Prince Raney Rivers: A good pastor at the hour of death

The work of an excellent pastor in the hour of death reminds us that fixing is not caring.

I have preached more funerals than I care to remember.  I have held countless anxious hands and consoled more than a few grieving hearts.  Recently, the tables turned and the anxious hands and grieving heart were my own.

One wintery day in January, I helped my dad from his wheelchair into the front seat of my car. He despised having to use the wheelchair, but the chronic illnesses he battled gracefully for the previous decade had taken their toll. Dad looked at me with his head drooping to one side and said, “Everything’s falling apart.” As the elders in my church would say, Dad was “getting ready.”

On a Monday in March, after a particularly difficult weekend, I took Dad to the hospital and learned he had acute renal failure. The physician told me that Dad probably had less than six months to live. I had known Dad’s health would never improve significantly, but I wasn’t ready to face the fact that he wouldn’t come home again.  Two weeks later, at the end of a faithful life and a courageous fight, Dad took his final breath while one of my sisters sat motionless in the chair next to his bed.

One of the most meaningful gifts was the care I received from my childhood pastor, Paul Smith. Paul served our church in Decatur, Ga., for about a decade before accepting a call to a congregation in Brooklyn. He was my first mentor in ministry.

Paul and Dad remained good friends even after the Smiths moved to New York. Whenever Paul drove through North Carolina, he’d stop and visit Dad. They’d talk about life and, I think, about dying.

When I heard the doctor’s initial prognosis, I knew immediately that I needed to call Paul. He was Dad’s friend. I needed a pastor. Before I could fully explain the situation to Paul, the weakness in my voice told him everything he needed to know.

By his patient listening and thoughtful reflection, Paul reminded me that we make a mistake when we equate caring with fixing. He never told me how I should feel. He gave me the room to rattle off a litany of contradictory emotions. His priestly presence helped me find the source of my strength and gave me permission to be weak.

Interestingly, Paul had more questions than answers. After a few particularly insightful questions, he said he was “taking my temperature.” We enjoyed a good laugh about that. I had not ever heard this metaphor related to pastoral care, but I loved it. It meant he was listening not only to what I said, but how I said it, to how I breathed, paused and sighed. Years of walking beside people in their pain equipped him to listen from many different angles.

“What hard questions do you want to ask your dad?” That was such a blessing to hear. It sobered me to the urgency of the moment long enough to think clearly about anything unsaid or unasked. The question pulled me off of the hospital cot in the middle of the night and encouraged me to talk to my father in ways that kept me from any regrets.

Paul drove here to Winston-Salem and arrived a few days before dad died. He invited everyone to sit around my dad’s bed and tell stories about him. Now, when I think about those difficult days and smell the unmistakable aroma of a hospital room, I can think about the stories we told and the laugher we shared. Paul recalled the time when we camped out overnight for tickets to see Prince (the rock star, not this author) with their daughters. My dad didn’t camp out, but he did bring coffee and donuts in the morning!

I really didn’t want Paul to leave, but his departure was also a gift. He knew that he had gone as far with us as he could. He helped us all know that death was not the worst thing that could happen to dad. Paul interceded for us, blessed my father and stepped aside. He prayed a prayer that afternoon that can only be described as “deep calling unto deep” (Psalm 42:7). From that moment forward I stopped waiting for death and began to anticipate life.

Thank God for good pastors.