March 5, 1936 – Something About Illness and Visiting the Sick

This article by Rev. G. Birkmann, em., and translated by Ray Martens, first appeared in the Giddings Deutsches Volksblatt on 5 March 1936.

I have already shared much about my experiences in Fedor in this newspaper and now wish to report something about the way in which I performed my ministry. My congregation knew that I was always willing to render this service, day or night. Naturally, I preferred if I was called during the day when I could find my way about alone. At night I wanted to be picked up and brought home again because, without an escort, I could hardly ride my horse or later drive my carriage over perhaps a long and difficult way. And, yet, sometimes it became necessary that I needed to go alone at night to people who were sick, and a couple of times I preferred to go on foot with a lantern rather than first to get my horse from the pasture in the dark and then with difficulty find the way to the houses in question.

Such visits certainly are a serious and important matter, but, at the same time, a glorious enterprise. A true shepherd of souls is motivated to hurry to his sheep when they are anxious and distressed in order to refresh them and in their dimly lit rooms to press into their hands a rod and staff, namely, the Word of God. If he knows of one in the congregation who is sick, he does not wait until he is called. What is often the problem is that the pastor is not notified in timely fashion, but people wait until they are forced to fear that the illness will end badly, and then they hasten to notify the pastor. The discussion then develops like this. “Oh, dear pastor, we had thought that you would come earlier. Our father has been sick already for a long time.” The pastor replies, “Certainly I would have come earlier had I known that.” Said next is, “The doctor has already been here.” The pastor asks, ”How did he learn to know that someone was sick here?” “Well, naturally,” comes the reply, “we called for him.” The pastor’s response, “I ask that in the future you do the same for me and let me know.”

Something like this happened only rarely for me. In every case, I avoided bringing up anything unfriendly during such visits, as I was also always welcomed in a friendly way, as far as I recall. Visiting the sick is among my dearest memories. It was there that hearts were opened to me more than at any other time, and I also had, like at no other time, opportunity to speak with the sick person about his salvation. This is the practice of pastoral care—to give everyone, as needed, his due, to convert, to reproach, to comfort, to admonish and to encourage faithfulness to God’s Word and to Christ as the only Savior and the Good Shepherd, who is with us even in the dark valley of death.

A pastor who visits a sick person cannot follow just one pattern with the person in question, but must keep in mind the circumstances and the state of mind of the sick person, along with his lack of awareness. Here and there is one who thinks that he always does what is right and is not a sinner, and, even when passages are quoted, stands firm in the belief that he is pious. Such self-righteous people must have time to reflect upon what was said to them and must also be persuaded by those around them. When one returns, he may find that the person has a better insight.

Another is the opposite of the above. He gets stirred up and complains about how weak his faith is or that he feels so little newness [of life]. Such people need to be comforted with the fact that no specific level of newness is expected, but only whether one is sorry for his sins, whether he longs for forgiveness, whether he rejoices in and is consoled by his salvation. If that is the case, and that is the case with those who complain about their imperfections, then faith certainly is present.

I had in my congregation people who suffered from chronic and lengthy illnesses and could not attend services for years. I went to these at regular intervals and read to them, sometimes the sermon which I preached the Sunday before or also from an instructional book. I also gladly spoke with them. It was always a joy for them to have someone with whom they could converse and express themselves. Also, as a rule, they desired Holy Communion, which would then be offered in the home after the preceding confession and absolution. If I had sick people whom I could visit sometime other than on Sunday, I would wait until Monday because on Sunday the sick ordinarily are overwhelmed by visiting relatives, friends, and acquaintances. If I were to come on a Sunday afternoon, I would see four or five wagons standing in the yard and the house full of visitors. The room with the sick person would be entirely filled, and all would engage in lively conversation, probably telling all kinds of stories about sick people who died of their disease, none of which belongs in a sickroom. Maybe the fact that a number of visitors come occasionally cannot be avoided, and, yet, if they are sensible people, they will pay attention to the following rules. If the disease is painful or consists of a fever which agitates the sick person, then do not talk long with him nor tire him out by sitting down and waiting for him to respond and the like. Common sense and tact should be enough to guide the visitor in what to do. People convalescing often need to be visited and talked with, even, at times, those who are suffering from a lengthy illness. They want company and would not be upset about someone coming, as long as they were not dangerously ill.

If one visits the sick, ask especially the members of the family about their wishes, whether you can do something for them, for example, sit up at night with the sick person, or tend to the needs of the household, or work in the field, or care for the livestock, etc. That is often neglected. One comes to visit the sick, asks how it is going, then goes back home and leaves him to his fate.

I do not want to be understood here as though preachers are excluded. They too should inquire whether they can look after physical needs, as, for example, see to it that members of the congregation concern themselves with the family in question.

During the course of my years in Fedor, we had various sudden deaths which were caused by all kinds of misfortune, and there was nothing left for us but to provide Christian burial for the unfortunate victims who belonged to the congregation. Some were shot, others had a horse fall on them and died in that way, several drowned, some were burned, etc. In total, about twelve lost their lives by accident in these ways during the years I was in Fedor.

But life-threatening injuries also occurred in which one could still first summon the doctor and the pastor. Twice men were cutting lumber and got their hand caught in the saw and were in danger of bleeding to death. A doctor came to stop the bleeding, and the danger was over. Once there was a man who got a load of lumber, and, as he was driving down a hill, the load began to shift, causing him to fall off the wagon and to find himself under the wheels of the wagon. He was badly injured, and I was summoned on the same evening, as was also, of course, the doctor, Mr. [ ? ] from Lexington. He did, however recover after several months, but never regained his former strength and health. I visited him repeatedly for several weeks, as I also did in other such cases, for as long as his condition required care. Another time a man was working in a well when a stone fell on his back from above and injured him seriously. He was laid up for two or three weeks, but not without previously thanking God that the stone did not fall on his head, for then, as he told me, he would not have first have had time to prepare for his end. This man, during the morning of the day that he died, named the exact time that he would die. “Around 9:00 p.m.,” he said, and that also is what happened.

Another occasion on which I visited the patient again and again was the following. A woman whose husband was busy in the field wanted to plow her garden herself, but the horses perhaps were frightened by something while plowing, perhaps jumped backward, and the plow penetrated her back, and she was very badly injured. God blessed the efforts of the doctor, and the woman became well and able-bodied again, and perhaps still is. I also visited her repeatedly.

A dangerous disease which invaded Fedor and other places at a time fifty years ago was the so-called black jaundice, which doctors called malarial ornatus. The blood decomposes for such people. The blood goes away, a high fever sets in, and, in that way, many are brought close to death. I saw a number of instances of this, and one of them especially remains in my memory. I found the sick person very weak, and he told me that, according to what the doctor who had visited with him previously had said, he had only a few hours to live. He wanted Holy Communion, and I prepared what was necessary and told him to remain lying down, since he was so weak. But he sat up and remained in this position until he had received the Sacrament. His end came soon thereafter.

I wish to report one more example which shows how wonderfully the dying often are strengthened when the pastor can provide them the proper consolation along the way. A woman was already unconscious when I came to her and remained so as I began as I began to speak loudly to her. But when I told her that I was there to provide the longed-for Sacrament, she awakened and was quite lively and answered me in a happy spirit, and in that way received the Sacrament in full consciousness.

Naturally, in my many years in the ministry, I visited many sick people, probably no home that I did not visit at least once. In some, probably ten times or more, if those in question were ill for a long time.