“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” – Psalm 121:1-2
The call came on a Thursday afternoon, the Thursday before we would celebrate twenty years of ministry together, Lutheran Church of the Resurrection and me. It was my colleague, Jerry Burce, pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church in Fairview Park, a western suburb of Cleveland. Jerry happens to be pastor to my daughter, Kristine’s family, and Kristine is on the staff of their church. I have gotten to know Jerry over the years through my family. A few years ago, he was very gracious to allow me to baptize my grandson, Eli, into their community in Christ and to allow me to preach the sermon that day in which I thanked them for “adopting” my grandson.
Jerry was calling to tell me that a former member of his church, whom he had confirmed twenty-two years ago, was being transferred from the Cleveland Clinic to University of Cincinnati Hospital. Jason was thirty-three years old, in liver failure, and near death. The Cleveland Clinic said that he would not be healthy enough for transplant surgery and suggested the only possible hope was UC Hospital. They recommended that the family have Jason evaluated here. Jerry asked me if Pastor Nicole and I would provide pastoral care for Jason and his mother and stepfather. (This is rather typical among clergy. I have done this many times before and other clergy have reciprocated when our members have pastoral care needs in other places.)
Jason arrived in Cincinnati on Thursday evening. Since Friday is my day off, Pastor Nicole made the first visit. She informed me that the family was open to pastoral care. In fact, the mother had much to “unload” on Pastor Nicole. She also reported that they were financially strained and had spent Thursday night sleeping in their car!
I visited Jason and his parents on Saturday morning with anticipation of our 20th anniversary celebration pushed into the background for the time being. I walked into the ICU room and saw a slender, dark-haired young man with a feeding tube in his nose and some IV lines in place. His complexion was strikingly brown. Not the yellow that I have seen in jaundiced persons before, but well beyond that. His skin looked like he was a light-complexioned African American! He was conscious and cognizant. While he could not speak (from having been intubated at the Clinic for several weeks), he could shake his head and whisper “yes” and “no” answers to the doctors and his parents. As I looked down on this very sick young man I could not help but think that he was the same age as my eldest child; how sad!
I brought Jason one of our prayer shawls, a soft, light green one that seemed fitting for a man. I laid it next to him on the bed. His mother seemed more moved by that act of kindness than he did. We began to chat. Where do you begin when you are meeting people for the first time alongside the bed where their young son is dying? After some time of conversation I asked them if we could pray. As is often my custom in the hospital, I began with a reading of Psalm 121. It is a prayer of hopefulness and trust in God that seems just right for hospital settings.
“From where will my help come?” The Psalmist boldly asks, and then answers the question; from God, the creator who will shield and protect us from all things, who has a track record with Israel, who never slumbers or sleeps, who keeps our lives. I must admit that in some circumstances, like in this case when death is a dark, heavy presence in the room, the prayer feels shallow, almost an expression of denial. “But Psalmist, this young man is on death’s doorstep! You say the Lord will keep your going out and you’re coming in! But what about Jason?” In those moments I have to remind myself, “Henry, this is both an earthly promise and an eternal promise! Trust in the God to whom you pray!”
At the end of prayer I spoke those familiar words of the Aaronic blessing that we hear each weekend in worship, “The Lord bless you and keep you….” (Numbers 6:24-26) I made the sign of the cross on Jason’s forehead, the one placed there in his baptism. I bent over, put my face close to his, and looked Jason in the eyes. “Jason, I’ll be praying for a miracle for you. We are hoping that you will get a new liver. Be sure that Jesus is in this room with you! Be sure that God loves you no matter what!” Not knowing Jason at all, I thought that I saw a look of fear deep in his eyes….or was that my projection of fear onto him as I feared this young guy was too sick for a liver and was going to die?
The doctor came into the room and said Jason’s oxygen levels were not good. He would have to be intubated again. That meant that he would be unconscious again. Then the doctor dropped the bombshell, “Mom, I can intubate him now or we can wait an hour. This might be the last time you have to talk to him. What do you want to do?” She asked, “Should we be calling our family to come down from Cleveland now?” He replied, “I think this is the time to do that.” The parents left the room. I explained to the doctor who I was and said that I needed to know if I should offer the parents an opportunity for a service of commendation of the dying; Last Rites. He responded affirmatively.
Jason was intubated. I sat in the waiting area. Mom and Dad had lots to say. I gently suggested that they did not have to have their son intubated yet. That they might think about waiting until family arrived that evening so that they could communicate good-bye’s to Jason. They decided to go ahead with the intubation. If I had known this family better I might have counseled them more strongly to wait with intubation and to weigh the cost-benefit of what they were putting him through. (Pastors, though non-medically trained, gain an incredible sense of medicine through hospital ministry! I never have authority to make decisions for families, but I am amazed at the pastoral sense that I have developed for very difficult medical decision making.)
While we sat we addressed many things. I gave the family a $250 debit card to address their financial needs while in Cincinnati (thank you Pastor’s Discretionary Fund). I said, “You don’t need to worry about finances right now. You need to focus solely on your son. They were humbled, felt undeserving, and took the card after some resistance. They were in touch with the fact that death seemed near. I offered them that Pastor Nicole or I could do a commendation of the dying when their family arrived. They seemed interested.
We celebrated our 20th anniversary in worship on Saturday evening. I added Jason to our prayer list. Pastor Nicole told me the family texted her and that she was going to do Last Rites with them after worship. As it turned out, that was good since Cindy had planned a little surprise party for me after worship. As I drank beer with good friends, Jason was in the back of my mind.
On Sunday morning, as I listened to the Bible reading, Pastor Nicole leaned over and told me that Jason died. Prayers for healing morphed into a prayer of trust in the God of eternal life. “From where will my help come?.... He will neither slumber nor sleep.” I trust that He was awake and in the room when Jason took his last breath in this life!
A young guy named Jason. A tragically sad story. A 20th anniversary. Thanks be to God for being so generous to us! A pastor’s life and what it means to be called to hold the treasure (II Corinthians 4:7) of Word and Sacrament within the community of God’s people.
About the Author: Pastor Henry Zorn is Co-Pastor of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Cincinnati, OH. A vibrant and welcoming community of faith and a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.