It was the late 1960’s. Twenty two year old King Duncan was a student pastor, serving two small churches in northern Maryland, USA.
One of his parishioners, Mrs. Maude Stambaugh, was the oldest living member of one of the churches. Frail and ill, Mrs. Stambaugh spent her final years being cared for by her daughter in her daughter’s home, unable to leave her room except for trips to the hospital twice a month to receive the blood transfusions that kept her alive.
When he first went to see her, the young Duncan found the experience quite difficult. Mrs. Stambaugh had Parkinson’s disease at an advanced state. Her hearing was so poor that he had to shout into her ear to be heard, and she was also close to being blind.
“What do I do now?” he thought to himself as Mrs Stambaugh’s daughter excused herself from the room. Seminary had not prepared him for this. He sat beside the bed, intimidated and uncomfortable, before cupping his hands and shouting into Mrs Stambaugh’s ears: “How are you doing today?”
Mrs. Stambaugh responded with a pleasant expression and mumbled something which he could not quite understand. Duncan just knew he had to do something for this woman. For 15 minutes he sat there in silence. He then opened the New Testament and began reading verses aloud. Though he read loudly, he was not sure what Mrs Stambaugh had heard. He finished with a prayer and left the room, cupping his hands around her ear one last time before exiting the room. “Good to see you, Mrs. Stambaugh,” he shouted.
Of course, that was a white lie. He had found the whole experience discouraging, disheartening and very awkward. He would prefer to do anything than to return. But return he did, for she was his parishioner. Every month or so Duncan visited Mrs Stambaugh, each time shouting in her ear to greet her, then sitting in tortured silence for 15 minutes, before reading from the bible, then praying.
Eighteen months after his first visit, Mrs. Stambaugh died. After the funeral, Duncan was walking toward his car when Mrs Stambaugh’s daughter came hurrying up to him. “Pastor Duncan, I have something for you. This was the last thing Mother wrote before she died,” her daughter said with warmth. “We thought you would want to see it.” She handed him a note. It took some time to decipher the handwriting which read, “Please tell my young pastor how much his visits meant to me.”
Pastor Duncan learned what we all must, that our presence is one of the greatest gifts we can offer. The awkward silence is not awkward after all. They are known as sacred silence. Sacred silence is LOVE. Although we may feel awkward, useless and discouraged, our presence to another human being in their hours of darkness is a precious gift of love.