Who’s Helping Whom?
Twenty-five years ago, I was just starting ordained ministry in Minneapolis. I was the poster child of an eager young pastor, heading on the Crosstown freeway for my first hospital visit to see a 90-year old woman named Agnes, whom I had never met. She had earned her three-day stay at the hospital by coming down with a touch of pneumonia. I was intrigued by the unspoken words so obviously dying to get out of the mouths of two church friends who knew Agnes when they found out I would visit her. It seems Agnes had a well-earned and longstanding reputation for being pretty feisty.
I took my Bible in with me to have something to hang onto, or perhaps as an identification card, and wondered exactly what I would find when I got to room 604. Seminary courses don’t teach much, nor could they necessarily, on how to have an introductory conversation with someone three times your age. Agnes was born nearly as close to the Civil War as she was to World War II.
Whatever self-congratulatory thoughts of heroism were running through my mind, they disappeared under the sunlamp of Agnes’ slightly disapproving visual survey of me as I introduced myself. But in a word, Agnes was…a delight. Sharp as a tack, with the rights and privileges of someone who has seen a great deal of life, she felt free to say anything that crossed her mind. Which was quite a bit. We connected well. I carefully checked for the location of a sense of humor, and found it well intact, often accompanied by the slightest sarcastic smirk. Agnes put me at ease immediately. Wait. Wasn’t that my job?
After some thoroughly enjoyable bantering (Agnes: “You know, I’m not too religious.” Me: “Good, neither am I.”), I asked if I could read some scripture with her. Having been granted permission, I had to decide what to read. Psalm 91 was fresh in my mind from a morning devotional, so I went with that.
You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God in whom I trust.”
I took a long breath and snuck a quick glance at Agnes. She lay in rapt attention in her bed, apparently listening intensely. Encouraged, I kept reading:
For He will deliver you from the snare of the fowler, and from the deadly pestilence…
you will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day.
My next glance at Agnes revealed that she held the same intent posture, but her eyes were now closed. Was she asleep? Well, if you’re ninety years old, I guess you ought to be able to nap whenever you choose. A little disappointed, I continued on.
A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand,
but it will not come near you.
This time I looked up in mid-verse and realized with a jolt that though her eyes remained closed, Agnes was now mouthing each and every word as I read. She obviously had the whole passage memorized. A bit unnerved, and thankful I hadn’t skipped any verses, I read on. Somewhere between “For He will command His angels concerning you, to guard you in all your ways…” and “I will protect those who know my name. When they call to me, I will answer them,” tears began to run freely down Agnes’ worn cheeks. When I was done, there was a long silence before I asked, “Agnes, will you tell me what touched you in this Psalm?”
As she told me the story, Agnes became a young girl again. It seems that when she was twelve years old, her family lived in a tiny apartment. There was a man who lived upstairs that had become a close family friend, almost an uncle to Agnes and her siblings. On the day of her twelfth birthday, “Uncle” had pulled her aside and given her an unusual gift. “Agnes,” he said, “I am giving you a Psalm from the Bible. It is to be your special Psalm, Psalm 91. I want you to read it or say it every morning after you wake up, and every evening before bed. Two times every day.”
That is exactly what Agnes had done, for over 78 years. She knew that Psalm inside and out, it was part of her. Psalm 91 belonged to Agnes. And even though she “wasn’t very religious,” somehow in that Psalm, Agnes belonged to God. And somehow, mysteriously, I belonged as well.
With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.
Friends in ministry, it’s June and the days are longer. You know this. The U.S. is coming through the pandemic, numbers are down significantly, and things are slowly re-opening. You know this. You also know that many people are sticking their heads out of their shells very cautiously, with isolation defenses well-entrenched and over a year of absorbing news constantly filled with violence and vitriol. Many of us are on one ragged emotional edge or another. It’s time for extra grace, extra understanding, extra care. It’s time to look at people and wonder what their story is and look past gruff exteriors, because the next person you meet might be an Agnes, and then you can wonder along with me whether the Lord put you in ministry to help others…or vice versa.
Dan Baumgartner is the senior pastor at The Cove in Santa Rosa CA and serves as a member of The Fellowship Community Board.