by Jennifer Wilder Morgan
Still dressed in my Sunday church clothes, I reached up to hold my daddy’s hand as he knocked softly on the hospital room door. He looked so handsome in his long, crisp white doctor’s coat, stethoscope draped around his neck. Daddy pushed the door open and I saw a woman in the room’s only bed. She looked old and sad and worn out as she lay, staring, at the bedside table filled with cards and wilting flowers. Daddy walked to the bedside, sat down and took her hand in his. At that moment, her countenance completely changed. As her hand tightly grasped his, a glow of hope lit up her face, indicating that she truly believed he would help her to heal.
I witnessed this scenario many times during my childhood as I visited patients with my father on Sunday afternoons. Time and time again, I watched as he sat with hurting people, listening to them, holding their hands. I saw the effect his compassion had in the faces of the patients he visited…that brilliant spark of light in the midst of pain and suffering. His compassion carried hope into the sickroom, and it was then that I had my first inkling of the powerful roles that compassion and hope play in the healing process.
Many years later, I followed in my daddy’s footsteps, not as a physician but as a hospital lay minister, visiting patients and offering them my prayers and my company. A gentle cadence of suffering and hope accompanied me as I moved from room to room, knocking softly on doors. This rhythm of joined hands, shared hearts, and whispered petitions reminded me of the rhythm of the Psalms I frequently read to those I visited. The poetry of the Psalms gracefully moved us through expressions of praise, concern, sorrow, and thanksgiving, always ending with exhortations of hope…heartfelt expectations of answered prayer or healing.
But there came a day when I encountered a disturbing break in this rhythm. Upon entering this room, I discovered an atmosphere of complete despair. There was no expectation, no hope. This patient wanted no prayer, no words of comfort, no Psalms. I was shaken. I recognized this kind of hopelessness from one of my own long-ago life experiences, and yet I had no idea how to minister to it. I practically ran out of the room. I sought the counsel of my supervising chaplain, and I will never forget his response. He opened his Bible and had me read the eighty-eighth Psalm. It was heartbreaking. As I finished reading, he explained this Psalm of despair is the saddest Psalm in the entire Psalter. There is no uplifting of hope at the end. The grief and darkness expressed by the psalmist very likely reflected the feelings this patient was experiencing, and that to minister to her, I would need to become vulnerable and enter into her despair with her. My chaplain encouraged me to visit this patient again, and advised that, instead of hearing my words of encouragement, what this woman needed was for someone to listen to her…to hear her, to weep with her, to hold her hand, to just be with her. He explained that my quiet, vulnerable presence would help her understand that she is not alone. In this movement of compassion, I would carry hope for her until she was strong enough to carry it herself.
I did revisit this patient a few days later. There were many tears as I heard her story, which was punctuated by long moments of silence. At one point, this dear woman reached over and grabbed my hand, gripping it so tightly it felt as if she was holding on for dear life. And I knew then that my chaplain was right. She was reaching out for the hope that I was carrying for her.
This was a profound moment in my hospital ministry experience. I learned that carrying hope for another person is compassion in its most powerful form. It is one of the most beautiful things we can do for another human being. To enter into the valley with those who despair, physically or emotionally, is to provide an outstretched hand to grasp onto—to be a companion—to let them know they do not walk their path alone. I was reminded of that elderly woman so many years ago who looked so expectantly into my daddy’s face as she grasped his hand. Yes, he was a physician, but it was his compassion, his willingness to be fully present with her in her sickness and grief, that allowed her heart to hope—to believe that she was not alone—that healing was possible. My father knew how important this hope born of compassion was to the healing process, because to believe healing is possible is the beginning of healing. With all of his medical training, Daddy always believed that the compassion of Christ, the Great Physician, is one of the most powerful prescriptions for bringing healing to the hopeless and hurting people of our world.
The twenty-third Psalm is the most requested Psalm I have read to patients during my ministry visits. And now, I look at the fourth verse with enlightened eyes, for with our hearts of compassion, born of Christ, we can be that comfort. We can be that companion. We can be that hope for those who walk through the valleys of despair.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”
Author Jennifer Wilder Morgan grew up in Cleveland Ohio, where her father served as a physician in private practice and as medical director for the Cleveland Indians Baseball Organization. She now resides in Houston, Texas, where she served for four years with Methodist Hospital Houston’s lay ministry.
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