My single biggest problem in crisis ministry

Take last evening for instance.

A friend who is on the staff of a large church in the northern part of our state emailed about a family basically living in the ICU ward of a local hospital in our city. Doctors have told the parents nothing more can be done for the daughter. So they are standing by, waiting for God to take her.

My friend had planned to drive down to see them, but because of a cold decided it was best if he canceled and asked me to call on them.

An hour later, I was in the hospital room with the family.

The patient was either sleeping or heavily sedated and several family members and friends were seated around the room, talking softly.  They greeted me warmly, having already been informed that I was coming.

Now, two things about this family I found amazing.  They have lived in the intensive care units of their hospital back home and the one here for over 40 days.  And yet, they have such a steady peace and beautiful joy about them.

And so, here is my problem, one I have frequently encountered when calling on the families of Godly people going through various kinds of crises:  Do I enter into their joy or remain outside?

By “their joy,” I refer to the victory in Christ the Lord has given them in the midst of their incredible suffering. Only those who have been there know this “peace that passes understanding.”

And a related question is: If I “enter their joy,” how deeply do I go?

Put another way, do I laugh with them and participate in their victory–even though I have not shared their grief–to the point of telling stories and sometimes getting off subject?  Or should I remain the consummate professional who never forgets his role, that of spiritual adviser and counselor?

Either way has its risks and rewards.

I have sometimes attempted to match the joy of the family as we laughed and visited, told stories and reminisced, then later wondered if they felt I did not fully appreciate the pain they were enduring. It was fine for them to be laughing and joyful, but was mine appropriate?

On the other hand, to remain outside what they are experiencing and merely “mail in” my scriptures and prayers, then get up and leave, is foreign to my nature.  And yet, the times I have seen a minister or chaplain do this well, I have been blessed and filled with admiration for them.

Last night, I met each person in the room, enjoyed the banter as they talked among themselves, shared some of their stories and a couple of mine, and one thing more.  I sketched each one.  (It’s what I do.)  They even brought out a photo of the daughter who was lying there in the bed, a smiling happy portrait, which I sketched for them.  We shared some scripture thoughts and I prayed with them, and left.

The visit might have been 20 minutes.  (Not overstaying in a hospital visit is a huge thing for me.)

The father accompanied me to the elevator, still radiating the joy and peace of the Lord.  His spiritual gift is encouragement, he said, and these hospital waiting rooms have given him so many opportunities for ministry.

I stand in awe.  The way they are handling this greatest of all burdens which life can hand a person–the death of a child–is so remarkable.

Today I received a note from a friend from thirty years ago.  She was remembering when her mother lay dying in the hospital room, fretting and fearful.  “Then, you came to visit her. You said exactly what she needed to hear, and the scriptures you shared were so perfect.  After your visit, she had such a wonderful peace. The Lord took her home the next day. We are forever grateful.”

I have no memory of this, obviously.  But I am more grateful than she is, I imagine, because I am so capable of getting this wrong.

The hardest part for me on visiting a family in crisis is gauging the direction and intensity of their emotion and trying to relate to them in a way that will matter most.

Scripture says we are to “Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). That is the goal.

Doing it is another thing altogether.

Post Script:  A note this afternoon from my minister friend informs that the young lady on life support had just taken her last breath of earthly air and is now inhaling the celestial kind.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.

3 thoughts on “My single biggest problem in crisis ministry

  1. This was wonderful, Brother Joe; thank you. You’d think that after what my family has been through– you know we “lived in ICU” for many months with my brother, and then were ironically back in the very same ICU with my mom– You’d think I would know “what to say” when I visit others in similar circumstances. But I STILL worry just like everyone else and always feel like I said the wrong thing. I recall what you said in a previous article, that “I’m so sorry” (administered with a hug) can’t go wrong. I try to remember that.

    And right on about not staying too long. We had certain saints that would come (unannounced, unscheduled) and stay for literally HOURS, talking about themselves the whole time without ever coming up for air. This was hard to deal with. People don’t realize that when you’re in the midst of crisis with a loved one, you want to focus ON the loved one; you don’t want to hear all the petty details of their own lives for hours on end.

  2. Some people laugh when they are in pain as a coping mechanism. No matter how much peace and joy, there is an underlying loss and it will really be felt in the weeks and months ahead.

  3. Being there after the weeks and months have passed to provide encouragement and helpful advice is as important as being there during the crisis.

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