Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Truth about Shut-ins from Pr. Saltzman

Pastor Greg Alms posted the following very helpful essay from Pastor  Russell E Saltzman. Pretty much everything Alms posts is worth reading, even his critiques of modern rock music. You can follow his blog here: http://incarnatusest.blogspot.com.

I am always taken by surprise by how the honesty of the Law brings relief, if not exactly comfort. An honest diagnosis helps because it acknowledges the reality. It is very frustrating to not know what is wrong, to simply have a bag of symptoms and no name. With a diagnosis comes some sense of control, of what to expect, and perhaps of some treatment. Saltzman's honest description here mirrors much of my own experience and he does it without getting preachy or covering up the frustration that every honest pastor feels in these situations.

Where I appreciate his not getting preachy, I can't resist myself. This is what faith looks and feels like most of the time. This isn't the case with every shut-in, but it is often the case or will be the case eventually. But faith t keeps on despite the evidence and doubts. It simply insists that God is good and merciful even when He doesn't seem to be and that the Body and Blood of Christ and His Gospel is good for repentant believers even when there is no evidence of that either. So do we so often stand in the cemetery, in the obvious face of death's victory and life's defeat, and say, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"

Anyway, thanks to Pastor Alms and to Pastor Saltzman. Your work has given voice to my pain and relief, and even some joy. Thank you.

Reposted from http://www.alpb.org/forum/index.php?topic=4767.0

"Notes From a Communion Call
August 21, 1980

   She is 86 years old and requires constant nursing care. Until her retirement she was a college professor; until her illness she led an active retirement. A major stroke some few years ago deprived her of speech by partially paralyzing her throat and facial muscles. Age, frailty, and arthritis have done the rest.
   Her niece, her only family and only marginally connected to the parish, has asked me to see her. I don’t know her.
   She has great difficulty swallowing because of the paralysis. She drools continually. Her tongue lolls to one side, some portion of it always outside her mouth. She has no teeth; they were removed after the stroke to aid her swallowing. She is embarrassed by her appearance and holds a tissue to her lower face, hiding, absorbing the saliva.
   She communicates with an occasional grunt, all she can manage vocally, and laboriously writes responses and questions in a large childish hand on an oversized note pad.
   Her eyesight is poor. She writes blind, huge looping letters in a long scrawl. She can’t see what she writes and I can’t read it. I have to ask her to write it again, and once more, frustrated with myself that I cannot read it the first time and must ask a second and a third time.
   Her mind is active, inquisitive.
   She has numerous talking books for the blind about her room. Some, I note, are very recent titles.

   She writes and begins to weep, the soft, low animal sounds of someone deeply wounded. I can’t read it. She writes it again. “I am a prisoner.”
   Of what, I wonder. Her body? This nursing home?
   “I want to die,” she writes. “Why won’t God let me die?”
   “I don't know,” and I reach for her hand.
   If I hold her hand she can’t write this stuff, and I don’t want to read it.

   This isn’t the way shut-in calls are supposed to work.
   The mythology is, I am the one who is to go away marveling at the capacity for human faith in adversity, and the person visited is to be cheered with the comfort of the pastor’s presence.
   There is nothing here at which to marvel, and poor comfort to give. All that is here is an old lady who wants to die and a pastor who doesn’t know why God won’t let her.
   Why won’t God just let her die?

   I ask if she would like Holy Communion.
   She grunts through the tissue. I assume she means yes. I commence the ritual. We share communion. I shave a sliver of bread from the wafer and mingle it with a very small bit of wine, so she can receive without choking. I put it to her lips. She manages to swallow some.
   I feel absurd.
   What we are doing feels absurd. I am drained, exhausted after fifteen minutes with an old woman I don’t know. It seems surreal, if not meaningless.
   Hurriedly, I pronounce the benediction, wondering with what degree of favor the Lord does look upon this old woman.
   The mythological piety of pastoral calling again takes over. She is now supposed to feel uplifted, her countenance transformed.
   Nothing like that happens.
   Sometimes faith is tossed into the teeth of realities we cannot fathom, and we can only hope to escape with as little damage to ourselves as possible.

   Afterward, she reaches for the pad and scrawls something I can’t read. Hating myself for having to ask, I tell her to do it again. She writes “Thank you.”
   I know so little about her. I know only she wants to die.
   Some many weeks later, after putting another visit off as long as I could before guilt propelled me go, I was preparing to see her again when the nursing home called.
   She had died that very morning.
   I thanked God, but I still cannot say whether it was for her or for me.

-- The Pastor's Page and Other Small Essays, ALPB, 2010"


  1. Pr. Petersen,

    Thanks for posting this. I'm relatively new to the parish (I was ordained into the OHM on June 24th, 2012, the Nativity of St. John the Baptizer), and the Lord placed a woman into my care who was 108 years old (for all you baseball fans out there, Ruth was born the year the Cubs last won the World Series). She didn't know me from Adam. I sang hymns with her, I prayed with her (perhaps mostly for her), and I prayed the Psalter with her. Then, a few months after I arrived, she went to sleep in Christ. The whole time I'd been feeling sick about my lack of pastoral care to this woman. Perhaps I wasn't visiting her at the right time, perhaps I wasn't singing the right hymns, perhaps I wasn't reading the right psalms. This article reminds me of Ruth, but it also reminds me that faith rests solely on Christ and His Word, which never returns to Him void.

  2. Yes. This is the truth. I watched my mother die similarly. I was her pastor. She had ALS. She could barely rasp at the end. She asked me why she keept waking up every day. Why God didn't let her die. It was not beautiful. It was an ugly death. She died with the comfort of Christ, without doubt, for I know my mother's faith, as she expressed it clearly and forthrightly. But I could only guess if she heard as I read Scripture in the end. I felt helpless, able to do nothing for her, other than hold her hand, pray, and read some scripture. I could not even give her communion when the drugs had kept her asleep in the last few weeks.

    As she was breathing her last, my father asked me to read from the Gospels. I fumbled through, trying to find something appropriate. He chided me, "It doesn't matter. It's all the Gospel. Just read." I did. She died.

    I have attended many deathbeds. I have been present at the end for two. Whether at the end or near the end, none are pretty. Sometimes you get the "Thank you". Sometimes you do not, not because there is no thanks, but because there is no ability to say anything at all. But that's not why we are there. For myself, I can only remind myself that I don't deserve thanks, even when it is given.

    "So likewise you, when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do.’ ” (Lk. 17:10).

    Praise God that His Spirit is where His Word is, even when it comes from stumbling lips.

  3. Been there, doing that as the live-in caretaker child. We'll be 89 next month. Every year now takes some ability away. We are almost deaf now and yesterday a PET scan searched for any living lung cancer cells in her right lung. The PET has brough on a fibromyalgia like pain over her whole body. She's moaning today. Macular degeneration has robbed her of most of her sight, and this year in particular her legs have become wobbly and falling is managed by holding her whenever she needs to move about. "That you may live long on the earth." She caught malaria at age 3 in the 1927 super-flood of the Mississippi River in the deltaic plains of NE Louisiana not far from Vicksburg. Then when she was 5 her father deserted the family (1929) and her mother was hospitalized for the rest of her life. There were 9 little girls thrown on the mercy of a family and a community in the depths of the rural Mississippi depression. A stale sweet potato forgotten in the back of an oven took away the hunger pangs of 3 days without food. "Live long on the earth??"

    What is God thinking? It's no blessing to live long on the earth; all your friends, acqaintainces, working partners, and most likely even your children have died leaving you in a world of strangers. My father died at 64 and much of the community and all my mother's sisters came to help us mourn. When my long-lived mother dies, nobody will know who she was/is.

    Luther in the SC reminds us that the 4th commandment is the first one with a promise, "that you may live long on the earth." My father had painless death, at 64, at home, in your own bed, in your sleep, with all the family that he'd made watching and listening for your departure, and an excellent sermon by a pastor who knew you and your whole family very well, and preached law and gospel at your funeral."

  4. Pt.2. I love my parents and I'm doing the very slow "parade to the cemetery" that Blanch DuBois explained to Stanley as to why his wife's family no longer had any property or money left. I'm doing it and making the parade, with the heroic help of her doctors (thankfull our GP went to grammar school with me and has known my mother all her (the GP's) life. She loves my mother, but managing the pain is getting harder and harder. Only 2 of Mama's sister's are still alive. It's been a parade with lots of floates.

    My point in all this is "I do not want to be (blessed) with living long on this earth. I was so disappointed when I didn't die at 64 and 65 is passing fair. Please God, I love and honor my parents, but let's just forget about that "live long" thing. May I be here to care all that I can for Mama and to help her beatup little body to it's rest and to our celebration of her soul's rise to heaven.

    We are all Lutherans in this close family because of a decision my father made in 1947. We still are because Mama is a rock of faith. I've wandered and she has prayed and pulled me back everytime. My brother fights it, but she makes it a fight. He has to fight to avoid the faith while she is still alive.

    We are mostly shut-in now, and our pastors come and we confess and commune. That is the best blessing that God is giving us now. He has not left us alone, he still sends his servants to share this "long parade to the cemetery" and then the joyful knowledge of her salvation with her Lord in Heaven.

    Please don't avoid your shut-ins, you're all we have left, the worship of our church as changed so much we don't even recognize it anymore. We can't sing along, all the words and music has changed because we have lived too long in this ever-changing world. But come and read psalms and the gospels with and to us. It's a great comfort, even if you can't see resonses in our frozen faces and bodies. Just come and do the part that is the whole reason for the journey. Hold our hands of faith as you escort us to heaven in victory over this hidious World.

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  6. Search the Scriptures with diligent care, and one finds that the Divine promise of "that thou mayest live long on the earth" is spoken to a structured community of God, by a chosen/ordained mouthpiece of God familiar with bulrushes. That is the context. If kids listen to authority, and if the sheep treat their under-shepherd rebbe with due respect, the community at large will prosper. It will live long; and the noisome Philistine bunch next door will tremble. To greedily claim a sure promise of earthly longevity for one's self, however, is as potent an error as assuming one holds a public office of Priest, on the basis of being described as a member of a royal priesthood. Next you'll claim your title towards being a holy nation, and take out your neighbor with a bazooka for clipping your prize roses with his straying lawnmower.

    You belong to a kingdom of priests, God told the Israelites, there in the Old Testament. Indeed. A high honor, that. The honor does not mean, however, that everyone in Samuel's time, say, was a Levite! It does mean that the community was blessed by God's wisdom and His arrangement to have His community of sheep nursed by priests; to be succoured, by those chosen and ritely placed in authority to preach, discourse and handle His Mysteries.

    Yes, the Christian Church is a royal Priesthood, a human community of flesh, blood and Spirit from which its shepherds spring forth like lambs, and serve. And the Christian Church will live long on this earth, however small its number ... as long as it is faithful to the Master's Word and His "This do's," with respect to the Mysteries. Sins will be forgiven; and Life will enter us again, to push us forward on the pilgrimage.

    Oh, there may be the individuals who live long in terms of solar years, and who may live well too, all by the grace (and those phosphatidylic genes) of the Merciful. But that's a different matter entirely.

    Your (unworthy) servant,
    Herr Doktor


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