Sunday, November 27, 2011

Be Careful What You Pray For

The other day I was reading about the father of John the Baptist; no, I'm not talking about my neighbor John who is a Baptist, or your neighbor John who is a Baptist; I'm talking about the wild man John the Baptist in the Bible. I've no doubt that John the Baptist would have ridden a Harley had they had bikes in those days, as would have Elijah...but I digress.

John's father's name was Zacharias and he was a priest. I don't know if when he was a kid they called him Zack or not, and I don't know if he played baseball with the neighborhood kids, I am pretty sure he didn't play football because of the whole pigskin thing.

Ok, so I'm reading Luke 1:5-24 and I get to the words of the angel to Zack, "Do not be afraid Zacharias, for your petition [prayer] has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John."

Now verse 7 tells us that Zack and his wife, Elizabeth (was she called Betty or Liz?), were "both advanced in years". That means that they were old. That means that Liz was likely past her childbearing years.

So here's a question, this prayer that the angel refers to that Zacharias prayed (probably a whole series of prayers) - just when was the last time Zack prayed the prayer? Did he pray it that morning? Did he pray it that week? Or had it been so long since Elizabeth had passed her childbearing years that Zacharias just didn't pray the prayer anymore? I've got an idea that it had been years since that prayer was prayed, I've got an idea that Zacharias had long since ceased to hope for a child with Elizabeth.

This is encouraging to me in that I'm sure there are prayers I've stopped praying for one reason or another - but just because I've stopped praying them doesn't mean that they won't be answered - any maybe answered when I least expect it, maybe answered when I've long forgotten about them, maybe answered when I think that there's just no way an answer is possible.

Do you have any prayers like that? If so, hang in there - you never know!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Maureen and Sean – X

Around 10:30 that night a nurse appeared in the waiting room and guided us into an adjacent consulting room to meet the surgeon. While Sean’s injuries were life-threatening at the time of the accident, due to the quick response of EMT’s, the rapid transport to Charlottesville, and the fact that he was in surgery shortly after arriving at the hospital – the long-term prognosis was good. However, because he was pretty banged up there would be an extended time of recovery.

During my drive home that night my thoughts returned to Mike Gunther. About four weeks after Mike’s crash Ray located one of his daughters and found out from her the rehab facility that Mike was in. The facility was in Harrisonburg; Mike was transferred there so he would be close to his family; Mike was divorced and had two adult daughters and one adult son, all of whom lived in the Harrisonburg area.

Ray and I visited Mike a few times during his five-month recuperation; sometimes we visited together and sometimes one of us would drop in if we were in Harrisonburg on errands or other visits. Mike was a pretty big guy, around 6 feet 4 inches; a photo of him and his bike that was on a table in his room showed an auburn beard down to his chest and hair in a ponytail; the beard and ponytail were gone when we met him; while the bike was gone too, totaled in the crash, I had little doubt that one day Mike would ride again if at all possible. On a bulletin board in the room were tacked get-well cards and Mylar balloons that had lost their helium. Some of the cards were store-bought; others were made by his grandchildren.

Because at the time I was still riding my own motorcycle I used bikes as a bridge for conversation. Mike rode a Harley, I rode a Honda, so while Mike probably felt a bit sorry for me (that’s the way some of those Harley guys are) I guess he thought that under his present circumstances that it would be ok if he communed with a Honda rider – and after all, I was a pastor and he probably thought I didn’t know any better about bikes – I mean, what can a man who only works one day a week possibly know about bikes?

About eight months after his accident our church invited Mike to be our guest of honor at a Saturday night fellowship dinner. He came with one of his daughters, her husband, and their 2 children. Mike thanked everyone for their support and prayers, as did his daughter – it was good to see him. I didn’t realize that I’d soon see him again under another set of trying circumstances.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Maureen and Sean – IX

The following morning in our worship service, during our general sharing time, Ray Hammond gave us an update on the biker:

“The ambulance met the helicopter at Johnson’s store on the way to Middletown. Johnson’s was the only place to land at night and the thinking was that if for some reason the helicopter couldn’t land in the parking lot that they’d just continue to Middletown hospital. They almost lost him a couple of times in the ambulance and then again on the flight to Charlottesville. I’m trying to get some information on him and his family so we can see how he’s doing.”

The biker – his name was Mike Gunther – made it through surgeries over the next week and was soon transferred to a rehab facility. I wondered what Sean was going through as I thought about Mike. I wondered if Sean was being operated on. I wondered if Sean would be in a rehab unit. I wondered how Maureen was doing.

After arriving at University Hospital and checking with the front desk I made my way to ICU. As I entered the room Maureen and Sharon were sitting together; they stood as I walked toward them and I hugged them both together.

“How’s he doing?” I asked.

“They’re operating on him”, Maureen said, “we haven’t talked to a doctor yet, it all happened so fast, they did say that he was stable and alert when they got him here and that that’s good news.”

Susan came into the room with 3 cups of coffee. “Hi Bob, can I go back and get you a cup?”

“No thanks, I’m good right now. When did you get here?”

“About two hours ago,” Sharon replied.

“Let’s pray,” I said, holding out my hands as a sign for us all to join hands. We prayed for Sean, for Maureen, for the kids, for the doctors and nurses. We prayed for God’s grace and love to envelope the Coughlin family. I thanked God that Susan and Sharon were such great friends for Maureen.

In our society people can be uncomfortable about praying in public – that’s sad. If we are God’s creation, and if we are His children, then prayer is a natural response to our heavenly Father and it should be a major thread in our tapestry of life. Prayer not only allows us to express our desires to our Father and Lord Jesus, but it also reminds us and those around us that God is with us and that His love and grace surround us. If we are to be the presence of God for others, then part of being that presence, part of being a conduit of Divine grace and mercy, is prayer - including verbal and public prayer.

On the other hand I’m not a fan of prayer at civic functions. I don’t think perfunctory prayer (which such prayer is for most people) is generally appropriate because it can delude people into thinking that God is hovering over the gathering to impart His benevolence on our civic or political or sports agendas – God is not a civil servant whose job is to impart blessing and protection and good feelings to us while we live life as we darn well see fit.

After prayer I walked out in the hallway to call Vickie and tell her that I’d probably be at the hospital for quite awhile.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Maureen and Sean – VIII

As I took the ramp from I-81 onto I-64 east toward Charlottesville, my mind was taken back to a Saturday night a few years previously. We were having a dinner theatre in the fellowship hall, produced by our youth group. The evening had concluded; there were folks in the parking lot leaving while some of us were still inside making sure things were tidy for use the next morning. As I was sweeping the kitchen floor Ron Gentry came running through the front door, “Call 911, there’s been an accident. A motorcycle crashed.”

Vera Green picked up the phone and pushed the numbers while I, along with others, ran outside across the parking lot to Route 11 towards a small group of people gathered in a circle. Inside the circle Ray Hammond, one of the men in the church, was bent over a pretty big man, asking questions, taking a pulse, and giving directions to others about finding coats or blankets to cover him – Ray had been a medic in Vietnam and was a volunteer EMT. Since emergency services in our area were nearly all volunteer, and since the nearest rescue squad was six miles away over dark Route 11, with one lane in each direction, we didn’t know how long help would take.

Ray turned to Frank Bishop and said, “Frank, call 911 again and tell them I think they’d better alert the medi-vac team, he’s going to need to be air-lifted to Charlottesville.”

The thing about a helicopter transport was where in the world would a helicopter land at night in our immediate area with hills, bordered by mountains, with no lights anywhere to speak of, and winding roads? Assuming he was alive when the ambulance arrived, how far would the ambulance have to drive to rendezvous with the helicopter – assuming the paramedics on duty concurred with Ray’s assessment? Or would the ambulance decide to race the 40 some miles to Middletown hospital?

I prayed, we prayed. There didn’t appear to be bleeding, but there wasn’t much response from the man. We gave Ray and the biker plenty of room. A couple of blankets were brought from the church nursery – Ray kept talking to the man – could he hear Ray? When would the ambulance arrive? Had they left the station yet? Who was this guy? He didn’t look familiar. He must have been riding by himself. Why was he in our country town riding by himself at night – a stranger riding through a little town in the hills? There was no baggage on his mangled bike to indicate that he was “touring”.

As I thought back to that night, I wondered how people could be so near death, come back from it…and continue to live as if death would never come, or to live as if death didn’t matter.

It seemed like forever, as it often does in such circumstances, before the ambulance arrived; but arrive it finally did…

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Maureen and Sean – VII

From Middletown hospital Sean was airlifted to University of Virginia Hospital in Charlottesville. Maureen’s mother came to the house to watch the kids and Susan and Sharon were off with Maureen to Charlottesville, a two-hour drive. I was on my way to Middletown when my cell phone made a beep-beep-beep to indicate I had a new voice mail message; I pulled off the country road to listen to the message; cell reception was on again-off again in certain sections of the Shenandoah Valley so the call had come when I was out of cell range. The call was from John who had followed the ambulance from the jobsite to Middletown hospital.

“Bob, they’re flying Sean to UVA in Charlottesville.”

I doubled-backed for a few miles until I hit a road that would lead to the interstate and Charlottesville, the drive would be about two hours and thirty minutes.

On the way to Charlottesville I prayed for Sean, for Maureen, and for their kids. Then I started mentally going through the entire congregation, praying for each individual and family, then I started thinking about each person I knew in town and praying for them. Times like this, reminding me of how fragile life is, are a good motivation to pray.

The unknown hovers over you on drives like this. How is Sean? How is Maureen? What will she find when she gets to the hospital? How are the kids? How is Maureen’s cancer? Sean’s injuries must be life-threatening, is he going to make it? If he makes it will he be able to work? Do they have health insurance?

I visualized every mile of the road, then I visualized the approach to the hospital, then the hospital parking lot. I visualized parking the car, walking into the hospital, going up to the front desk to find out where Sean was, finding Maureen, hearing the news of his condition – that was as far as my visualization went. I knew there would be something waiting for me when I approached Maureen; I knew that this something would be there no matter what the news, no matter what the future; that something was the amazing grace of God; I knew that the grace of God and the Lord Jesus would be right there – and that meant that I could trust Him to walk with me, as a pastor, through the afternoon and evening with Maureen. I didn’t need to know what to do or say when I meant Maureen – all I needed to do was to be there for her and her family and to trust Christ to love us and lead us.

There are things in this life that are beyond answers; but there is nothing in this life beyond the grace of God.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Maureen and Sean – VI

The medical news for Maureen wasn’t good, the cancer was back.

One of many things they don’t teach you in seminary is that vocational ministers live on a continuum of life and death, sickness and health, joy and despair. In any given week babies are born and folks die, not just old folks, but young folks, sometimes very young folks. And the folks that die don’t always know ahead of time that they have an appointment with death – death can be sudden – we just never know.

I was talking to my physician about this continuum once and he said, “They didn’t teach us about this in medical school either”. Now I guess you’d think that doctors and ministers would simply know about the continuum and know that they’re going to experience it – but I haven’t met anyone who had that foresight and who was prepared for the bottom-line reality of life and death on an on-going basis.

Over the next two years or so Susan, Sharon, and others would gather around Maureen and her family, providing childcare and trips to Charlottesville for radiation and chemo. Maureen became a regular in our fellowship, usually sitting with Sharon and Susan – they were like three sisters, they were certainly three dear friends.

In the meantime Sean was back operating his heavy equipment, keeping his business running, putting food on the table.

I was at home in the afternoon, having lunch, when the phone rang. It was John, my parishioner who worked for Sean, “Bob, Sean’s been in an accident. He was grading a hill out on the River’s Bend jobsite and the front loader tipped over – part of him got pinned beneath the equipment and he’s pretty tore up – they’re transporting him to Middletown Hospital.” 

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Maureen and Sean – V

Maureen became a semi-regular at church after that first Sunday. By semi-regular I mean a couple Sundays a month. During the first summer her son, Frankie, attended our Vacation Bible School (VBS) and Maureen helped out on the last night of VBS when we had a cookout for kids and parents. Her daughter, Chalice, learned to walk, speak her first words, and discovered the joy of cookies.

I’d see Sean occasionally at the post office; or at the Old Village Café early in the morning or at lunchtime. We’d talk about whatever construction or road building job he was working on; since he was a hunter, during deer season I’d ask him about hunting – Sean was especially fond of the bow as well as black powder.   

It turns out that Maureen had been raised by a mom who belonged to a Presbyterian church and a dad who was Roman Catholic, so she was accustomed to going to worship services of both traditions. Since our congregation was comprised of individuals and families that represented a number of traditions, with a good many from no religious tradition, we easily assimilated folks into our church family. We were a casual group as churches go, casual in the sense of being relaxed with each other. We were not casual about what we believed, for our focus was on Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and as the only hope for a dying world. But as Susan said one Sunday morning, “When I’m here I feel like I’m with my family – right in our living room, with people I love and with whom I can share my life.” Since the early Christians typically met in homes I was gratified to hear Susan’s comment – after all, Jesus said that others will know we are His followers by the love we have for one another.

Early in our second year at Rock Castle, I was in the Old Village Café having a cup of coffee and waiting for my pastor friend George to meet me for breakfast when Susan and Sharon stopped by my table on their way out after finishing their breakfast.

“Well ladies, what’s your day look like?”

“We’re headed over to Maureen’s”, Sharon said, “I’m going to watch Chalice and Susan is taking Maureen to Charlottesville.”

“What’s going on in Charlottesville?” I asked.

“Maureen hasn’t been feeling good and she’s going for some tests”, Susan answered. “You know, she had cancer about three years ago and they thought they’d got it, she’s been doing fine for all this time.”

No, I didn’t know Maureen had had cancer.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Maureen and Sean – IV

Months passed without seeing Sean again or meeting his wife, Maureen. Then, one Sunday, a young mother came to church with two children, one a baby girl about a year old and the other a boy who looked to be about five years old. She sat with a couple of younger women (Susan and Sharon) in the back, and I could tell from the hugs and greetings that they knew each other. Making my way over to them during my “meet and greet” time before the worship service, I was introduced by Susan:

“Pastor Bob, this is Maureen Coughlin.”

“Well hi Maureen, glad to meet you and great to have you here with us, I’ve been looking forward to meeting you. How’s Sean doing?”

“Oh he’s doing ok, been back to work for a while.”

“I heard from John that I gave him quite a scare when I visited him in the hospital.”

“That was funny, we had a good laugh about that. Though he really was pretty sick.”

Maureen was quite the contrast to Sean; he was big, really big, she was little; he had a voice you could hear across a football field, she was soft spoken, almost to a whisper. In all the time I knew Sean I hardly ever saw him smile – Maureen smiled often. When Sean was in a room you knew it; Maureen, on the other hand – well I guess it was the difference between billowing smoke from a barbeque coming at you compared to the fragrance of a rose that takes you by surprise when you walk past it.

After the worship service, as I stood at the back of the sanctuary greeting people, I told Maureen to tell Sean that I said “Hi” and that I hoped we’d see her again.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Maureen and Sean – III

The day after visiting Sean in the hospital I saw John at the post office.

“Hey Bob, you sure put a scare into Sean,” John said.

“What do you mean?”

“He called me as soon as you left his hospital room and thought he was going to die.”

“Going to die?” I asked.

“Yes,” John continued, “Sean’s Catholic, so when you came into the room he thought you were there to give him Last Rites. He figured he was sicker than he was being told and that they’d called for a priest, but that they couldn’t find a priest on short notice so they got you to come to pray with him because he was close to death.”

“No kidding?” I smiled.

“I told him that he was going to live as far as we all knew and that you just wanted to drop in and meet him.”

Sean did indeed live – though he would have a brush with death in the not too distant future. But did he really live? Is he living now? It’s funny how we use that word “life” or “living” or “death” or “dying”. It can be used in different contexts to mean different things. There are those who are alive but yet are dead; and then those who are dead but yet are alive.

A hospital visit is how I met Sean. Now about meeting Maureen…

Friday, November 4, 2011

Maureen and Sean* – Part II

I don’t know that I’ve ever felt pressure to say anything during a hospital visit. I don’t go to hospitals to say things to people; I go to hospitals to be with people. Oh, I also go to hospitals to pray with people. To listen to people, to be with people, to pray with people – that’s what I do in hospitals.

People in my parishes have had the idea that if they visit someone that they have to have answers – where did that idea come from? It’s a debilitating thought because it stops people from being with people; it hinders people from being with people who need people to be with them. This is exacerbated by the business model of clergy and churches in that pastors are first expected to operate a successful church, not to care for their people. Just as salespeople are measured by their sales numbers, so pastors are measured by how many people are in the pews and how much they’re giving – how did we come to accept that idea?

I like to take people with me on visits because I want them to see how to be with people; listen, then pray – pretty basic. We think we have to “do” something when we’re with people; we think we have to make things happen – that’s nonsense. When we think we have to “do” something we usually end up doing the wrong thing and making things worse – people in pain, people in uncertainty, people facing the unknown, first need us to be with them; let God do the work, we just need to be available. Oh, and did I mention that we should pray with people?

Sean was dozing when I walked into his room, so I just stood for a minute or two until he sensed someone there.

“Hi Sean, I’m Bob Withers, John’s pastor. He told me you were here so I thought I’d come see how you’re doing.”

“I’m doing better today. When they brought me in here a couple days ago I’d lost about 25 pounds and was weak as a fawn. I guess I’m still not that great but I’m better than I was.”

Sean and I talked for a while. I asked him about his family and business and how long he’d been sick. Nurses and aides and cafeteria people moved in and out of the room as they tend to do during hospital visits. I excused myself for a few minute when an aide helped Sean with the bedpan drill. After 20 minutes or so I knew it was time to go and that meant that it was time to pray.

“Sean, I’d like to pray with you – is that okay?”

“Sure.” (What did you expect him to say?)

I placed my hand on Sean’s shoulder and prayed for his family, his health, his healing, his business, and that our heavenly Father would draw Sean and his family close to Him, that they would know the incredible love and care of Jesus Christ.

Listen, ask questions if you need to in order to have things to listen to, be with people, pray with people; those are the basics. Pretty simple, yet we don’t do them enough.

Right after I left Sean picked up the phone and called John…  

*The names and some details have been changed for various protections, but no change has been material to the actual story.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Maureen and Sean* – Part I

“My boss is in the hospital, he’s pretty sick.”

“What’s going on with him?” I asked.

“Looks like Lyme disease,” John replied.

“I’ll go visit him tomorrow,” I said.

I’d only been in town a couple of weeks and was just finding my way around geographically and feeling my way around relationally. A small town with a new pastor, a new pastor with a small town; what are the people like? What is the pastor like? How does this “getting to know you” dance work? There weren’t any lectures on this in seminary.

I hadn’t met Sean yet. By all accounts he was a hulk of a man, a heavy machinery operator who owned his own equipment – self-reliant, self-sufficient, making his own way, making his own way his way. He employed John, one of my parishioners, and a couple of other men – when the work was there things were good – when it wasn’t – which usually meant the winter, things were not so good. One thing was certain, Sean’s business depended on Sean…and Sean’s family depended on Sean. If Sean had Lyme disease that could be a problem, that could be a very big problem.

Meeting people and getting to know them was my job – that’s what pastors do, or at least that’s what this pastor did. It’s kind of ironic in retrospect, for I’m an introvert and I used to be painfully shy and introverted. The idea of walking into a hospital room to meet someone I didn’t’ know would have been terrifying to me in one stage of life, but hey, you gotta do what you gotta do and I’d pretty much gotten over the painful part of introversion a number of years ago – though I guess I’ll always have my moments.

The next day I drove the forty miles to the medical center in Middletown; this would be my first visit to the hospital and I wondered what it would be like. I wondered what Sean would think of a strange pastor coming to visit him. I knew Sean had likely been raised Roman Catholic, after all his name was Sean Coughlin and we lived in a region in which Roman Catholics made up over 50% of the population; I hoped he wouldn’t mind a Protestant pastor dropping in on him for a few minutes. This would be a good opportunity to meet the employer of one of my congregants; more importantly, it would be a good opportunity to share the grace of Jesus Christ.  

*The names and some details have been changed for various protections, but no change has been material to the actual story.