As a minister I’ve visited hospitals a lot over the years, usually for a surgery or sickness that kept the patient in the hospital for a day or two, maybe longer. Occasionally, though, it’s different. Sometimes people are facing the day that in some sense they’ve always feared.
Last week I went to see a Christian friend whose doctors had said those words that no wife or husband, no son or daughter, no parent or friend ever wants to hear: There’s nothing more we can do. Call the family in. We’ll keep him comfortable.
Even when someone has lived his life as a servant of Jesus—as this friend has—it’s sad. Not for the person who’s going to be with the Lord, but for the ones left behind. The sorrow is tempered by hope, but it’s still sorrow. It still hurts those who love him.
A couple of months back a chaplain at a nearby hospital called and said he had a patient from another state who had just been told by her doctors that she had inoperable cancer. She had no family close by, and her church family was hours away, but she wanted a minister from the Church of Christ to come pray with her. I was torn—I was thankful that praying with her might bring her some comfort, but it was hard to walk into that room.
A few years ago I got a call from someone I didn’t know in another state, and she asked if I would visit a relative of hers who was in a local hospital. I agreed, of course, but when I got to the hospital I realized the situation was more serious than I thought. He was alone in ICU and was in critical condition. I prayed with him, and he seemed to understand what was happening, then he stopped breathing. I summoned the nurses, and they walked in and took over. I didn’t know what to do next—what do you do when in an instant someone steps from this world into eternity?
When you’re in the presence of death your first concern is for the people who are most intimately affected—the person himself, and then his family and close friends. You want to do what you can to comfort them, to bring them peace, to help them feel God’s presence.
But then, inevitably, comes self-reflection. This introspection is natural, I think, and probably part of what the Teacher meant when he wrote, “It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting, for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart” (Eccl. 7:2). He’s talking about funerals, but ICUs and ERs probably work almost as well.
That day is coming for me, we think. One day my spouse or parent or best friend will be lying in a bed like that one. What will I wish I had done? What will I wish I had said?
And then even closer to home, one day I’ll be lying on that bed. What will matter then? My hobby, my job? My house, my car, my things?
On that day, I won’t think a lot about much of what occupies my thinking now. I won’t fret over the outcome of the football game, the worrisome noise in the SUV, the minor annoyances of life.
But I’ll want to know that I’ve walked with Jesus. Like my friend in ICU, I’ll want to know that I helped the people around me to know the Lord.
I’ll have regrets, but I’ll find peace in knowing that God won’t hold them against me. Jesus put them on his shoulders and carried them up Golgotha’s hill—every thoughtless word, every unkind act, every impure thought. He became my sin so that I might become his sinlessness. He took on my guilt so that I could be clothed in his innocence.
When that day comes for you and me, that’s all that’ll matter—our life with Jesus, and the corollary effects it had on our relationships with others. Then, when we take that first tentative step into the unseen realm, we’ll fall headlong into the arms of the one who showed his love by becoming one of us. The one who tasted an earthly death so we could avoid an eternal one.
Maybe I can paraphrase the Teacher’s words like this: “It’s better to go to an ICU room than to a dining room, because the hospital teaches us what’s most important.”
p.s. By the way, the doctors were wrong about my friend last week, and he continues to fight for his life. Pray that God will grant him more years of service in the kingdom. Being with him and his family last week spurred many of these thoughts, but I’m not the only one who has learned from his life—and also from how he and his family have faced this difficult time.