Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.
We continue our discussion of the elders’ calling to visit the sick by considering how the elders ought to conduct the sick call in specific instances. When the elder must call on a parishioner who is about to submit to major surgery, he ought to visit the person before the surgery takes place. The elder can make this call either the night before the day of the surgery or he can visit the person an hour or so before the surgery is scheduled to take place. There is something to be said for both of these times. Both are times of stress and anxiety for the parishioner. He needs the Word of God. The advantage of making the call the night before the surgery is that the elder has more time to spend with the parishioner. He should wait until the visiting hours are over so that there is a minimum of distractions. A particularly appropriate passage to read is Psalm 4, especially verse 8 which reads, “I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep: for thou, Lord, only makest me dwell in safety.” One disadvantage of making this call an hour or so before the surgery is that often the patient is under sedation. This makes the call very difficult and, often, even impossible. One more comment is in order. It usually is not necessary that the elder remain with the family during the surgery itself. But he should be readily accessible in the event the family needs him.
As a general rule, hospital patients ought to be called upon once per week. If the patient is critically ill, he should be visited more frequently, daily if necessary. If death appears imminent, the elder should remain with the patient and family.
It is extremely important that the elder remember that he occupies the office of Christ, the Good Shepherd of the sheep. The elder must maintain the dignity of the office. He must as well display the love and concern of Christ for the sick. And he must lead the sick to meet their merciful High Priest, who is touched with the feeling of our infirmities, by means of the Word of God and prayer. In this way the sick will “obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:14-16).
When the parishioner is terminally ill, he or she must be prepared to meet the Lord through death. The needs vary among God’s people. Some are strong in faith and possess by God’s grace hope as an anchor for their souls. They are submissive to the Lord’s way with them. They are ready, even eager, to go and be with the Lord. These ought to be encouraged.
Others among God’s people are afraid to die. These are reticent to talk about death. The elder must encourage these people to express their fears. He must bring to them the assurances of the Word of God. The elder must call attention to the great victory the Lord Jesus obtained over sin, death, and the grave by His death on the cross and His resurrection from the dead. The fearful ought also to be reminded that God’s grace is abundantly sufficient for all of their needs. God, they must be told, will give them “dying grace” when they need it.
Still others attempt to “act” as if death is not going to happen. They are in a state of denial. These must be carefully led by the elder to face the reality of death. As the elder does this by means of the Word of God, he must also be aware of the fact that denial often turns into bitter anger against the Lord. These think that God is being terribly unfair and hard on them. They think God ought to let them live awhile longer for the sake of their families and loved ones. These must be patiently, gently, compassionately, yet firmly admonished to submit to the Lord’s way with them. The elders must bring to these this word of God, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is. 55:8-9).
We often do not understand God’s ways, but they are good for us. Always! Not even death can separate us from God’s love in Christ (Rom. 8:28-39). God’s chastening may be grievous, “nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (Heb. 12:11). These passages are just a few of the many which can and ought to be brought to the attention of those who are angry with the Lord. By the means of His Word brought by the elders, the Lord can and does turn the bitterly angry into the submissive children of God who trust that God’s ways are good for them.
Though it is much less common than it used to be, there are those who are not told that their death is imminent. More often than not, this happens when young children are afflicted with terminal illness. Parents of these children sometimes find it extremely difficult to tell them that they are about to die. The elder should do all that he can to convince the family to inform their loved one of his impending death. This is necessary in order that the person may be prepared to die. Why deprive him of the anticipation of the wonderful glory of the fellowship with God in Jesus into which he is about to be taken? Often, and this is true of children too, they know. Undersigned ministered to a youngster dying of cancer whose parents could not bring themselves to tell the little one that he was about to die. The last time I visited him I read Psalm 23, and when I got to verse 4, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me,” the boy recited it with me. Two days later he peacefully fell asleep in Jesus.
The elders are to be cautioned, too, not to ignore the needs of the loved ones of the dying. One can become so concerned with the dying parishioner that he forgets that his loved ones need to be prepared as well for the reality of the dying of their loved one. The needs of those about to be left behind by their dying husbands, wives, children, parents, relatives, or friends are often as great or greater than those of the dying person. The elders must bring to them also God’s Word of comfort and assurance, of instruction and encouragement. They too must be submissive to God’s way with themselves and their loved one who is about to die.
All of this brings us to the elders’ calling to minister to the dying and those bereaved. No matter the circumstances, to one degree or another death is always a struggle for the Christian. This is because it is “the last enemy that shall be destroyed” (I Cor. 15:26). The elders must make use of the many passages of Holy Scripture that speak of the victory in Christ which God’s people have over death. Psalms 73, 77, 90, and 116 are just four of the many Psalms which can be used to comfort the dying. Part of Job’s response to Bildad is the wonderful confession, “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth: And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25, 26). Who can count the multitude of dying Christians who have been comforted by these words of Jesus: “In my Father’s house are many mansions: If it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:2, 3)? Or, think of the wonderful comfort contained in this Scripture: “For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. For we know that if the earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens” (II Cor. 4:16-5:1). And, to quote no more, there is the command to John to write, “Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them” (Rev. 14:13).
Whatever the elders do, they must bring the Word of God to the dying. Often those about to die slip into a coma. This can last for only an hour or so or it may last for days, even weeks, and months. These must be brought the Word too! God has promised never to leave or forsake His saints. God is present with us and fellowships with us by means of His Word. For this reason the elders must never give up trying to reach comatose parishioners. When visiting such, the elders ought to read a verse or two. They ought to explain the Word briefly. And the elders must pray with them. Sometimes the comatose parishioner will respond with a squeeze of the hand. More often than not, there’s no response. Response or no, we believe God can and does speak to His saints even when we apparently cannot.
The same passages used to comfort the dying can be used to comfort the bereaved. This, D.V., will be the subject of our next article.