A Mighty Warrior
“A pandemic is a cruel time to die,” I mutter to myself under my breath. I am in the foyer of a palliative care home. I have been through security, filled out the barrage of COVID paperwork. I make my way over to another desk, get my temperature checked. All is good, I am told. To the best of anyone’s knowledge, I am not carrying the plague. I walk down a long hallway armed with the two security codes that I will need to finally be granted limited access to a dear old soul whose race looks nearly run. “It was easier to get into the local prison than this fourteen months ago,” I grumble to myself.
She’s staring out the window when I arrive. She seems a weird combination of vacant and restless. I wonder what the last fourteen months have been like for her. Incredibly lonely, no doubt. Deprived of so many of the normal things that make life bearable—touch, conversation, impromptu visits. She can’t hear much anymore. The last time I called her she didn’t know who I was and hung up on me. I probably should have tried again, but I didn’t. I adjust my mask as I round the corner into her room, hoping she’ll at least recognize me.
She stares past me as I say hello. A few seconds pass. She wants to know who I am. I say my name. Nothing. I furtively pull my mask down so she can see my whole face. A flicker of recognition, perhaps, but not much more. “Pastor Ryan,” I bellow, uncomfortably loudly. “Pastor?” she queries. I nod, attempting half a smile. She frowns and gestures toward the seat by the window. She looks past me, out into the courtyard where—impossibly!—the ground still gives evidence of a recent spring snowstorm. “What a cruel time for snow,” I mutter to myself under my breath. “As if COVID and dying weren’t enough… it would be nice to look outside and see a flower or two…”
I try to make small talk, but I feel foolish even as the words are coming out of my mouth. This is not the time or place for small talk. She doesn’t seem to hear anything I say. “Can I read from the Bible?” I ask. Nothing. I point at my little bible. She nods. I read from Romans 8. If God is for us who can be against us? Who will condemn? Who will separate us from the love of Christ? No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. These are among my favourite words in all of Scripture, but they sound muffled, hollow, inadequate from behind a mask. I ask if I can pray for her. Again, nothing. I put my hands together in the universal symbol for prayer. She nods. I pray that Christ will walk with her gently. That he will show himself to be the conqueror of death once again. I say “amen.” May it be so. She’s still staring out into the snowy courtyard.
Her eyes are heavy, and she drifts off into fitful little spasms of sleep. I sit at the end of her bed, frustrated. How is anyone supposed to bring comfort and care in these ridiculous conditions? There’s masks and protocols and endless restrictions. My words bounce off this impenetrable wall of age and decay. If only her hearing wasn’t so bad. If only there wasn’t snow in May! I try (and fail) to pray. I try (and fail) to sit in a silence that should probably feel a lot holier than it does. I imagine my weariness and cynicism fouling up what should be a poignant and instructive moment. I think about a podcast I listened to on the way over that talked about our discomfort with death.
I look at my little bible. I think about that thing that many people (oh so naively) do—just flip it open to a random page and wait for the Spirit to speak through the first words your eyes fall upon. I give it a try, desperate for any kind of word from God. Now Jepthah the Gileadite, the son of a prostitute, was a mighty warrior. Sigh. Thanks a lot, Jesus. Good talk. I look back up at the dear old soul who surely deserves a better pastoral visit than this one. She could probably use a mighty warrior right about now. This morning over breakfast I was reading a funny scene from the late Eugene Peterson’s biography. Apparently, as a boy he beat a conversion out of the class bully—forced him to say, “I accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior” while the blows were raining down. A mighty warrior, that Eugene Peterson. He’d surely know what to do in a situation like this. He’d read from The Message and death itself would retreat in fear.
I look out the window one last time before saying goodbye. I tell her that I’ll come again and that I’ll pray for her. She doesn’t respond. I trudge down the hall toward the exit doors. I almost smack my nose into the door because I forget to press the security code first. I roll my eyes and growl under my mask. A mighty warrior wouldn’t bother with codes or masks. Jepthah, the Gileadite, the son of a prostitute would probably just break it down.
I get back to my study and stare, bleary-eyed at the blank Word document that I hope will magically metamorphose into a sermon in the next two days. My phone pings beside me. It’s the dear old soul’s daughter. “Thanks for visiting my mom. She said she was glad to see you.” A smile flickers, warrior-like, on the corners of my mouth.