The One Thing She Needed

She was Still Haunted by the Old Failures of Her Practice; She Didn’t Save Everyone

Guest Contributor / 1.21.21

This post comes to us from Will Ryan:

Once when I served as a youth minister during seminary, the church received a phone call from the county sheriff’s office. I was the only one in the building, so I answered it. The deputy on the phone detailed a situation. They were called to make a health check on an older woman who was threatening self-harm. In the course of their time with her, she made the request to speak to a Christian minister, so they called the church. They asked if the minister would heed her request.

I told them I was just the youth minister; the senior minister wasn’t in. The deputy pushed a little bit, the yearning to have the fraught situation come to a close in a positive end palpable even on the phone.

Without a good excuse for why I couldn’t go and lend a little help to the woman and the deputy, I caved, asked for the address, said a quick prayer, and was off.

The woman’s apartment was in a dizzyingly feral state. The stale scent of neglect announced its presence before you even stepped in. Food was spread everywhere. Clothes were thrown hither and tither. Dust hung low in the air.

The woman herself was only a little better. An endearing but slightly ragged septuagenarian, her clothes hung loosely, her teeth stained yellow from coffee or cigarettes, and her body curved in on itself in her wheelchair. The state of everything made me wonder if she had dementia or Alzheimer’s, but that was a little above my pay grade.

After telling her who I was and why I was there, I sat back and listened. With a few probing questions, she spilled the self-proclaimed sorry state of her life.

She was a nurse; at least she said she was one decades ago. But she was still haunted by the old failures of her practice. She didn’t save everyone. Countless people and children died on her watch. And while she knew it wasn’t directly her fault, she still felt responsible because she couldn’t help them. Her hands were stained with blood only she could see, and it made her deathly afraid.

She knew death was approaching (it always is) and knew she could no longer outrun or outflank her failings. Sin, whether real or perceived, nipped at her heels and lurked in the shadows, never letting her rest. And that is what she longed for: rest.

I tried telling her it wasn’t her fault. I tried telling her we all make mistakes. I tried telling her God understood and that it wasn’t a big deal. You know, all of the things people feebly say in these situations, trying to help. She was unmoved.

Then, in a moment I could only describe as inspired by the Spirit, I realized what she wanted was forgiveness. She wanted to know God would forgive her. She wanted to know her failings and flailings wouldn’t be counted against her. She wanted to know she would be okay.

So I turned in my little pocket Bible to one of Paul’s epistles and gave her the good news: “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (Rom 3:22-25).

I told her her forgiveness was already accomplished. I told her Christ took care of it all. I told her that it was done for her by God.

It was as if a literal weight had been lifted off her shoulders, a heavy yoke removed. She thanked me, and we prayed. I shook hands with the deputy and then left to go plan another lock-in or something.

I can’t remember her name, but I remember her often.