By Rev. Wayne Hobson
“The window is closing,” that is what some health and medical professionals are saying about the time left to control the spread of the COVID-19 virus. It makes me think of another window that is closing due to the pandemic. I think of the window that is closing for Martha, a 77 year old legally blind woman who is in the latter stages of dementia.
Martha has been in our congregation for over two decades. Until she could no longer join us on Sundays here at Good Shepherd Church (Charlotte, North Carolina), she and her late husband Tom had been among our most faithful congregants. Now, she sits in a nursing home, rehabbing from a fractured back due to a fall, but because of the virus no visitors are allowed near her. The last time we saw her was when a few of us stood outside of her window, waving homemade “Get Well” cards realizing she probably could not remember who we were. The window is closing on opportunity to be near Martha, to touch her.
The window closed for Carol, a dear and sweet 79 year old that I had visited twice a month and shared communion with for three years. Carol was the most delightful and vibrant person I had the pleasure of visiting in a nursing home; her smile and hugs were the warmest that I have ever felt in my ministry at the church. But with Alzheimer’s rapid progression, her window closed during this pandemic. A friend gone.
In these last few months, this pandemic has stolen our time, our relationships, and for me personally, major portions of my pastoral care ministry. My invested time has been lost because I, like so many people, have been working under “Stay At Home” orders. I would rather be out visiting those who are imprisoned in nursing homes like Martha, with few, if any visitors. I have lost relationship with friends like Carol, who I would have visited, but who died – alone.
In a mere four months, the COVID-19 virus has taken much of what it took us four years to establish in ministry with our congregation. Three years ago we created several support ministries, like a Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance group, to help people struggling to deal with major obstacles in their lives – and now they are gone too.
Also gone in our church is a friend named Bill, who, because he could not stand the isolation from his support group members, committed suicide. Another friend gone as the window closes.
As I add up all of the losses due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I wonder if things will ever go back to the way they were. I wonder if those folks that I remember will still remember me when this pandemic is over. You have probably been wondering the same thing. Every one of us in care ministry – laity and clergy – have those concerns.
Whether you are a pastoral care clergy person, a member of a Stephen Ministries group, or simply a layperson who loves to visit others, caring for those in your congregation who need a loving touch has become “virtually” impossible – pun intended. Where possible, we can do a “Zoom” visitation, but often heartfelt cards or phone calls will have to suffice for now.
So we miss the instantaneous gratification of knowing that we have brightened someone’s day or even changed their life in the simple act of Christian care and hospitality. And of course we miss the opportunity to hold trembling hands, that clench ours all the tighter, as we pray for people in places where they often feel lonely and isolated. Our prayers bring comfort, relief, and most importantly hope. I always sense that has happened when people join with me in saying a strong, closing, “Amen!”
I have come to realize I have suffered loss simply because I cannot be physically near precious people who are suffering. So in these days I find myself recalling the Apostle Paul’s great words to all of us:
“…we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us” (Romans 5.3b-5 NIV).
That is my blessed hope in all of this turbulence and instability. I believe that those I have visited remember (if they have the capacity to remember) that I was there at their loved one’s funeral, at their side before the scariest surgery, at their baptism, or at the birth of their first child.
People remember those sacred moments we share with them. They remember when we were at the hospital at 6 a.m. when they thought no one would be there. And they remember when we drove an hour in bad weather to attend the funeral of one of their loved ones we had never met. Most of all, the people we minister to remember our dependability, our faithfulness, our perseverance, and our character as we allow the power and tender mercy of the Holy Spirit to work in and through us.
In these days, when we are frustrated because we cannot minister to people in the ways we long to do so, let us remember Paul’s words to the Galatians:
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (6.9-10 NIV).
And may the old saying be true, that as God closes one window, He opens another.
The Rev. Wayne Hobson is the pastor of congregational care at Good Shepherd Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.