“Being Rich in Mercy”

A few years ago, I took an online course to receive a certificate in parish nursing from Concordia University-Wisconsin. A parish nurse “is a registered nurse (RN) specialist who encourages physical and spiritual health and wholeness by developing and leading programs within faith communities.” There is one model of parish nursing that is set forth in all the books that I have read on it, basically promoting doing a lot of activities within the congregation to help people become healthier.  It’s a sort of prevention-based model.

At our former church, I did help form the “health cabinet” and the parish nursing program, based on this model.  But the more that I and the “health cabinet” did to work toward the goal of physical health of our members, (blood pressure checks, flu shots, health fair, newsletter articles, blood drives, exercise classes), the more uncomfortable I became. Because church is not a community center, and really, church is not even particularly prevention-oriented. I wanted us always to remember that the primary purpose of church is Word and Sacrament ministry, to become spiritually healthy, not necessarily physically healthy. And I just couldn’t figure out how to integrate that parish nursing model with the pastor’s Word and Sacrament ministry, without distracting from it.  If someone got their blood pressure under control but failed to receive forgiveness of sins, we have still failed as a church. So when we changed churches, I did not pursue parish nursing again, knowing that I did not yet have the answer to that question.

IMG_1607The church has long understood that we are touched by sin in a physical way beyond our control–because of original sin, we will get sick, our bodies will break down, and we will die. Sometimes we can prevent bringing certain diseases upon ourselves by the way we live. But, ultimately, we cannot prevent our own deaths.  “…but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” Genesis 2:17 

Knowing that, I’m not interested in duplicating all the health tips and programs that you see everywhere now in our health-obsessed culture.  I’m more interested in helping people deal with the inevitable physical effects of original sin. I don’t like telling people they can’t eat doughnuts on Sunday morning because they’re bad for them, and I’m not into aerobics. Maybe I was comfortable working in hospice because promoting the prevention-based model is probably not where my talents lie, though there is a place for prevention of disease.  I’m just not sure that place is in the church.

So, several years later, I’ve started parish nursing again, more informally, yet more meaningfully to me, because it grew organically out of a desire of a couple of us to visit people. Then grew into a group of us (called the Mercy group) meeting every month to see our homebound, so that they all could get visited.  I do that with them, making extra visits during the month to our neediest.  I also try to keep track of who in the congregation is at risk, simply checking in with them every week or so. I don’t give out much medical advice, we have no exercise classes (though we do have a hiking club, but more just to have fun hiking than to promote health), and I haven’t taken anyone’s blood pressure so far. We’re just serving our people where they are.

luke(1)Then, Pastor gave a sermon yesterday about one of the readings for the day celebrating St. Luke the Evangelist.  In 2 Timothy 4:11, Paul writes, “Luke alone is with me.”  As Pastor explained, Luke, a physician, stayed with Paul and cared for him in his final days before he was killed by the Romans.  Luke made sure Paul was fed, clothed, and that he was not alone. And, like Luke, there are people in this world who stand strong and help people in the hard days. I thought back again to my time in hospice and how many wonderful nurses and doctors I met, and how many families I met who stood strong while watching their loved one dying.

And then I realized that this was my model for parish nursing, just as in hospice nursing: “We will be with you.”  That’s mercy. We cannot prevent all disease, we cannot prevent death, but just as our Lord is such a gracious God, ” being rich in mercy” as Paul writes in Ephesians, we are a merciful church. I can’t prevent anyone at my church from becoming sick or dying, but we can make sure that they are not alone. We can walk with them. We can hold their hands and serve them until they go to heaven, and our Lord says to them, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Rest now.”  It’s not sexy, it doesn’t look “busy” or involve paperwork, and there’s no Rick Warren-certified program on how to set up a parish nursing ministry based solely on the Lord’s mercy, but here it is. It doesn’t distract from Word and Sacrament; instead, it is a natural outgrowth of Word and Sacrament. May God continue to bless it in the days to come.


Living a Life of Grace

Grandma’s heart was beating irregularly, and she was having trouble breathing. Mom took her to the hospital. The hospital stay went pretty well. They converted her heart back to a normal rhythm, but she was weakened. Maybe she had a heart attack in July, the doctor said. It was hard to say.

scanned photos
Grandma and I on her 80th birthday

I was concerned and came out to see her in the hospital.  Before I came out, she was declining so quickly, I thought maybe she should go on hospice. I went up to the ICU where they were monitoring her rhythm closely. She looked tired, but she looked well. I was relieved when I saw her. She had oxygen on, but she could move around and sit in a chair.  Mom and I helped get her moved down to a regular room.

We thought she might be discharged the next day. She needed rehab, just to get stronger. She was still on oxygen. Mom had to work, and I sat with Grandma in her room.  She ate pancakes decorated with a real flower for breakfast and talked to me all day long, about wonderful things, about mundane things. She just talked and talked without ever seeming tired. We caught up on each other because I hadn’t been there in awhile, and I realized how much I had missed her. Her blood pressure was high, and she said, “Oh, my blood pressure has never been high before in my whole life.” Her blood pressure had always been low, good genes. But her heart was failing; her lungs had fluid. My heart was sinking. Still, we hoped. I put off thoughts of hospice and hoped.

Grandma and me when I was 5 or 6

The next day, they discharged her from the hospital. Mom and I drove her to the rehab place. After a couple hours, a nurse finally came in to greet her. Mom and I were not really happy about this place, but what could we do? She was tired, she was already there, and she said she was fine. I kissed her goodbye and told her that I loved her.

In less than two weeks, she had pneumonia. She went back to the hospital for a couple weeks, but the pneumonia wasn’t responding to any of the antibiotics. Her heart went back into atrial fibrillation. When I talked to her on the phone, she was short of breath. Mom told me she was seeing Grandpa and other people in our family who had passed away at her bedside. I knew what that meant.

She died in the middle of the night on October 10, back at the nursing home, on hospice. Mom was with her.

Everybody’s life matters, but some people live quiet, seemingly ordinary lives that make so much difference to others. My grandma was named Grace, and she lived up to her name. She taught me some things about living a life of grace:

  • Family comes first, yet friends are very important. Grandma had friends when she died that she knew pretty much her whole life.  She took an interest in people. Though she certainly didn’t agree with everything that everyone did (for example, she thought that her sister’s husband was quite silly for not eating ketchup or potato chips because they cost so much more than tomatoes or potatoes), she was kind. She even liked the grumpy people; she knew their hardships.

    My grandma (right) and her friends
  • Be positive. Grandma lost her husband of 50+ years, she lost her vision and her ability to drive. But she was a positive person and didn’t complain much. When we visited her, she always seemed upbeat and friendly.
  • Help other people. Grandma maybe had one paying job her whole life, but she always volunteered. She filled the candles at church every week for many years. She was on the Ladies Guild, she typed the bulletin, she brought Meals on Wheels to people, she worked in the Lutheran thrift store. She always kept busy. What she did may not have seemed heroic, but it was the little things that make a difference in unassuming, but real ways.

Saruman believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay… small acts of kindness and love. -Gandalf in The Hobbit:An Unexpected Journey (movie)

  • Make everyone feel welcome. My pastor once said, “It’s not our job to make another human being feel shame.” I know Grandma wasn’t perfect, but that’s how she lived as I knew her. I’m sure I did things in my life that she didn’t approve of, but she always loved and welcomed me home. She made an effort for people. She baked chocolate chip cookies and tons of gingersnaps. She made the best potato salad I’ve ever had. She cooked well and in so doing, loved well.
  • Faith is very important. Grandma didn’t quote Bible verses to me; we didn’t have sophisticated theological discussions. She just trusted her Lord. She went to church every week, and attended the same church for decades without shopping around, no matter who the pastor was. She was loyal; she made it her home. Her faith was quiet but strong.
  • Be curious about the world and about your heritage. My grandpa and grandma were avid travelers, especially to Scandinavian Europe. They had relatives in Denmark and Germany, and corresponded with and visited them. They kept in touch with a foreign exchange student they had when my mom was in high school and went over to Uruguay to visit her not too many years before my grandpa died.

10563058_10204823436568444_506085236289800467_nShe taught me a lot, and I miss her so much. I miss her love, her kindness, her faith. But I have hope; I know I will see her again.

My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.  -Psalm 73:26