When I was 22 years old, I watched someone die for the first time.
The first year of my seminary education required chaplain service at a local hospital. Because of meetings and other delays, it was nearly sunset one winter day when I arrived for my two hours of weekly service. I picked up notes about patients who needed visits from the unlit pastoral care office. No sooner did I step into the hallway, a voice boomed on the intercom:
“Chaplain, call ####. Chaplain, call ####.”
I paused. Surely there was another chaplain still in the hospital. Surely one of the staff chaplains was still on duty. Surely no one expected inexperienced me to take that call!
The voice boomed again:
“Chaplain, call ####. Chaplain, call ####.”
Two truths were obvious: the matter was urgent, and I had to make that call.
The nurse told me to come quickly to her unit because a patient was “actively dying.” She gave me the room number and hung up before I could ask the patient’s name. I navigated through elevators and hallways until I stood in front of a door covered with warnings and supplies.
GOWN AND GLOVES REQUIRED.
CHECK WITH NURSE BEFORE ENTERING.
I gathered the supplies and knocked on the door, expecting a family member to call out from inside.
I walked in, gown draped over arm, gloves and mask in hand. There was a small entry at the door where I planned to put on all the necessary garb. Instead, I stopped and stared.
Lying in the bed was a frail, yellowed, wide-eyed person. I could not tell if the individual were a man or a woman. The room smelled of pills, and the only noises were a beeping IV and a gasping noise from the patient’s breathing mask. I was overwhelmed, and I panicked inside.
Where was the chart?
Do I say “ma’am” or “sir”?
Why oh why didn’t I get all the information I needed before walking in this door?
Lord, I didn’t sign up for this!
Feeling helpless and frozen, I finally managed to say, “Hello.” The patient looked at me. Really looked at me. Icy panic that had paralyzed me began to melt. I saw in those eyes an unbelievable fear and desperation. I suddenly remembered why I was here: this individual was actively dying. This child of God was on the threshold of life and death. Inside of this struggling body was a soul crying out for reassurance and comfort.
Then I did what I was not supposed to do: I tossed aside the gloves, gown and mask. I walked to the patient with no latex or paper barrier. I took those bony hands in my bare hands. I knelt so as to look into those pained eyes. I held on gently and spoke softly. I quoted the prophet Isaiah’s admonitions of not fearing when passing through fire and water. I gave thanks for the presence of Jesus himself in that place. The patient shook with sobs.
“What are you doing?!'“
I had not heard the nurse come in. She reprimanded me for not wearing gloves, warning of all the dangers to which I’d exposed myself. I showed her my chaplain’s badge and quietly said, “I did what I needed to do.” She smiled softly and relaxed a little.
A young man and woman entered the room. They sat down on opposite sides of the bed, flanking the patient.
“Daniel, what’s happening?”
“Daniel, can you hear me?”
The young woman turned to me and asked what was wrong. My mouth opened, but no words came out. I didn’t know how to tell someone that his or her loved one was dying.
“He’s dying,” the nurse said from across the room. I gave her a look of gratitude.
Daniel’s companions broke down. I moved toward them and did what I knew to do: comfort, pray, reassure. I learned their names, their relationships to the patient, a bit of his story. As a tear ran down Daniel’s cheek, and his breathing became shallower, I encouraged them to talk to him, to tell him goodbye, to say it was okay to go. Their farewells were beautifully perfect. As they finished, I took Daniel’s hand and said, “Jesus is here. When you’re ready, just say yes to Him.”
In less than a minute, Daniel exhaled for the last time. His face was fuller and brighter. The tears were gone.
As I drove home in urban darkness, I saw only Creation’s light. I had witnessed the depth of the Father’s love and a son brought to glory. I may have reached out to touch Daniel’s hand, but his last moments on earth touched my heart. I had experienced what matters most in this life: God. Loves. People.
The world will give us many reasons to divide ourselves into factions based on politics, doctrine, and prejudice. We don invisible gowns, gloves, and masks not on our bodies but on our hearts, fearful of our differences. It is so easy to forget that we are all wretches made treasure. How desperately we need to remember our desperation.
How desperately we need Jesus.
And oh, how likely we are to find him in the least likely of places.
all good things to each of you,