Good Hands: What the Dying Taught Me About the Church
Rebecca Brothers | 11 May 2019 |
I don’t know how it happens, but it seems like every time I am tempted to give up on religion, it’s time for me to go to work.
Not my regular job as a college librarian. There are no existential crises there; just the occasional moral dilemma regarding patron privacy and fine waivers and the nature of capital-T Truth and so forth.
No, the real crisis comes when I go to my weekly stint as a volunteer at a local hospice inpatient facility. My main job there is to chat with patients and their visitors. You’d think this would be easy enough, but I am not naturally gifted at making small talk or delivering comforting words. I like conversations to have an agenda and complete it quickly. Get in, deliver the message, and get out. That’s the mission. That’s the goal.
When I first started hospice work, I used this tactic in my encounters with families. I had my script, and I stuck to it like a bur: “Sorry to interrupt, but I just wanted to drop by and introduce myself. I’m Rebecca, and I’m a volunteer. Do y’all need anything? Any tea or coffee? No? Okay. If you think of anything, I’ll be at the nurses’ station.”
Whereupon I would retire to the nurses’ station and knit for the rest of my shift.
Then I met one of the hospice social workers, and he taught me a powerful pair of words to add to my script.
“Do y’all need anything? Any tea or coffee … or company?”
It might have been a coincidence—or perhaps, as Anne Lamott likes to say, coincidence is just God working anonymously—but it was around that same time that the nurses started asking me to sit with patients who were fall risks or disoriented or just plain lonely.
And so, very slowly, I started to have conversations with people.
I believe strongly in the power of conversations—sometimes to change hearts and minds, sometimes just to plant a seed of understanding that will later grow into actions. I also believe in the power of showing up—the power of a “ministry of presence,” as one monastic community I know calls it.
So every Saturday at 4 p.m., I show up. I fill out my volunteer log sheet with the time, the date, and my name. I go to the nurses’ break room and get the names and admission dates of all the patients in the building.
Then I go to the nurses’ station, and I ask the nurses (and the Holy Spirit), “Is there anything in particular you need me to do today?”
Here’s another Anne Lamott quote for you: “One of the immutable laws of being human is that the people who show up are the right people.”
As I see it, part of my job as a human—as a volunteer—as a Christian—is to trust that the patients that God and those nurses send me to sit with are the right people.
This is often not easy to remember. Sometimes those patients have dementia. Sometimes they’re in a lot of pain, more than most medications can handle. Sometimes they want to be anywhere but in bed, or in a hospital gown, and I have to persuade them that the best thing to do is to stay in bed with their gown on.
I’ve found three things helpful to say in these situations. I’ll pass them along for what they’re worth.
- “You’re in good hands.”
- “You’re in a safe place.”
- “There are good people here.”
There will be times in our lives when we encounter emotional pain or spiritual pain that’s more than the most common American medication—work—can handle. Social gatherings won’t handle it either. Neither will drugs or alcohol, not in the long term. Sometimes it might seem like even prayer isn’t helping, no matter how many framed quotes and Bible verses we’ve included in our home decor. “When life gives you more than you can stand, kneel”? What happens when even that isn’t enough? What do we do then?
I’m no clergywoman or trained counselor, but I have half an idea that same those three sayings might be comforting to us in our spiritual pain.
- “You’re in good hands—the best hands—God’s hands.”
- “You’re in a safe place—God has promised that when you pass through the waters and the fire, you will not go alone” (Isaiah 43:2).
- “There are good people here—people who love you and want the best for you.”
In the wake of disasters, there’s a popular Mr. Rogers quote often passed around social media: “Look for the helpers.” I guarantee you that if you look for the helpers in the midst of your disasters, you will find them. That’s “99 and 3/4 percent guaranteed,” as Dr. Seuss wrote. The other 0.25%, if my math is accurate, lies in the fact that we might have to roll up our shirtsleeves and be the first helpers on the scene ourselves.
At the end of my church’s services, one of my church’s helpers—our deacon—walks to the middle of the central aisle and says, “Go forth in the name of Christ to love and serve the Lord.”
We reply, “Thanks be to God.”
So go forth, my friends. Go forth in the name of Christ to love and serve the Lord—to tell Christ’s sheep that they are in good hands, and in a safe place, and surrounded by good people.
And then let us be some of those good hands, and part of that safe place, and some of those good people. Thanks be to God.
Rebecca Brothers is a graduate of Lincoln City Seventh-day Adventist School, Walla Walla University, and the University of Washington. She is a happy member of the Church of the Nativity in Huntsville, Alabama, and currently works as an academic librarian. Her proudest achievements include serving as a student missionary in Podkowa Leśna, Poland, and being completely submerged in mud during sixth-grade Outdoor School.