Thursday, Decemeber 10, 2009
The Preacher’s Corner
“Don’t come see me if I’m sick...”
One of my early memories is of an evening when my grandmother was about to be paid a house call by our physician. She was right sick, but before he arrived, she slipped out of bed and put the nice lace cover on the dining room table, for he was to pass that way.
Being presentable when sick, for the doctor, the minister as well as all and sundry callers and well wishers is an old custom, deeply embedded in the psyche, and I think, once bore some relation to our desire to get things right with God, so as to be presentable before our Creator with a forgiven heart and a gentle spirit. I suspect, that even in traditions where predictions of eternal retribution are part of the ritual, this prospect causes less anxiety than it did in the long ago.
We have sung the hymn that says, “For the love of God is broader than the measure of our mind, and the heart of the Eternal is most wonderfully kind,” for too long, for most people to be struck with medieval terror at the prospect of what lies upon the other side. But earthly behavior often lags behind our perceptions of heavenly truth—hence, “fixing up” for the doctor.
I have known people who were positively down for the count who have perked up and practically danced, so as not to disappoint their attending physicians. By the same token, I’ve known more than a few beleaguered Christian soldiers who will march for miles before admitting their need to the sympathetic pastor.
So practices vary. For many, a time of sickness is like Old Home Week. All the relatives, the preacher, an entire medical staff, as well as everybody they know, with all sorts of drop-ins and hangers-on welcome and invited, descend, and the patient fluffs up and enjoys the attention.
I remember one dear soul who refused to let the orderlies roll her into the operating room until she had arranged her hair and applied her lipstick “just so.”
Another parishioner was of the opposite conviction. If she was sick, she wanted to devote herself wholeheartedly to the enterprise, and there was no need for anyone to come knocking at her door.
If the physician appeared (and she very much doubted whether they really offered much by way of help or healing), so be it; but they had to take things as they found them. “Don’t come see me if I am sick, if you haven’t visited me when I was well,” was her motto.
But eschatological foreboding (or is it just “what the neighbors will think”) dies hard. When we had a small fire, I happened to be at home, and urged my mother — then nearly ninety — to gather up our dogs and go sit in the car (for it was bitterly cold outside) until the fire department could deal with the situation.
I busied myself (“panicked” is a better word) hauling such things as I could out of the room where the overhead light fixture was sparking like a Roman candle, so that I did not notice her presence and assumed she was outside with the dogs as I had suggested.
No such luck, the fire crew found her in the bedroom, having changed out of her bathrobe into something more presentable. “No sense being burned out of the house in nothing but a dressing gown!”
That immediately brought to mind the story along about 1950 of another great saint of local fame, who was awakened by an apocalyptic explosion east of town, when one of those big natural gas transmission lines gave way and lit the night sky with flames as bright as day. They say it was visible for miles.
Standing in the front yard in their night clothes, the husband, who was a wry gentleman who sold insurance, and who suspected that this episode would get everyone so excited that there would be no going back to bed that morning, told his wife of many years, “My dear, I suggest that unless you want to meet your maker in your nightgown, you and I had better go inside and change.”
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