When people first find out I’m a pastor, they always ask about my congregation. I never know what to say…
First off they aren’t “mine.” And secondly, my congregation is unusual. They don’t know each other. They are hospice patients, their families and their friends. Oh, here and there, they discover that they are, possibly reluctantly, part of a special community. But most of the time, they are journeying alone. As their hospice chaplain, I try to offer the common threads of hope, grace, and faith. I keep confidential the questions and fears that they might not bring up with their own clergy. I pray a lot… oh do I pray!!
Sometimes I bring a message of healing. Sometimes my words are full of mourning. And sometimes, I can only sit with those who grieve and wish for a different time, a different place, even a different ending to this life that they are clinging to so desperately. I gently hold a hand, or pat their hair. I anoint them and offer prayers of commendation and peace. And sometimes, many times, I do nothing. I hold silence.
My worship services can be anywhere from four words (may God bless you) to a sermon on end-of-life. Those sermons are difficult, too. I’d love to be able to say to someone “it’s going to be OK.” But most of the time, I know this gentle process of saying goodbye, of leaving life behind, can be so terribly painful and slow. And it’s so very NOT OK.
Every now and then someone in my congregation will burst forth with a hymn. It always startles me. I don’t know why, after all, since we are creatures of worship and praise, known and loved by our amazing Creator!
From day to day, I never know what will happen. Will that be a fresh set of goodbyes? Will it be a thoughtful conversation? Will it be a visit in silence? Or, will it be a firm but polite “no thank you” as their agenda and needs will be handled elsewhere?
As I drive from place to place, I think about these who are nameless, faceless ones to you. You’ll never see a “church directory.” They are still real, questioning, wondering, hoping, hurting people. They represent different faiths, families and zip codes.
They are each one known personally, tenderly, completely by a loving God, just as I am known… If I did not believe that I would not be Called to this congregation. “My” congregation.
I am blessed to be their pastor. Their chaplain.
“Who I really am, you know me. I am yours, O God!”
– from The Prison Poems of Dietrich Bonhoeffer