The following is a chapter of the book I am working on. It tells of the first time I parked in the clergy parking spot and why I still do.
When I started my job as a student supply pastor, I had some experience. I had experienced preaching and strategic planning, some discipleship, but little in the way of pastoral care and almost nothing in the context of hospitals. My first few months at the church were very quiet pastorally. I was preaching, ironing out a few difficulties with the decision making structure, and working on a few events that I was inheriting. A week before finals of my third term in seminary, I got a call that Margaret was in the hospital. I was not ready for Margaret.
Margaret was not a member of my church. In fact, I had never met Margaret. She was a family member of one of my members. She had been fighting cancer, but was losing the fight. We had prayed for her during joys and concerns on several occasions. She had gotten very odd in her behavior and had been very sick. The call that I got stated that she was in a coma-like state and that she probably would not recover. I did not believe that she went to another church, so I went into this visit with the understanding that this was probably going to turn into my first funeral.
I still remember going to the hospital. I was 27 years old and not even a year into seminary. What could I bring to this situation? I did not even know how to get into this hospital since I had never been there, let alone find the right room. It sounds silly, but I had never gone to a hospital when I did not already have a room number. I felt so inadequate in that moment that I could not bring myself to park in the clergy parking spots. I parked next to them, as if I were almost a clergy but was not yet one.
I stayed in my car and prayed for what seemed like an hour. I did eventually find the courage to enter the hospital. I believe that God gave me a perspective on what to do in that room. The image that came to me was that of the Incarnation. I believe that Jesus, in the power of the Holy Spirit, was already present in that hospital room. He can only be there in Spirit since He is with the Father. I was to be His body. I was to go in there and be the physical representation of His presence that was already there and would still be there when I left. I did not need high and lofty words or some prayer that was going to make things alright. All I had to do is show up and be sensitive to what the Holy Spirit was already doing there. At this realization, I finally got out of the car and entered the hospital.
I was shocked as I entered the room. I have seen people who were dead before, but not people who are almost dead. As Margaret’s body was shutting down, her ability to do things like eat or breath properly were greatly diminishing. I was shown a few pictures in the room but none of them really looked like her. She was thin to the bones, pale, and laboring to breathe. I knew when I walked in the room that she was going to die soon.
I have had very few encounters in my life where mortality has really been before me. I have been in a couple car accidents. I experienced the death of two grandparents but I was not especially close to them. I have also been to a few other funerals of people I did not know well. As I walked into that hospital room, the weight of mortality struck me a lot more than I expected. I am sure the clinical setting had something to do with this. I had my tonsils out as a kid and a few trips to the ER growing up. My wife had two knee surgeries and two children (at the time) from very smooth cesareans. The hospital was neither comforting nor welcoming. It was not particularly scary either. It was unfamiliar. I am sure this heightened my sense of mortality and compounded my own feelings of inadequacy.
The experience in that room was not what I expected. I am not sure why I had expectations since they were not based on personal or pastoral experience. I expected the mood to be one of sadness and mourning. What I walked into was actually a vigil of a group of people telling stories about Margaret. I have heard grief described as a fog. Suddenly this image made sense. There were lulls in the conversation where the people in the room would stare off into space and they would not seem to be thinking of anything. These pauses were ended as someone would begin another story of Margaret.
Selfishly, this vigil was great for me. I did not know Margaret and these stories were glimpses into Margaret’s life. They would be important later as I prepared her funeral so I took them all in. I did not have to speak much at all. They wanted to share their stories with me. They were probably tired of telling them to each other over and over again. The pauses in conversation also seemed natural and important as people faced the reality of losing Margaret.
In only a few minutes that room did not feel like a hospital any more. The formality of the room remained, with its cold floor, tubes, monitors, and, of course, Margaret dying in her bed. Despite these reminders, a peace swept over me. It seems odd, but this was a crystallizing moment for me. I suddenly understood that I was born to do this. I was right where God wanted me. I felt so honored to represent Jesus in those moments. I am a pastor! I cannot see myself doing anything else.
I sat for over an hour in the cycle of stories and silence. I gained a great deal of knowledge concerning Margaret’s life that day. She was much loved. She had many times opened her home to friends and family. Margaret had been the rock and the glue for a group of friends and family that had gathered for vacation every summer. Before I left I prayed with the family. I am somewhat ashamed of my own hesitancy to pray. I think I still had a subtle feeling in the back of my mind that I did not belong there or at least a lack of confidence in what I should say.
As I left, I was so sad for the family. At the same time, I felt excited that my call had been so confirmed with me. I was still not totally happy with how I had handled myself. Had I been too passive during this visit? Surely there was something I could have said or done to be of more help. I realize now that I had every reason to be overwhelmed. This situation was overloaded with subtext- things going on under the surface of the conversation. There were all kinds of thoughts, pains and worries swirling in the room disguised as whatever we were talking about. Every person in this room was telling stories that really boiled down to how their own life intersected with Margaret’s life.
We all wish we had magic words. They right verse, phrase, poem, or insight that would make the world right in the face of loss and grief. If those words existed, we would all use them. But here is the fact–they do not exist. All we have is hope in God and the support of one another. Sometimes words make things worse.
I do not think that I needed to say much or point out Christ in this situation. By my mere presence I represented both a faith and a tradition that did not need to be defended or expounded. I got to use words at the memorial service the next week. I spoke about how Christ understands personally what we go through. He was betrayed, killed, anxious over His death, and even lost a loved one. We can look to Christ for our hope now and we can hope in a future where there is no more cancer, suffering, or death. While we long for this now, we hope and pray that Margaret was not longing for it any more.
God used this situation as a formative experience for me. It confirmed my sense of call. It set my own pastoral theology. It showed me the essence of hospital visits. I am thankful for these lessons and for this opportunity to reflect on them. Now, when I go to the hospital, I park in a clergy parking spots. I do this not because I feel that I am now good enough. Instead, I park there because I am called to park there. That is both a scary and an awesome privilege.