(Twenty-first in a series.)

Our first years of ministry in Wisconsin were helpful to my growth in understanding my responsibilities. The men and women of our churches were mostly patient and kind, and as they taught me, I grew. One thing I quickly learned was that visiting people is imperative to the growth of trust and love between shepherd and sheep, pastor and people.

Many members were in their seventies, eighties, and nineties, so I spent a lot of time in the hospital and nursing homes, and did many funerals. Since I was new to town and not connected to the grapevine, people of the church would call me to suggest I visit so-and-so who had been admitted to the hospital, or was without family and needing a visit in the nursing home.

One evening early on, our phone rang and an older woman of the church was on the line wanting to encourage me. She reported a conversation with a woman from town who had been up at the hospital in Portage earlier in the day. The woman had called her friend in our congregation to exclaim over what a wonderful pastor their new man was! She explained she had been walking by a room where I was visiting an elderly parishioner and she’d caught a glimpse of me kneeling by the patient’s bedside.

The new Presbyterian pastor was so pious and humble that he knelt at a bedside in prayer right there for all to see in Portage Hospital. “What an impression you made on her!” my member proudly declared.

But why had I kneeled?

Chagrined, I explained to the woman I had kneeled because I’d taken a short course in hospital chaplaincy during seminary. The chaplain had taught us to place ourselves directly in the line of vision of the patient so he wouldn’t have to suffer discomfort by moving on the bed in order to see us. This woman I’d been visiting was laying on her side when I arrived, so I’d knelt on the floor to place myself in her line of vision. That was all.

Maybe my dear member was a bit disappointed by my shirking off the compliment, killing the possibility of a just-budding reputation for other-worldly piety which all the church members might bask in—particularly the successful search committee.

Another day the clerk of session of our country church called to suggest I visit a certain elderly gentleman in a nursing home over in Portage. He explained this man had no family and had never been a church-goer, but he was a neighbor and it might be good for me to visit and talk with him.

Thankful for his guidance, I wrote down the man’s name and said I’d get right on it.

It was only a twenty-minute drive, and when I arrived I asked the receptionist where I might find the gentleman?

She responded that she thought I’d find him upstairs in the activity room. Upstairs, I asked one of the staff if she could please point the man out to me?

She pointed to a man in a wheelchair across the room. Walking up to him, I introduced myself as the new pastor of Rosedale Presbyterian Church. I explained his friend, Don Jerred, had suggested I visit him.

At this point, his look of scepticism changed to understanding. Then he asked me to push him down the hall. Assuming he was directing us to his room so we could have some privacy during our conversation, I walked behind as he shuffled his feet pulling his wheelchair and me down the hallway. In time, he turned us to the right, through a doorway into a room. Surveying the room, I was surprised. It had two beds, each of which had an elderly lady taking an afternoon nap on top of her bed covers.

The wheelchair stopped and my newfound friend gazed from left to right, one bed to the other. Nodding his approval, he pronounced, “The cows are good. We can go.”

Then he shuffled his feet, pulling us around to the right and back out the door where, chores completed, we went to his room.

Another time, Don called to suggest I visit a neighbor who was in his nineties. Again, he’d never attended church, but he’d been an upstanding member of the community, serving for years as the township treasurer in the same township where Don and Evelyn farmed. Don told me the name of the man and his wife, warning me the man was hard of hearing.

Driving out to the address, I noted the stark white farmhouse surrounded by stark white outbuildings. What struck me was the yard displayed no concessions to any human weakness for beauty. Unlike most farmhouses of the area, this one was not prettied up with shrubs or flowers. Instead, it sat alone in all its stateliness.

Parking outside the back door, I walked across the grass and knocked on the screen door. Then I knocked again, even louder.

After some time, I heard a little commotion and saw the woman of the house coming out on the porch to see who was knocking?

Mrs. Smith opened the door and, again, I introduced myself, explaining their neighbor, Don, had suggested I pay them a visit and see how they were doing? Don and Evelyn were respected by the community, so that was all the introduction I needed. The lady of the house ushered me in and over to the living room where she introduced me to her husband, Thaddaeus.

Seated in an armchair, the house was about as stark and devoid of decoration or beauty as the yard. The woman of the house was beautiful, though, and after introductions she made herself scarce, retreating to the kitchen.

Mr. Smith and I talked for a while. He didn’t seem to be too hard of hearing. I had little trouble communicating with him volume-wise, but as we discussed history and family and the township and such, it was evident Thaddaeus Smith was a man of great dignity whose dignity required firmness in human relationships. He seemed a hard man who gave orders and expected immediate obedience. I had a hard time imagining him smiling or demonstrating any gratitude or affection.

It was sad. I tried, but failed. There was no breaking through his ninety-something year crust.

As is typical in such cases, the faithful wife had long-ago resigned herself to this state of affairs and tried her best to bring some bit of grace into her husband’s hardscrabble existence, particularly when any outsider was present.

After half an hour or so, Mrs. Smith came to the doorway to ask if we would like anything to drink?

She addressed the question to her husband and I was shocked at the immediate transformation of his hearing ability. She asked, then he yelled that he couldn’t hear her; “Speak UP!”

This exchange was repeated several times until, finally, Mrs. Smith yelled at her husband loudly enough that he heard her. Or admitted he heard her.

Not long afterward, I thanked them for allowing me to visit. Taking my leave, I felt I had visited that austere couple portrayed in Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

Thinking things over as I drove home, I concluded Mr. Smith was not an easy man to live with. For seventy years. As your husband. It dawned on me that he’d had no problem hearing what I said, but he seemed deaf to his wife.

Now yes, I know men and women speak in different ways in different frequencies, some of which are easier to hear than others. But I was there and it seemed clear to me it wasn’t that Mr. Smith wasn’t able, but that he didn’t want to hear his wife. It appeared to me that her offer of hospitality was an irritant to him.

Understand that I could be wrong, but that’s what I thought.

A few years later, I visited Mr. and Mrs. Smith in a nursing home. They shared a room. Entering, Mrs. Smith was seated in a chair directly opposite the door across the room, while her husband was on his bed to my right, taking a nap.

We spent a few minutes having a pleasant conversation when Thaddaeus woke up. Seeing me, he yelled at his wife, “Who’s that there?”

“It’s the preacher,” she answered.

Louder, he asked again, “Who is he!”

Thaddaeus, he’s the preacher; the Presbyterian preacher!”

Then at full volume and irritated, Mr. Smith yelled, “I said, who the hell is he!?!?

I didn’t stay long.

(Twenty-first in a series.)

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