Stories of mustard seeds and mountains
How the gospel showed up in a hospital room
What 80 years of church will do to a person
by Sue Washburn
I probably should not have had that third shot of espresso. My mind was going a million miles an hour.
I paced as I made phone calls to set up visits with folks in the hospital. In the car I flipped through various songs every couple of minutes. My mind was still buzzing when I got to the hospital; I breathed deeply while an elderly volunteer tried multiple times to get the room number to come up on the computer.
As the pastor of an aging congregation in a small town, my days are not often filled with creative programing for children or passionate discussions in vibrant small groups. They are filled with deeply personal conversations in living rooms and with hospital conversations that require a willingness to be, not just present, but uncomfortable in the moment. Sometimes these visits with medicated patients with hearing loss hardly even qualify as conversations at all. They’re just a matter of being there.
For this particular visit, I anticipated a hard conversation. After months in ICU, the patient was now in a specialized care facility. Tubes snaked down her throat and machines whirred around her bed. But she was more than just a physical presence. She was there. Her eyes showed that she was thinking. She communicated her peace or her pain depending on the day. But as her mouth moved no sound came out because of the tracheotomy. The nurses could miraculously read her lips, but I couldn’t. She had a clipboard on which she could slowly print out her responses. But it was taxing for her and sometimes difficult for me to read.
For years she had faithfully shown up on Sunday for church, singing, praying, and volunteering. And now, I showed up by her bedside on Thursday.
And it was not a good Thursday for her. She seemed agitated and perhaps feverish.
I reminded her that she is God’s beloved and that God is with her in her suffering. We shared a Psalm and did our best to communicate. As we were wrapping up, I asked her a question.
“We continue to pray for you each week at church. Can you write down the one thing you would most like us to pray for? It can be whatever you want. Healing? Comfort? Release? Peace? Faith?”
I watched her write the letters COM with a shaky hand.
My mind jumped ahead, presumptively completing the word: remember to pray for her comfort on Sunday.
When I looked back she’d added letters.
PA . . . SS . . . ION
Oh, compassion, I thought to myself, coming back into the moment. But she kept writing.
It was agonizingly slow.
I took a deep breath.
And there it was.
The gospel written in the shaky hand of an old woman with no voice.
When asked what she most wanted the church to pray for she said,
COMPASSION FOR ONE ANOTHER.
Those spidery words on the page showed what a lifetime of Sundays in church can do to us. It can prepare us to share the love of Christ on a nondescript Thursday, in a hospital, without the power of speech.
The sermon that Thursday was awesome. I’m so glad I was there.
Sue Washburn is a freelance writer and bivocational pastor at Reunion Presbyterian Church in Mount Pleasant, Pennsylvania.