor friends. They empathized, and in response to my question "How does one do Easter with a wife in intensive care?" they said, "You tell me how you did it, so I will know if it ever happens to me."
I prayed some more, cried some more, and paced the room. I was tired but couldn't sleep. I had put together my sermons in rough outline form, but they weren't as polished as my Myers- Briggs "J" personality expected (a "J" type craves order and a sense of completion). I read and reread the biblical texts.
Finally a seminary classmate called me from out of state at 11:30 that night. He asked me what I planned to preach on Easter Sunday. I responded by pouring out my heart to him. My friend gave me a couple of thoughts to hang onto.
"First, Christ is Savior and rose from the grave," he said. "Dave, you are not Christ. You will find the energy to do Easter. Second, Barb knows you love her. She wants you to be the best pastor you can be on Easter morning."
Though I barely got three hours of sleep the night before Easter, somehow Christ strengthened me the next day. I led the early service, went to our church's breakfast, and was able to proclaim to the large (for us) crowd of 123 at the second service the eternal message: "He is risen!"
The choir sang, we served Communion, and the crucifix on the altar was replaced with the statue of the risen Christ. Throughout my chanting of the liturgy and prayers, I stared at the statue of the risen Christ and drew strength from it. I was told that I preached one of the finest Easter sermons of my ministry at the church.
When the Communion server gave me the bread and wine and said, "Take and eat; this is the body and blood of Christ, broken and shed for you," it struck me: Christ is present with us in all his majesty—just as he is with Barbara in the ICCU.
After church I found Barbara in great shape at the hospital. Two of our clergy friends had visited her. Our congregation was extremely supportive; I found pies, cookies, and treats at our doorstep and on my desk at the church. Barbara returned to health.
We concluded that Barb's working two jobs to pay off our bills wasn't worth her life. We arranged for a longer time period to make our payments, but I can live with that. There's a lot I've learned to live with. Our priorities changed dramatically, thanks to the Easter weekend when we truly lived—not just observed—the journey to new life.
David Coffin is a Lutheran pastor in Ohio.