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A psalm and a blessing

Blessing of Bible and coffee

Psalm 139 helps Chaplain Jan Johnson express her experience blessing families in the “COVID-19 wilderness” of Mercy Hospital in Muskegon.

CHAPLAIN JAN JOHNSON
Mercy Health, Muskegon

Chaplain Jan Johnson offers a blessing

There is a Bible next to me, open to Psalm 139: O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

“Take this last blessing to him for me, will you? And tell him that I love him,” Andy’s wife said as we ended the call.

For the last hour, I have been on the phone with Emily. Her husband of 40 years is receiving comfort measures only on the 6th floor Covid19 unit. She is grieving normally and is expressing her feelings. She shared stories of their life together, recalling days of joy when babies were born, or family milestones were celebrated. She spoke of challenges that she and Andy had faced together and the strength of the bond they shared. Her voice was tearful as she described the simple, ordinary things of their daily life: how Andy always got lost in the tool section at Home Depot; the way he taught each of the grandchildren to fish; his unwavering support for his beloved Detroit Tigers.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. 
You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.

In another time, before this pandemic, I would have been with Andy and his family at his bedside. As they said their goodbyes and spent those last moments together, I would have listened, prayed, held a hand, or shared a hug. I would have brought tissues and cups of water. I would have been physically, emotionally, and spiritually present with them in that sacred space. I would have felt confident caring for Andy and his family because, as a chaplain, the end of life is holy, yet familiar, ground.

I have had the privilege of accompanying many patients and their loved ones, as a companion and guide, on their journey through the valley of the shadow. While each person’s end of life journey is unique, twenty-plus years in hospital ministry has taught me that there are familiar markers and signposts along the path.  

But today, as I sit in the sterile silence of an empty hospital conference room, I feel helpless and lost as I think of Andy, sedated and on a ventilator two floors below. I don’t recognize much in this post-Covid19 wilderness. The familiar map that has helped to guide my ministry has vanished like the fragile lines drawn on an Etch-a-Sketch, now shaken and thrown to the floor.

Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. 
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

What am I supposed to learn here, Lord? You are the one who called me to bear your light into dark places. Well, it’s dark now, and I can’t see the path ahead. A few weeks ago, I had many tools for ministry. I could see and hear and touch. I could form a connection with my patient and his family, using all of my senses, all of my skills. Now all I have is an ear to listen. All I have is my voice over a phone. Is it enough? Speak, Lord, your servant is listening …

Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely.
You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

 “Take this last blessing to him for me, will you?” Emily asked.

John O’Donahue wrote that a blessing “is a circle of light drawn around a person to protect, heal, and strengthen.” * A blessing knows no distance or barriers. A blessing changes distance into spiritual space. A blessing brings light into the dark places of our lives.

I can’t go to Andy’s bedside to pray, to anoint, to speak the words of Emily’s blessing so that his spirit might hear. Gloves, N95 masks, and sterile gowns are precious resources, reserved only for those colleagues who must be in direct contact with infected patients.

So there in the conference room, I hold Emily’s last gift to Andy in my heart and pray:

Pour out your Spirit, Adonai, and cover Andy with the holy oil of your healing.

Take Andy’s hand and lead him into the light of your glory.
Speak your word to his heart, Adonai, and remind him of his baptism. 
Please remind him that he is loved. Please remind him that he is not alone. 
Please, Adonai, grant him peace. 

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days 
that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed. 
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 
I try to count them—they are more than the sand; 
I come to the end—I am still with you.

Andy died at 1820h of complications from the Covid19 virus.

He died beloved and blessed, surrounded by a circle of holy light.

Outside in the hallway, I can hear the sound of hurried steps as a nurse brings pain meds to her patient’s bedside. I can hear the harsh buzzing of an alarm, alerting to a patient’s need for attention. I can hear a doctor’s rapid dictation and, somewhere in the distance, an overhead announcement of a “Code Blue” taking place on the third floor. Another chaplain will take that call.

Right now, I need to be with another patient. She asked for prayer before her heart surgery.

I take the last sip of cold coffee, put on my mask, and head upstairs.

~ Chaplain Jan Johnson is a Local Pastor of The Michigan Conference. In addition to her ministry at Mercy Hospital, she also pastors Sitka United Methodist Church.