Wednesday, August 27, 2008


A typical country preacher who struggled with life and death.

Herb was what I would call a typical country preacher. He didn't like to be called Reverend, Minister, or Pastor. He said, "Call me preacher because that's what I was called to do." I first met Herb when he was admitted into our hospice program while he was in a local nursing home. He had severe lung cancer and had suffered a stroke that confined him to a wheel chair.

When I went into his room to do my spiritual assessment, I noticed that he had hand-carved wooden cross, religious pictures and family snapshots pinned to the wall. Two well-worn, tattered, dog-eared Bibles that had been obviously read and re-read through the years lay on his nightstand. I knew that he had been a local minister who had served as bi-vocational pastor in at least six Baptist congregations in the mountain area.

I tried to make a talking point with him about the cross on the wall and the Bibles on his nightstand, suggesting that religious symbols can be a comfort when we are too sick to read. Herb was not in the mood for talking. He made it a point that he didn't want to talk to a minister. He only consented to my visit when a nurse told him that the chaplain visit was part of the hospice admission process and paper work.

Herb was admitted into hospice because he had lung cancer in its final stages and his wife could not, or would not, care for him at home after his stroke. He was getting weaker by the day. The nursing home staff suspected that the cancer had metastasized to his bones and to his brain. He had difficulty getting around, having to use a wheelchair for which he had a profound hatred. He got angry when someone tried to move him out of his room and spent the rest of the day complaining to anyone who would listen.

As time went on, his depression appeared to worsen. The hospice nurse kept suggesting to him that he allow the hospice chaplain to visit, pointing out that perhaps he could use a prayer partner. After more than a month of her persistent effort he finally agreed to let me visit once a month.

Herb's depression was obvious. He would lie in bed turned toward the inner wall. At times he might turn to me when I came to visit, but most often he would remain with his face turned to the wall away from me or any other visitor, which sometimes included his own grown children.

I remember when I was about to end one of my early visits with him I asked, "Do you want to have a prayer before I go?"

"No!" That ended that.

One afternoon I asked him, if he had another pastor coming by to visit?

Again his response was short and to the point. "No!"

"Ok," I said. "How about letting me act as your pastor while you are in here? I'm a Baptist like you, and I can stop by to visit when I'm in the nursing home visiting other hospice patients." He gave no reply.

"Look, Herb," I said," I'll see you again next week, Ok?" When I left, I thought to myself as I walked down the hallway, I should increase my visits since he did not object. Maybe he's getting used to me.

A week later on my next visit to the nursing home, the floor nurse requested a talk with me. She began to tell me about Herb's recent behavior. "He cusses the aides and nurses," she said. "He even threw a food tray on the floor and told me to get out. Chaplain, see what you can accomplish with him. We can't seem to do anything with him."

I told her that I would look in on him. I told her that the hospice team had also noted his aggressive behavior as well.

"Did you know he was a local preacher?" the nurse asked.

"Yes, I understand he pastored several churches in this area."

"He did," she went on, "until he got a divorce." Then she said, "You know, he left his first wife to whom he had been married for over thirty-five years. Caused quite a scandal around town. He has four grown children; you might have met them. After his divorce he married a local woman who is younger than his oldest daughter. Now, I understand his new wife is running around with another man. You know she put old Herb in here because she didn't want to take care of him at home."

"No, I hadn't heard that. Thanks for your information. I had no idea." I went on to say to the nurse, "No wonder he is depressed most of the time. That's probably why he appears so angry, too. He seems to have a good reason for being upset if his wife is running around while he is in this place."

As I was getting up to leave the nurse continued to talk. "I don't understand a minister who all his life preached about heaven; where we know there is no sorrow or pain or tears and now he is so afraid to die. You would think he might be a little anxious to get to heaven."

My thoughts were a little different. Wow! No wonder he is depressed. He is a country preacher who believes smoking is sinful and he smoked most of his life. He also no doubt believed that divorce is wrong and sinful. And not only that, he remarried and that, to his belief system means he is now living in adultery. He probably knows his new wife is running around with someone else. He knows he is dying and he is still married, still living in adultery. Therefore, he might be afraid of dying and going to the very hell he preached about so vividly when he was an active country preacher.

Putting together what the floor nurse said about him and adding the other information that I had been able to glean from Herb himself, it was easy to surmise why he might have thought that his illness was somehow related to his "sin" of smoking all his life, and his adulterous relationship with his second wife. In one of our bedside conversations he indicated that he deserved his cancer.

I began to understand where his fear was coming from. It stemmed from his country religious, conservative, fundamental culture. Strict fundamental preachers often leave no room for God's love and forgiveness to operate in their own life. They forget the message that they preached so often to others, that God is love and God will forgive.

I stopped by Herbs' room one afternoon and caught him in one of his few good moods. I led the conversation around to his feelings about smoking being a sin, and smoking causing his cancer. He said he knew that his cancer was his own fault. I made a suggestion that ministers need to remember that when Jesus said, He forgives all sin, that He meant the sins of ministers as well. Herb didn't respond, but asked me for the first time to pray for him, as I was about to leave. I remember that I prayed, thanking God for his gift of forgiveness.

I never brought up the subject of Herb's marriages. He never offered any information about his and his wife's relationship. I continued my visits to his room whenever I was in the nursing home and offered my prayers for personal forgiveness whenever he would let me pray with him.

When Herb finally finished his walk through the dark valley, he was alone by choice. It was as if it would have been religiously culturally incorrect to allow another minister to share his journey out of the death shadow.

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