Recently I've been giving some thought to the following: who pastors the pastor? And not just me, incidentally. I've got a pastor friend, for instance, who's going through some "baptism by fire" in their life right now. How do we care for those who are called by God to care for us?
I experienced a little bit of it this morning. And the great part is that it was totally unexpected.
I began my day making the half-hour drive to Winston-Salem to see a long-time church member nearing death. The family had called me the day before. So surreal; how six weeks before this 95-year old woman had been driving her car around town. Now, they weren't sure she'd see her 95th Thanksgiving. So she was at the hospital, waiting to die.
I got there around 8:30, but somewhat surprisingly the family wasn't there yet. I called their house - they're on their way, the guy on the other end said. Should be there any time. So I sat with this woman, held her hand, being her pastor because that's what I do.
I'm used to this, by the way. Being the pastor. It's part of my identity now; journeying with folks and families on their sacred ground as they make the transition from this life to the next. And honestly, I'm in awe of the people lying in that bed. What strength! She had told them when she was still lucid and responsive, Don't do anything for me. I want to go when it's time. Which explained the purple "DNR" bracelet wrapped around the wrist of the hand I was holding. What incredible strength and faith that takes. I hope I have it when my time comes.
Little did I know that the pastor who was pastoring was about to be pastored to.
It began with Willard. I hadn't met him before, until he walked in the door of this room and began cleaning the floors. Because that's what Willard does, in this room and in every other room on this hall, and presumably every room on other halls too. Willard wore a grey smock with the hospital name emblazoned across his breast. So sorry if I'm bothering you, he said. I assured him he was not. He moved around the room, cleaning the floors with a grace and purpose that suggested his work was more than punching a time card.
We engaged in small conversation amidst the constant drone of the oxygen machine hooked up to her through all those tubes. You family? he asked me. No, I'm her pastor, I said. An open invitation to either shut the conversation off totally, or steer it in another direction. But Willard didn't fall for either one. He just kept smiling, as he had the entire time; kept talking about what a wonderful day it was, about how every day was a gift. This man cleaning floors finished up his work and said to me as he left, You let your light shine! It felt like a benediction.
The family still hadn't arrived. I waited, continuing to hold her hand. Still being her pastor. I sensed a shadow move across the door's opening, expecting a nurse or someone coming in to take a test. But it wasn't any of these. Instead, it was Tom. I know his name was Tom because it was stitched in the volunteer shirt he was wearing. And Tom had a guitar. He walked up to the bedside with the ease and grace of a man who knew he was standing on holy ground; Moses in the presence of the Burning Bush.
He didn't need to tell me what he was there for - I had already heard him from the rooms down the hall. This is what Tom apparently did; volunteering his time on the acute pallative care unit of the hospital, sharing a song with those facing death and the loved ones standing by their side. I didn't have my minister's badge on, so for all he knew I was this lady's son, just one more person in need of a song.
What music does she like? he asked me. I honestly had no clue. Gosh, I wish the family were there. But she'd been a good Presbyterian all her life so I mentioned a hymn. How about "Amazing Grace," he said. Perfect. And with that he launched into the familiar tune, playing it in the key of D, which seemed strange but comforting, as most songs in D are. He sang it with a rich baritone and simple strumming pattern that caused the lady's eyes to open, even if for a short time. It struck something deep inside her, I could tell. And if I'm honest, it struck something deep inside me, too. For "Amazing Grace" had been my grandmother's favorite song when she was alive.
He played his song for her, of course. That's why he was there. What he didn't know was that he played it for me, too. Pastoring to the pastor. And later I would realize how much I needed Williard and Tom that day; to remind me in their unique way that I'm no less immune to the ups and downs of life; that I also need my spirit lifted even as I was striving to do the same for others.
The family eventually arrived, and I happily switched into pastor mode. I cared for them, consoled them, talked about what would come next, what we would do when the time came. It's a conversation I'm comfortable having when the need arises. Because it's who I am. Because I'm a pastor.
But if I'm honest, I was glad to have that half hour alone; to be in the presence of two people who were doing what came naturally to them, as natural as breathing.
In all seriousness, though, I really do want Tom's gig when I retire.