I received a telephone call from a stranger in search of a minister. She was the caretaker of an elderly gentleman whose age was something north of 90 years, although I was told the precise number was not known. Just a week prior he had recovered from a very serious illness the doctors were certain he would not survive, and surprising his caretaker, emerging from unconsciousness, he requested the company of a Methodist minister. After a pleasant chat with this careful woman, I made an appointment for a visit later that afternoon.
In its details my visit with this man was unremarkable. He was very frail, nearly blind, but his mind was sharp, and his memory intact. We spoke quietly about his life, his work—he had developed a successful consulting business, which had been abandoned decades ago with retirement. I learned that he had no children, no close living relatives. He was very much alone.
As a child, he had attended a Methodist Church, and many years ago after moving into New York, he had attended Christ Church once, which led to a home visit by the founding minister, Ralph Sockman. Though he did not make a habit of attending regularly—soon quitting it altogether—this visit by Dr. Sockman had made an indelible impression. In the course of our conversation, he looped back upon this encounter at least five times. It was clearly the most important thing on his mind at present.
And it was also clear that it was terribly important to him I had come, although as for that, he didn’t spill a great confession or engage a theological question, or even a simple existential one, for that matter. It seemed enough that I had come, that I had spoken with him, that he could tell me something about himself.
Towards the end of our time, I asked if he wished me to pray with him. He said he would very much appreciate that. I took both his hands in mine and spoke quietly of God’s provision of a loving home and homecoming. At the end, he pressed my hands and thanked me. His eyes welled with tears.
As I said, considering the surface details, an unremarkable visit. But I was struck by this man’s connection to that single encounter with Ralph Sockman that had to have occurred about sixty years earlier. And of course, there’s a lesson in that, a lesson about the importance of every moment of our lives, for there’s no telling which moments will prove the defining ones. And there’s no telling the impact we might have on someone with the smallest of gestures, or simply just doing our jobs. No telling at all what we might be thinking about at the end of our lives. No telling who might be thinking about us at the end of their lives. Could be that an otherwise anonymous encounter might prove to be the fulcrum, the great benediction for us.
It was not lost to me that this man had recovered from near death with the memory of a pastoral visit on his mind for a reason. I don’t pretend to fully understand the mysterious ways of the Spirit, but every now and again I do tangibly sense its extraordinarily vital presence. And from time to time I sense that I have a very specific role to play on its behalf. This was a small moment for me that instinct revealed was a huge moment for my new friend. And I was filled with awe.
It’s no surprise that matters of life and death framed this moment. But then, matters of life and death frame every moment of every day for us, even though we remain unconscious of this most of the time, that is, unless or until something grabs our attention and slaps us awake.
The great religious quest is framed by our being born and having to die, our emerging consciousness of this fact and as we live into our days, the growing awareness of a great longing for our true home. We sense that deep longing once we fully awaken to the reality of our finitude. We more nearly feel it than know it. It groans underneath all the smothering activity of our lives.
I suspect this is the principal reason for crossing the threshold from sidewalk to sanctuary, and it’s the reason for the occasional phone call from an anonymous person—perhaps some direction can be found for the home that beckons? Some will say they sense its presence in our marble-encrusted geode. Some will say they feel more certain about the living of their own days as they become conscious of where they’re ultimately bound. And some will finally and relievedly call this faith…