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A blog of the Evangelical Lutheran Liturgy

The Truth about Shut-ins from Pr. Saltzman

Pastor Greg Alms posted the following very helpful essay from Pastor  Russell E Saltzman. Pretty much everything Alms posts is worth reading, even his critiques of modern rock music. You can follow his blog here:

I am always taken by surprise by how the honesty of the Law brings relief, if not exactly comfort. An honest diagnosis helps because it acknowledges the reality. It is very frustrating to not know what is wrong, to simply have a bag of symptoms and no name. With a diagnosis comes some sense of control, of what to expect, and perhaps of some treatment. Saltzman's honest description here mirrors much of my own experience and he does it without getting preachy or covering up the frustration that every honest pastor feels in these situations.

Where I appreciate his not getting preachy, I can't resist myself. This is what faith looks and feels like most of the time. This isn't the case with every shut-in, but it is often the case or will be the case eventually. But faith t keeps on despite the evidence and doubts. It simply insists that God is good and merciful even when He doesn't seem to be and that the Body and Blood of Christ and His Gospel is good for repentant believers even when there is no evidence of that either. So do we so often stand in the cemetery, in the obvious face of death's victory and life's defeat, and say, "O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?"

Anyway, thanks to Pastor Alms and to Pastor Saltzman. Your work has given voice to my pain and relief, and even some joy. Thank you.

Reposted from

"Notes From a Communion Call
August 21, 1980

   She is 86 years old and requires constant nursing care. Until her retirement she was a college professor; until her illness she led an active retirement. A major stroke some few years ago deprived her of speech by partially paralyzing her throat and facial muscles. Age, frailty, and arthritis have done the rest.
   Her niece, her only family and only marginally connected to the parish, has asked me to see her. I don’t know her.
   She has great difficulty swallowing because of the paralysis. She drools continually. Her tongue lolls to one side, some portion of it always outside her mouth. She has no teeth; they were removed after the stroke to aid her swallowing. She is embarrassed by her appearance and holds a tissue to her lower face, hiding, absorbing the saliva.
   She communicates with an occasional grunt, all she can manage vocally, and laboriously writes responses and questions in a large childish hand on an oversized note pad.
   Her eyesight is poor. She writes blind, huge looping letters in a long scrawl. She can’t see what she writes and I can’t read it. I have to ask her to write it again, and once more, frustrated with myself that I cannot read it the first time and must ask a second and a third time.
   Her mind is active, inquisitive.
   She has numerous talking books for the blind about her room. Some, I note, are very recent titles.

   She writes and begins to weep, the soft, low animal sounds of someone deeply wounded. I can’t read it. She writes it again. “I am a prisoner.”
   Of what, I wonder. Her body? This nursing home?
   “I want to die,” she writes. “Why won’t God let me die?”
   “I don't know,” and I reach for her hand.
   If I hold her hand she can’t write this stuff, and I don’t want to read it.

   This isn’t the way shut-in calls are supposed to work.
   The mythology is, I am the one who is to go away marveling at the capacity for human faith in adversity, and the person visited is to be cheered with the comfort of the pastor’s presence.
   There is nothing here at which to marvel, and poor comfort to give. All that is here is an old lady who wants to die and a pastor who doesn’t know why God won’t let her.
   Why won’t God just let her die?

   I ask if she would like Holy Communion.
   She grunts through the tissue. I assume she means yes. I commence the ritual. We share communion. I shave a sliver of bread from the wafer and mingle it with a very small bit of wine, so she can receive without choking. I put it to her lips. She manages to swallow some.
   I feel absurd.
   What we are doing feels absurd. I am drained, exhausted after fifteen minutes with an old woman I don’t know. It seems surreal, if not meaningless.
   Hurriedly, I pronounce the benediction, wondering with what degree of favor the Lord does look upon this old woman.
   The mythological piety of pastoral calling again takes over. She is now supposed to feel uplifted, her countenance transformed.
   Nothing like that happens.
   Sometimes faith is tossed into the teeth of realities we cannot fathom, and we can only hope to escape with as little damage to ourselves as possible.

   Afterward, she reaches for the pad and scrawls something I can’t read. Hating myself for having to ask, I tell her to do it again. She writes “Thank you.”
   I know so little about her. I know only she wants to die.
   Some many weeks later, after putting another visit off as long as I could before guilt propelled me go, I was preparing to see her again when the nursing home called.
   She had died that very morning.
   I thanked God, but I still cannot say whether it was for her or for me.

-- The Pastor's Page and Other Small Essays, ALPB, 2010"
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