When I began in ministry, I'd enter a hospital room with a bit of trepidation, as if entering a strange and alien land. I wasn't sure what I'd encounter there and how I might respond. I wasn’t used to the sights and sounds and smells—the sight of someone hooked up to a tube, the occasional snoring or groaning of a roommate, the antiseptic smell that sometimes barely conceals the various human smells that infuse the air. I didn’t know the customs of this land either—for instance, whether I should stop praying when a doctor entered the room, or introduce myself to the doctor, or leave the room when the doctor begins the consultation. But now, after 25 years as a pastor, I've been in hundreds of hospital rooms, and they all look familiar.
Eight years ago, shortly before Palm Sunday, our eight-year-old son was under the weather. My husband, Lou, had volunteered to cover the doctor’s appointment and a trip to the drugstore for whatever prescription would clear up Calvin’s little infection. “Go to the gym,” he said. “You need to relieve some stress.”
In the hospital emergency room, someone accidentally bumps into an aide carrying a bedpan, and urine sloshes onto the floor. After several hours of waiting, my mother is finally admitted. I pay for TV, but she does not have the strength to push the buttons on the remote. She can’t find the red button to call the nurse either. She tells me that last night she was taken down to a dungeon where she lay awake in terror. Now she wonders why someone left a black Scottish terrier in the corner of her room.
She died on Sunday, after a month of dateless days that began on Halloween and ended just short of Thanksgiving. We went from the hospice admitting office to a Halloween party in the family room, where volunteers offered us fruit punch, orange cupcakes and orange and black balloons. Three toddlers in identical ladybug suits were dancing on the faux-parquet ballroom floor to the electrically amplified folk songs of a long-haired balladeer.
People in Jesus’ time thought that illness arose from people’s sins in a fairly immediate cause-and-effect relationship. Today we are more apt to think that illness afflicts us in a more random way.