It seems that when someone we care about dies, we often regret something we said, or didn’t say, something we did or didn’t do. We think we could have done more to make their life, or their end-of-life, better. Guilt can sometimes be overwhelming. How fortunate, that the greater our connection with God, the greater is His support of us during those times. My friend, Tim, is going to tell you about an experience he had, as a young chaplain, that involves healing, the presence of God and his afterlife connection with a cancer patient.
The following was written by Rev. Dr. Tim Ehrlich
As a first semester seminarian at Duke I was hired as Student Associate Pastor of Trinity Avenue Presbyterian Church. I loved working at Trinity Avenue for my boss Rev. Doctor Bennett, but after two years at Trinity I quit to take care of my newborn baby son Shaun and to enroll in the CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) program at Duke Medical Center. CPE required 35 hours a week and counted as two elective classes towards graduation from the Divinity School. My acceptance into the program made me a chaplain intern at Duke Hospital. As such I was assigned to an area that required a lot of pastoral care: the burn and amputation unit. I also rotated as Chaplain on call once every 10 days, which required me to stay at the hospital for 24 hours during my rotation.
The burn & amputation unit was a regional burn unit so it was busy with patients from all over the state. My job was to do pastoral visits with those who requested pastoral visits and with those whom the nursing staff had identified as most in need. Usually I visited everyone about to have an amputation and everyone who was having complications following their amputation. I also visited those who had been burned badly enough to require hospitalization.
I saw some very sad cases, people who had to have multiple amputations, or repeated amputations on the same limb, industrial accidents, and terrible burn cases. I visited with and tried to bring hope and light to people in the darkest depths of depression, and I visited with others facing similar circumstances, who were so filled with the joy and love of the Lord that they ministered to me instead of the other way around.
A Special Cancer Patient
As the Chaplain On Call for the thousand bed hospital I was given a pager and had to respond to every code blue (person is dying) situation, to provide immediate pastoral support to the family, if any. I also had to respond to pastoral assignment given by any staff doctor. One day when I was on call, I was paged by a doctor to visit with a young man who was very sick with cancer and had just been told he had a very short time to live – a month or so at most. His name was Patrick, I really liked him and felt so sorry for him because he was a really nice guy, a Christian, happily married and had an 8 year old daughter, and he was about to leave them without a husband and daddy.
Having had the experience of seeing people I had prayed for miraculously healed, I asked him if I could hold my hands over him and pray for his healing and he said ‘yes’. This became a daily thing: at some point during my daily time at work I would stop by his room and do this laying on of hands and pray. There was no huge miraculous response, but each time I prayed he seemed a little better: he seemed a little stronger and certainly it lifted his spirits. His month stretched out into two months. I truly felt like I was in a battle with his cancer, my prayers would lift him up during the week, but I was gone over the weekends, and cancer would tear him down such that by Mondays he was back to where he was at the beginning of the week. So it was an even battle, neither side was winning, but that felt like a victory to me because he was getting some extra time with his family.
But then we had Thanksgiving break, and I was off for 10 days. I was busy with family and didn’t get into the hospital. I was pretty sure that without a daily prayer with me he would likely die. Sure enough at the end of break I got word that Patrick had died. I was feeling confused and sad: why had my prayers for healing other young people been so effective, but my prayers for this man could not defeat the cancer, just slow it down for a few weeks? Why did God let a simple soul like Patrick die, when he had so much to live for? With questions like this shaking my faith, how could I survive the emotional toll of being a pastor and working with good people who were dying?
So I did what I do in situations like that, I prayed. “God,” I said, “Father, I am really in pain right now. I am confused, I am doubting my calling. I need you to give me a touch. I am asking you to give me a touch. I going to hold out my hand, and would you please touch my hand and let me know you are there?” I really don’t know where that request came from. Gideon put out a fleece: I put out my palm. I had never asked anything like that of God before. It was just the cry of a broken heart, reacting with emotion and not intellect. So I lay face down on my bed with my right hand held open; and as I lay there I felt a firm touch on my palm. It was such a strong physical sensation of someone pressing a finger into my palm that I opened my eyes somewhat startled and looked around. I thought my wife might have come into the room and touched my hand, but I was alone.
That touch did two things to me: first it lifted me up emotionally – because I had been in such agony of the soul over Patrick’s passing. Secondly, my questions and doubts about why God let a good man like Patrick die were gone. That touch was like a spiritual defibrillator, it jolted me back to faith: I had just asked God to touch my palm, and he did! What do you do with something like that? How do you categorize it? There is a certain amount of shock that sets in; its good, a good thing happened, but it was surprising.
A Soul Ascending
A few hours later, I again walked into my room and lay face down on the bed to pray. Despite the experience of being touched I was still feeling deeply sorry for his widow and daughter. I was not in agony of the soul any more but I was also feeling a bit guilty because I had not been there daily to pray and to keep him going during the holiday. So I prayed for his family and for my guilt. While I was praying, I suddenly heard his voice, as if coming from above me. He said, “Timmy, its me Patrick.” There was a moment of silence, I responded “Hi Patrick, what is up with you?” He replied, “I don’t know where I am; do you know where I am?” I rolled over onto my back, I said, “I don’t know where you are but I know where you are going, and you need to go there now!” That was it; I heard nothing more from him ever again.
That experience caused me to understand that sometimes souls are so attached to this world that they are not ready to cross over and they can linger for a time. This and other similar incidents I’ve experienced also speak to me of the reality of the soul as an intelligent entity that survives the death of the physical body.
If you would like to share your spiritual experience, I would like to hear it. Please use the ‘Contact Me’ form.
Relevant scripture verses:
1 Corinthians 12:4-11
4 Now God gives us many kinds of special abilities, but it is the same Holy Spirit who is the source of them all. 5 There are different kinds of service to God, but it is the same Lord we are serving. 6 There are many ways in which God works in our lives, but it is the same God who does the work in and through all of us who are his. 7 The Holy Spirit displays God’s power through each of us as a means of helping the entire church.
8 To one person the Spirit gives the ability to give wise advice; someone else may be especially good at studying and teaching, and this is his gift from the same Spirit. 9 He gives special faith to another, and to someone else the power to heal the sick. 10 He gives power for doing miracles to some, and to others power to prophesy and preach. He gives someone else the power to know whether evil spirits are speaking through those who claim to be giving God’s messages—or whether it is really the Spirit of God who is speaking. Still another person is able to speak in languages he never learned; and others, who do not know the language either, are given power to understand what he is saying. 11 It is the same and only Holy Spirit who gives all these gifts and powers, deciding which each one of us should have.
John 1:49-51 New International Version (NIV)
49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
50 Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you, you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”