The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures;
he leads me beside still waters;
he restores my soul.
He leads me in right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the darkest valley,
I fear no evil;
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff —
they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
~ Psalm 23
One of my favorite Psalms is the 23rd. While it is often read at the bedside of a patient, or the solemn closing of a funeral, sometimes for me, just going to this Psalm is a reminder that I just need these words.
Years ago I was experiencing a very difficult time. I was in my final semester of seminary. Preparing to defend my Statement of Faith among professors that had seen me nearly every day for three years, while also preparing for my ordination, meeting with church leaders who had known me even longer than that, and preparing to move from the seminary campus where I had called home for the last few years.
I was also completing my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) at Baptist Hospital East in Louisville, Kentucky, working on Heart Unit.
It was there that I encountered my moments of stopping and listening, while learning more about myself. Each week I was required to submit a verbatim of a discussion that I had with a patient, bring it to my supervisor, and then it was discussed among my peers. There would then be a discussion to review my interaction with the patient, ask questions as to "Why?" I responded a certain way, and to make comments on the overall visit.
These were not always pleasant. It's not that what I may have done or not done was wrong, it really made me look at myself and try to see what I was thinking and feeling while taking a journey with a patient that they had invited me to be present for.
The most important question during each visit was this, "Were you a non-anxious presence, fully engaged with the person, and did you let that person lead?"
Surrendering yourself to follow someone as the person shares of their life experiences through telling their story can sometimes be challenging, especially if it leads to beliefs that are not yours, or perhaps, may be too close to your own struggles. The important part is remaining that presence, and not getting too involved, while not seeming distant or uncaring.
There was one patient in particular I remember. He wasn't much older than I was, and had a young daughter about my daughter's age at the time. He was only 39 and needed a new heart. His insurance company had finally approved the surgery, however, refused to pay for the service that would ultimately harvest a heart and bring the organ to the hospital.
It was absolutely devastating to him. I just remember him looking at me, crying, and asking, "Why is God doing this to me?"
It was difficult for me not to cry out with him, and want to call every administrator, along with every person who worked for his insurance company and show them a picture of his daughter that he kept next to his hospital bed. His anger was hard not to get involved with, and his pain... let's just say I hugged my daughter and son a whole lot more when I would come home from visiting him.
Each day I watched as he became weaker, while he stared at the picture of his daughter, and worked through the fact that this was not God's will, but poor policies created by a business.
While he continued to fight the decision, he did finally achieve some peace about his situation in his final days. On one of my visits we had a moment that he realized he wanted to be present some how for his daughter on important days. I helped him write letters to his daughter for each birthday through age 21. We used these letters to discuss what his life was like growing up, and what he remembered about each year.
A letter she would be given on her wedding day, and at the birth of her first child. These were precious gifts. Words from a father to his daughter, letting her know just how precious life is, and that while he knew he was not going to be with her physically, she was to look to heavens and know he was with her.
It became part of our visit over the next few days before his death that we would recite this Psalm together and pray as our visit would end. It made me realize that despite how unfair so much of this experience felt, there was a sense that God knew about everything, and that within these words, a promise was made.... "And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever."
While our struggles may be very real, there is some comfort in knowing that the presence of God will always serve as our guide and comfort, even unto the end.
Stay in God's grip!
G. Todd Williams (c) 2017
Dear Lord, today I will let You lead. Amen.
Rev. G. Todd Williams lives in the Houston metro area and is a Hospice Chaplain and ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor.