My pastoral visiting schedule seems to go in cycles. Sometimes I can go for a few weeks with no hospital visits at all, and then turn around have multiple visits in single week. And then sometimes I’ll have several weeks in a row where I am in the hospitals a good deal. Lately I have been in one of those busier seasons … and it occurs to me that, while I (as a pastor) am in the hospitals perhaps more often than most who will read these lines, yet the reality is that many of us, simply in our roles as Christians and church members, will have occasion to visit in the hospital, the hospice facility, or the nursing home. I hope that includes you!
But what do we do on such occasions? How do we visit effectively, and faithfully, and helpfully? Well, Brian Croft has written a highly recommended little book called Visit the Sick, which may prove especially helpful for pastors and elders who do this sort of thing more regularly. Some of you might have a look at his fuller thoughts on this subject. But below are some brief thoughts of my own, gleaned from my own experience and the advice of others.
Scripture. Always bring your Bible (or Bible phone app) with you on these visits. And always ask if you can read a portion to the sufferer. It needn’t be the first thing you do when you walk through the door. Small talk is OK, and usually good. So, often, is some brief conversation about the particular physical problems in question. But these sorts of temporal conversations alone do not make for a truly Christian visit. So bring your Bible every time, and ask if you can read a portion to the person you’ve come to see … lifting their eyes beyond their circumstances to the God who rules over them; the God whom you want to receive your friend’s soul, even when his or her body fails completely.
For many people, it may be comforting to see you reading from a paper Bible (rather than an app), because that is how they know the word of God, and it will seem just a little more real and familiar to them.
What to read? Usually something brief, since people in the hospital are usually not feeling all that energetic, and may have trouble concentrating on or remembering something longer. Often just one or two well-selected verses (that may easily stick in his or her head) can be the best medicine (e.g. Deut. 33:27, John 10:27-28, John 11:25-26, etc.). You may go longer than that, but usually I’d go no longer than a brief paragraph. For longer stays in the hospital (and regular visits), you could venture into longer portions, and maybe read something like the gospel of Mark together over several visits. But for occasional visits, brief is best, I think.
Further, it’s always good to have an idea of what you might read before you ever walk in the room. The Spirit can move you in another direction, of course. But don’t be flipping through your Bible looking for something to read, right there in front of your friend. It makes the Bible seem like an afterthought (which it probably is, on such an occasion). And you’re more likely just to go to stock verses if you are unprepared, rather than to have really thought about what word might be in season for this particular friend.
Also, let your passage, typically, be something encouraging regarding God’s mercy or promises. Let is also be evangelistic if the person whom you’ve come to see may not be a Christian. And remember that the word of God is powerful, even if you don’t know much to say about it, and even if the person whom you visit doesn’t appear to get much out of it (or even to be able to hear it). Therefore always read the scriptures, if you are given permission.
Prayer. Always read the scriptures, if given permission. And always offer to pray. Usually it’s good to hold the person’s hand, if that is possible. And certainly it’s important to pray loud enough so that they can hear what you’re praying. Also, brief prayer on such occasions is good, for the same reasons (above) why brief scripture passages are also usually good.
Pray, of course, for the illness in question, and for the procedures, tests, doctors, and nurses that accompany it. Pray also for the family members who may be in the room, giving care and suffering with their loved one. And, of course (in prayer as in Scripture reading), lift your own and your friend’s eyes heavenward, and to the spiritual help that is needed in days of trial. If the person is an unbeliever, pray that he or she will know Christ. And all of these prayers should probably be prayed, particularly, using the passage of scripture just read as your main prayer list. So that, if you read John 11:25, the prayer would include praise that Jesus is “the resurrection and the life”; prayer that your friend would “believe in [Him]”; and confidence that, if he or she does so, he or she “will live even if he [or she] dies.”
Time. Many visits to the hospital will need to be fairly brief, if you are not immediate family or a very intimate friend. When the situation is not dire, many people are happy to see familiar faces, and to be prayed with and encouraged in the Lord … but they are also tired, and need rest. And, further, their predicament (laying in a hospital bed) can feel a bit awkward for them, so that they don’t mind being alone a good bit of the time. So don’t overstay.
And yet there are situations in which we must stay – when the situation is dire, and the person and/or family needs not to be alone in this late hour; or also when the person is just lonely, and hasn’t had a lot of company. In such cases, where possible, we should carve out the time to stay for a season, and minister (if need be) by just being there and holding a hand.
Presence. Most importantly is that we simply be there. All of these other good things, and the pieces of counsel regarding them, are only meaningful if we actually make the trip down the road, through the revolving doors, up the elevator, and to the sickbed. So make this a part of your Christian ministry, brothers and sisters. May it ever be that our brothers and sisters in Christ, our co-workers, our neighbors, and so on will be able to say of us: “I was sick, and you visited me” (Matthew 25:36).