I rang the front door bell with my Bible in my hand and a small vial of anointing oil in my pocket. As I waited I heard my name called from the side of the house.
It was a relief to see Miriam beckoning me to come around to the back yard. I didn’t know how ill she would be. I had come to pray with her and anoint her for healing from a relapsing nephritis. Even though I knew that her appearance was no measure of the severity of her condition it was somehow comforting to see that she didn’t look different. Her peaceful expression, quick smile and sparkling eyes welcomed me to their home.
She directed me to a well kept back yard bordered by lovely plants and bushes. “This is what he does.” Miriam proudly announced, indicating that Carlton, her husband, had done this work. He quickly responded that he had finished the yard in one day and now planned on resting for two.
Three lawn chairs were waiting for us. We talked freely and laughed easily. I commented on the beauty and peace of the place. Miriam said she thought so too except for the chirping of the sparrows. She said it probably wouldn’t be so irritating if she turned her hearing aid off.
I recognized again what has long seemed to me like laughter just below the surface of Miriam’s responses. It’s there, even when we talk about serious things. And yet, rather than make her superficial it adds to the depth of her character. I wonder if I am encountering joy.
Before I have a chance to ask her how she is, she, of course, wants to know how things are going for me. I tell her because she really wants to know but then I direct our conversation to my primary purpose. She is ill and I want to pray for her.
I asked her to tell me how she knew the chronic kidney problem had relapsed. She explained the symptoms of weakness and fatigue that raised the question but it was the breaking out in hives that confirmed her suspicion. I told her I had never heard of nephritis presenting in that way. She said the doctors at Mayo Clinic had never seen a case like it either. She was the only one. Somehow the old nurse in me came out and I said, “Are you sure you don’t have an allergy to something?” We considered the idea and decided that it wouldn’t hurt to get tested but then she quickly added “Unless it would be to wheat, because I couldn’t live without bread. And then she thoughtfully added, “I couldn’t live without butter either.”
“No,” I replied, “If you were allergic to bread or butter it would be better to be dead.” We all agreed on this as a given, much as we would have agreed on an article from the Apostle’s Creed.
A new scent wafted through the air and Carl said, “Somebody is smoking.” We gave nonverbal ascent to his conclusion We continued our easy conversation, interrupting each other, the way families do at dinner, to catch up on news, mostly updates on people we both knew.
She asked about Jim and Jan whose 47-year-old son had died tragically two weeks ago. I said they say their fine but added that we know the worst is yet to come. In union, Carlton and Miriam said, “Oh, yes.” and I could detect a shudder of empathy and a knowing that could only be there because their own precious son had also died tragically. Thankfully, there was the unspoken hope evidenced by their having come through it. An inner strength and tranquility that I have only seen in people whose lives have been pulverized by suffering.
Again, remembering why I had come, I asked if there were any particular scripture she would like me to read. After thinking a moment she said, “It’s all good.”
I chose the beginning of Isaiah 43, substituting Carlton and Miriam for Israel and Judah. She said that was one of her favorite passages. She then asked me to read the end of Isaiah 40. After that, I added Isaiah 50:4.
I took out my vial of oil and reminded these seasoned believers, who have been my teachers, that there is no magic in the oil. I had filled the little vial myself that very morning with ordinary oil. And yet, I said, I believed it to be more than symbolic. With direct eye contact to Miriam I confessed that I was ‘just a little bit Lutheran.” Without blinking she immediately replied with a warm smile “and I’m a little bit Reformed.”
The banner of Unity with Diversity that has given freedom and strength to the fellowship known as Elmbrook Church was flying high.
I told Carlton I was going to anoint him too, because this was happening to him, as well. He became thoughtful and said he didn’t think he had ever been anointed. I said, “Well, at 81 years old, it’s about time.”
I asked if there was anything special they would like me to include in the prayer. They asked for wisdom for how much activity to allow. We all knew that the Prednisone was giving a false sense of well being and rest may need to be embraced as a discipline rather than a feeling.
The prayer was simple and included the application of oil on each of their foreheads in the shape of a cross and in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
I was standing on Holy Ground but now it was time for me to go.
Miriam said, “You must leave through the house so you can sign the guest book.” As we entered the kitchen through the back door the smoke we had earlier detected met us and led us to the bright red burner on the electric stove, the soft hissing of an empty aluminum tea kettle and the melted black handle that had by now lost its shape.
Miriam picked it up with an oven mitt and I suggested we put it out on the grass. As she placed it against the house I said, “It’s ruined.” Yes, she said laughingly, and it isn’t the first one.
Then Carl offered that the buzzing sound we had heard earlier must have been the smoke alarm. He further explained that he thought I would have liked some tea but he had then forgotten about it.
As I signed the guest book, Miriam slipped Carlton a tender kiss. So, I thought, this is what 1 Cor 13 love looks like. As I made my way to the front door I said, “Well, Carlton, now you have something to do today. You need to go buy a new tea kettle.”