Tossing and Turning


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I laid in bed full of anxiety, needing to sleep, dying for sleep, but sleep would not come for a long time and I knew it. My husband was away at a conference and a 96-year-old church member was close to death. I expected the family to call at any moment. But I prayed to God that they wouldn’t. I prayed to God that the family wouldn’t need me, or maybe wouldn’t even call until the morning, after I had dropped my two young children off at daycare and was free to be the pastor I knew I could be.

Don’t get me wrong. I had a plan. Of course I had a plan. If they did call in the middle of the night I would call my parents to come and stay with the kids while I went to pray with the family of the deceased. But my plan wasn’t flawless. My parents live twenty minutes away, thirty to forty if you count the time it takes them to actually hear the phone ringing over and over and over again and the time it takes them to get out the door. Would the family of my church member understand my delay? And if I tell them why I am late will they tell me I shouldn’t have come? That I shouldn’t have bothered my poor parents so late at night? That I shouldn’t have left my children? That I shouldn’t even be in ministry if I can’t be available for such calls late at night when my husband isn’t home? Or maybe that’s just what I thought they might say, or think, or whisper behind my back after I had left their dead loved one’s bedside.

Waiting for “the phone call” when a church member is close to death has always stressed me out. It’s hard not to jump with adrenaline every time the phone rings as I think, “God, this is it!” But to go through this normal anxiety as a mother whose husband, whose support system, is out of town, is excruciating. It is a true “Come to Jesus” moment because I do lots and lot of (mostly selfish) praying.

So what if the woman has been dying for months now and the family is exhausted? Please Jesus don’t let her die now! So what if the dying woman would have hated the undignified state of her now comatose body? Please Jesus keep her heart pumping just a little longer! So what if everyone is saying she just needs to go…it’s been too long….she needs the relief that only God can give? Yes, yes, I know Jesus, but can’t that relief come after my husband gets home? Jesus and I get real frank when I am awake in the middle of the night in a fit of anxiety.

So I prayed, and I prayed, and I prayed, and I worried, and I worried, and I worried, and I watched as the clock turned to 11 o’clock, and then 12 o’clock, and then 1 o’clock, and then…it was morning. I awoke to the distinct pitter-patter of my three-year-old’s bare feet jogging across our hard wood floor to my bedroom. His smile was so sweet. He giggled as I lifted him into our big bed and we pretended to sleep together for a few more minutes.

In the light of a new day I found myself much saner, much less anxious. I made it through the night. I survived. They didn’t call. Thank you, Jesus.

In the light of day my faith is restored. Not because the phone didn’t ring. But because in the light of the day I remember that I am called to this work. I am called to this work as a woman, as a mother, and as a vulnerable human being who has really frank, anxious conversations with Jesus in the middle of the night. If the phone had actually rung that night I would have been okay. I would have handled it. It wouldn’t have been easy. But I would have done my very best to be my very best for that family in their grief.

Eventually the phone did ring. The woman did die. And I was there. When the call did finally come at 1:00 am I was able to go immediately. My husband was home and, in the end, it all worked out perfectly. But ministry isn’t perfect. Oftentimes it will mess up my life, destroy my best-laid plans, ruin wonderful family vacations, and keep me up at night in a fit of anxiety. In the light of day, though, it all feels worth it. Because in the light of day there is profound peace and deep satisfaction in knowing that you are doing exactly what you were meant to do.


7 replies
  1. Bromleigh
    Bromleigh says:

    Three days after returning from maternity leave, on an afternoon with my infant in the office and her father at work, with my senior pastor out of town, I learned that two of my parishioners had been rushed to the hospital, both in bad shape.
    At any rate, I empathize, I agonize, and I thank you for this essay.

    Reply
  2. MaryAnn
    MaryAnn says:

    I appreciate this so much. Could really relate to it–the cobbling together of a plan, the ‘selfishness’ of hoping the person hangs on so that you don’t have to put the plan in action.
    I put that in quotes because I think we need to go easy on ourselves! (OK, I do.)

    Reply
  3. Betsy T
    Betsy T says:

    As a hospital chaplain, I can vouch that not every pastor would make the choice to go at 1AM. Many will visit during the day and have prayers, with the expectation that they will be called the next day. It’s really a rare thing to have the pastor being the person who shows up at the very moment of death in the middle of the night.
    For those who are called, I thank you. It’s always a difficult and unique decision when That Call is coming: do we go, or not.

    Reply
  4. Amy W
    Amy W says:

    8 weeks into my first solo pastorate – and with a 6 month old and 2 year old – wow, do I relate! I just told my husband this weekend that the pastoral care – the hospital visits and surgery calls and funerals – are the piece that is stressing me out. The rest is at least somewhat predictable, and I can make plans for the kids. But those unexpected calls – I too have contingency plans, but – I still loose an inordinate amount of sleep over those calls. Those are the moments I wonder if I made the right decision to take on a church right now, if I should have waited until the kids were older, if I will feel rested and relaxed ever again in my life…and so on. But yes…it is always better in the morning somehow.
    Good to know we are not alone!

    Reply
  5. Julia
    Julia says:

    Teri- I know this all too well. My husband is usually gone at least one week and one weekend a month. (That’s not counting the 4 months he was gone last year.) I’m also a solo pastor. With no family nearby, I had to form a “care” team of congregants that would either 1) go to the hospital or 2) watch my son in the middle of the night with no questions asked. The single parent/solo pastor gig is difficult, whether you do it for a couple days or for a lifetime. It’s hard to explain the angst-filled ecstasy that is pastoring and parenting, but you’ve done a great job.

    Reply
  6. Joy
    Joy says:

    Thank you for sharing this struggle. It’s helpful as a new mom to hear that others face the same issues. You are incredibly lucky to have family near by, we don’t, and that is definitely a factor in the stress of it all.

    Reply

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