My Internet Monk career began with an interview about something that Michael Spencer was struggling with — how Christians deal with death and dying. I wrote the following as an introduction when I edited and re-posted the original article in 2011.
On November 17, 2009, I wrote my first post for Internet Monk. Actually, it was an interview that Michael Spencer did with me called,“Chaplain Mike Mercer: Evangelicals And The Pastoral Care of the Dying: The IM Interview.”
…My work is one area of my life right now where I have a positive sense of the presence and activity of God. Being able to minister in a pastoral fashion to my neighbors has kept me spiritually hydrated as I’ve wandered the post-evangelical wilderness with regard to the church and as I’ve struggled with other issues related to mid-life.
But this is not really about me. It is about the God who is at work behind closed doors, where family members sacrifice greatly to care for dying loved ones. It is about the privilege of being able to go to them and show kindness and concern. It is about knowing that God has gone ahead of me in each encounter, that I am entering a story that has been being written for many years, and I may have a part to play. It is about working on a team of talented, compassionate people, who use their gifts and work together to bring peace to patients and their families.
It is the most Jesus-shaped thing I have ever been involved with.
I thought it only right to make one of my final posts about this theme that is so much a part of my life.
So, today (Tuesday) I did a funeral for one of the funeral homes in the city. Occasionally, they ask me when the family doesn’t have a minister. It gives me an opportunity to step outside of the hospice world and walk with folks through others kinds of death and grief experiences.
This one was certainly different. A woman my age went to bed one night last week, cuddling one of her dogs. Her husband let her sleep in because she’d had a long day. Then he made her an egg sandwich and took it in to her. She did not respond. He tried to shake her awake, and then he felt her cold, stiff arm and the chill skin on her cheek.
She had no previous health concerns. In fact, she had been taking care of him over the past few years because he had developed some serious problems. By all accounts, she was a vibrant, enthusiastic, outgoing, active person to the end. She was planning on retiring next month so that she could enjoy a retirement season pursuing artistic and travel interests along with her friends and family.
Then she went to bed. She didn’t wake up.
That was not in the plans.
That was not what anyone — anyone — would ever have expected.
Her family and friends were kind to me and expressed their appreciation for the service, but I would be surprised if they heard a thing.
As I left and made my way to the office, one of our nurses called and asked me to come pray for a patient who was close to death.
This octogenarian African-American woman has been with us a few weeks, and I observed some tension and interesting dynamics on an earlier visit. When I arrived, she was breathing rapidly in shallow spurts. Her son and daughter and their kids and grandkids were moving in and out of the room, while those in charge of caregiving were asking questions of the nurse, getting instructions about medicine, and making a plan to employ enhanced comfort measures. I went to the kitchen and sat with the daughter, said a brief word of condolence, and she started crying and lamenting as she anticipated losing the one she called her “best friend,” the central pillar and support of their family.
Then I heard stories from her and others about why the family needed Granny so badly. Stories of ingratitude, stealing, addiction, purposelessness, even murder. This woman had raised two sets of children born to other family members already. She’d even spent the last year of her life doting on a grandchild who had taken every gift and generous gesture and had, in turn, abused this dignified matriarch who had so freely shown her such kindness.
There were responsible, caring grandkids and greats as well, and they were the ones here now, weeping at the bedside, giving her loving attention, and supporting each other. At the right time, we gathered together around her and prayed and sang. One of the family played a gospel song she used to play every Sunday morning, a song about climbing the mountain and making one’s way home to God.
I was there for a good hour and a half and probably didn’t say more than a half dozen sentences until we prayed. Didn’t really need to. They said it. Some of them needed the chance to get close and say their peace to Granny and to update each other about what was happening. And I found it hard to improve many of the silences that blessed our time together.
She’ll die soon. I don’t know if I’ll see any of them again. I got dropped in for a particular moment. Maybe I helped, maybe not. The challenges they will face in the days and years to come I’ll never know and I fear the worst. No way I could begin to help them with all that. In my past life of messianic self-conceit, it would have felt like a failure and it would have bothered me and brought me down. But today I left feeling satisfied that the seeds I was meant to sow had been planted. I’m available to them if needed and it works out that I can be there, but I also know that I’m part of a whole team of trustworthy people with a lot to offer.
Whatever happens next, I’m sure I won’t forget these two families. They’ve become part of me now and I’ll be processing my experiences with them — brief though they were — for a long, long time.
I have a sneaking suspicion that, in the end, they will have helped me more than I helped them.