Learning What You Already Know
The Jewish Sabbath prayer says: “Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles. Lord, fill our eyes with seeing and our minds with knowing; let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk.”
I don’t know about you, but the older I get, the more I learn things I already know. I suspect most of you have been in situations with family members where being recognized as a follower of Jesus makes you the too-obvious choice to pray over the Thanksgiving meal. Or probably you’ve been the one to receive the difficult phone call in a family member’s crisis, either because you are a pastor or church leader or simply labeled “religious.”
It was a Saturday in February and I was at home at my desk, working on a sermon for the next day when my phone rang. It was Anne’s cousin, who almost never calls. I know him, but do not keep in close touch with him. However, Anne’s Uncle (his dad) had been suffering a number of health issues, and I correctly guessed that might be the reason for the call.
“Dan,” he said, with a couple deep breaths and a quivering voice, “I’m at the hospital in Portland with my dad, and I’m in his room with my brother and sister, and dad is…very close to dying. Can I put you on speaker phone where he can hear you–we don’t know how much he can take in, but–and then we can all hear you too? Would you just pray for him, and for us?”
Besides feeling the weight of this family’s grief, I also felt a tad bit of surprise. In sporadic interactions over the years, there has been little interest in things of faith, and here was a door being flung wide open. We chatted a bit and they caught me up, and then put the phone near Anne’s uncle, and I prayed over him and their whole family. In Jesus’ name. It was a beautiful moment.
The next day, Sunday, we’d just arrived home after worship and my phone rang again.
Same cousin. There was a lot of background noise on his end, clearly some crying and I heard his voice stammer “Dan, Dad just died like a minute or two ago. I’m here in the room, we’re all here–my brother and sister, spouses, kids, grandkids. Please, would you talk with us and pray?”
It was a strange feeling, speaking gospel things into the air of a room 500 miles away, in the hearing of a bunch of people I couldn’t see, having no idea if anyone there believed much of anything. A strange feeling, but holy ground. I reminded them of God’s near presence, that their dad was loved, that they wouldn’t be alone. And again, we prayed in Jesus’ name.
As I reflected afterwards, I realized I was learning things I already knew. We often have no idea what is going on inside of people, what their questions, doubts or state of faith may be. Until, through relationship, choice or crisis they reveal those things, we just don’t know. It seems always better to assume there is interest or faith, regardless of exterior appearances. I knew that. This just taught it to me again.
These holy-ground moments also taught me that when people are desperate, in crises of various kinds but especially around death…they instinctively look UP. To heaven. They want to know if God is real, if he is somehow present in this pain, and whether there is a larger picture the death of a loved one fits into. Surely there is more meaning in the world than a life simply disappearing. I received the phone calls because someone didn’t know how to look up and wanted me to help. I knew that. This just taught it to me again.
Long ago, when I was feeling that perhaps God was calling me out of a business career and into full-time ministry, I took a walk with a long-time pastor. He patiently let me fire questions at him about his lifetime of ministry, about preaching, about churches and denominations. When I asked something about being looked at differently by people, he told me this: “Because you are a pastor, you will sometimes not be welcomed into relationships or conversations. People have strange ideas about pastors. But. You also will get invited into holy moments that you never would be in if you weren’t a pastor.”
I didn’t know that at the time, but I certainly do now. It’s not just pastors. Anyone who follows Jesus will be asked, at different times and in various ways, to aid others in making sense out of life and death. To assist in seeing God’s presence. To help others look up. It seems to me that part of our calling is to be ready, to pay attention, lest…days pass and years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.
Peace of Christ,
Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor at The Cove in Santa Rosa CA and serves as Secretary on The Fellowship Community Board.