Shortly before New Year I visited some members of my new congregation in hospital.
One particular lady stood out: Feisty, full of beans, and with a delightfully wicked sense of humour. She spoke about how she hates hospitals (a sentiment I share wholeheartedly) and wanted to go home. Of the three I visited that day, she was the one I expected to see in church the next time I preached at St George's (which is tomorrow).
To my surprise I received a call on Thursday evening from one of the stewards, who informed me that this lady had undergone emergency surgery and had been moved to intensive care. However, nothing in his voice conveyed any indication that things were critical, so I told him that I would visit him the next morning (which was yesterday).
When I got to the hospital, I don't know which one of us was more shocked to see the other - her, because of the sight of me in short pants (I spent yesterday moving cupboards around and putting up notice boards in our church's new offices, which would have made long trousers and Tupperware rather uncomfortable), or me, as I saw her with an oxygen mask and more tubes than I normally see under the bonnet of my bakkie! Still, even though the mask hindered her speech markedly, she still sounded upbeat as she told me the nature of her operation.
I prayed with her, and promised to visit again next week.
However, just as I was about to crawl into bed at about 10 last night, I received a frantic call from the steward: "The family's here at the hospital - we need you". Still hot and sticky, I got dressed and got down there as quickly as possible.
When I arrived, we shared a short time of prayer with the family while we waited for the nursing staff to finish what they were doing, and then we were called in. I sensed immediately that something was not good because normally the hospital only allows two visitors into the ICU at a time, but this time the nursing staff insisted that the whole family be present - nearly 20 of us in total. The nursing sister then told her husband those dreaded words: "We've done all we can - there's nothing more that we can do", and a number of family members broke down in sobs. It took every fibre in my being not to break down with them in their grief, since after all, as their minister they were looking to me for strength and comfort.
But it was when the machine's pulse indicator went suddenly from 81 to zero that we knew that it was all over. And that's when I really experienced the power of God in people's eyes as her husband said goodbye to her in one of the most moving prayers I have ever heard anyone pray. The other pastor who was present (representing a number of the children who were members of his congregation) and I then joined together in a prayer, committing her to the open, welcoming arms of Jesus.
We then left the hospital and went home with the family, where I shared a few words based on Jesus' last moments on the cross, followed by a time of prayer.
I'm still not sure how I managed to ride home shortly after midnight, as my thoughts were in turmoil. Once again I felt completely useless as a minister, for nothing that I said would bring back their beloved wife, mother, and friend. I only pray that my prayers, words from Scripture, and my presence were a source of comfort to a hurting family who, although they firmly believe that she is in heaven with Jesus, will understandably grieve at her passing.
I'm finding out fast that much of ministry is (a) extremely difficult, and (b) involves just "being there" for one's congregation.
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