Charged with bringing spiritual peace to a dying man, Larry Patten finds himself in a conversation about football.
“My father is dying,” the caller blurted.
I’m an ordained minister. Though now working part-time for a hospice rather than serving a church, I still admit to enjoying a Sunday afternoon nap. Not surprisingly, and not all that many years ago, I was napping when the phone rang on a . . . Sunday afternoon.
The caller wanted a United Methodist pastor. Apparently, he’d found my home number through my then church’s automatic answering system’s “pastor on emergency call” choice.
I didn’t know the caller. I didn’t know his father. We established each other’s names and, shifting from nap-to-awake mode, I asked, “Is his death imminent?”
“Yes,” he immediately answered.
I asked where the father was located. The son provided the name of a convalescent hospital. He added that his father had worshipped at St. John’s, a nearby church that shut its doors long before the 20th century had ended. The son also said his mother died five years ago and his father really missed her. I gathered other bits of information, and then said I’d be there in less than an hour.
“Tomorrow would be fine. Or later in the week.”
“Tomorrow? Are you sure?”
“Oh yeah. I mean, he’ll likely die in the next month or two, but I wanted him to see a pastor.”
Hmmm? Maybe the son’s definition of “imminent death” was different than mine?
After reassuring the son I’d visit his father tomorrow, our conversation ended. My nap was officially over. I assume there are clergy thrilled at the opportunity to visit complete strangers. I am not one of them. Some ministry seems less a calling and more an obligation. And so, as a United Methodist pastor (denominationally obligated to a son’s request) and because I made a personal commitment (I promised to visit), I stood beside a stranger’s bed on the next day.
Propped on pillows, his arms were whitewashed sticks at right angles across his chest and the stubby gray hair on his head looked like worn sandpaper. His watery eyes tracked me as I entered the sparse room. Another bed was shoved against the opposite wall. Empty. I introduced myself and quickly determined he knew his son had called me.
“So you were you involved at St. John’s?”
“Naw. Not much.”
I offered several friendly questions about his family and his health, but only received terse answers or silence. No problem. I was willing to wait. I’ve learned that allowing silence can lead to the person eventually sharing more details.
But not all the time.
Fifteen minutes into the visit, I’d exhausted my questions. While he took a stab at some answers, he wasn’t volunteering anything. Again, no problem. After all, I was the stranger at the bedside. Me being a pastor and United Methodist might have been important to his son, but not for the father. For him, I could’ve been Lutheran or Buddhist or selling snake oil and his reaction may have been the same.
At one point, after a glance around the sterile, institutional room, I spotted a solitary football poster hanging on the wall. I asked if he enjoyed sports.
For the next few moments, his eyes sparkled and his responses were enthusiastic. With the family-church-health questions, he was a lock without a key. But now I knew he was a linebacker when he played high school football. When serving in the army, he played pick-up games with a few guys who made the NFL. The San Francisco 49ers were his team. And wasn’t John Brodie (a 49er quarterback from the 1960s and 70s) a master of the clock in the final moments of a game?
Good old Brodie! He knew when to dump a football to buy a few seconds of game time.
Did I bring God’s love to his bedside? Was the visit what the son would’ve wanted, what the father needed? In my then over-scheduled world, I couldn’t visit him regularly and develop a relationship. I could barely cover the emergencies arising from my church’s members.
Was his death imminent? No. And yet, yes. Isn’t everyone veering toward a last breath? Was I glad I visited him? No. And yet, yes. It was mostly an obligation. But maybe, in that stark room, with football a far more popular topic than faith, I reminded him that others cared about him.
Toward the end of our time together I asked if I could say a prayer with him.
He grimaced. “A prayer?”
There was silence. Prayer didn’t seem what he wanted. Reminiscing about John Brodie’s skill with a football relaxed him; religious stuff created discomfort. Sometimes, especially on my best days, I remember that Jesus’ stories avoided religious language. Grateful fathers hurried to welcome home prodigal sons. Ne’er-do-wells and misfits were dragged to a swanky dinner party. The last guy you’d expect to help someone, that lousy Samaritan, was the only one who helped. It’s rarely the fancy phrase of faith that starts a relationship, but swapping stories about life and laughter (and maybe football) can spark moments of true connection.
So I told him, while shaking his hand and wishing him goodbye, that I‘d keep him in my prayers.
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Unedited Photo: Flickr/Homini:)