By Kurt Schuermann
The phone rang at 4 a.m. I wasn’t really asleep—that night, sleep came only fitfully. It was the early morning before I was to preach at my new appointment, and I was a bit restless. Nevertheless, the ringing phone still startled me.
Usually nothing good comes from such calls. Wanda June was on the phone. She asked if I remembered her. She had been a part of the Sunday school class that had brought dinner to the parsonage the night before.
“Sure, I remember you, Wanda Jane,” I lied.
“My name is Wanda June!” she shrieked hysterically into the phone.
“Sorry, Wanda June. It is four in the morning, and I only met you once. Uh, why are you calling?”
“I am just so upset. I miss the last pastor so much! I want you to come right now and meet me at the church for prayer.”
“I don’t think so,” I said, “but what about me praying with you right now over the phone?”
That idea seemed to bring her some comfort, so I prayed, all the while wondering what kind of a church I was going to if praying in the sanctuary at 4 a.m. was expected on a regular basis. If this was the kind of stuff that happened in the dead of night, what oddities would be revealed in the full light of day?
Evidently the prayer worked because a few hours later Wanda June was seated in her usual pew three rows from the front, seemingly at peace. Excellent pastoral work had indeed been done in the dark.
Wanda June continued to call me periodically throughout the years that I served that church, and I can’t say that the phone calls weren’t odd, but at least she never repeated the 4 a.m. episode that first Sunday of my new appointment. But one particular call resulted in revelation.
On this particular day, Wanda June’s voice was clear and even, and, as usual, she had a request—would I come to see her son who was visiting? I, of course, knew about her son although I had never met him. He was her only child and a brilliant scientist. I also knew that he was in the final stages of Lou Gehrig’s disease. This was to be his last visit to the home of his childhood.
“I just want to make sure he’s saved,” said Wanda June.
What could I do but go? Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is the one illness I fear the most, but I went, making the long journey up the walk to the front door—praying all the way. I rang the bell and, of course, Wanda June answered.
“Come in, she said, “I’ll get Larry—by the way, he can’t talk anymore.” Oh great, I thought. I had hoped for a little small talk before easing into the weighty issue of eternal destiny.
Wanda June led her son into the room with the love only mothers have. Larry shuffled slowly, his head too heavy for him as it bounced awkwardly on his chest. His jaw had gone slack, his tongue protruding from his mouth. Lou Gehrig’s disease is called a wasting disease for good reason. I am ashamed to admit that I found it hard to look at him.
I said (truthfully), “Your mom invited me to come. She is concerned about you. I thought I might read you something.” I began to read from John 11—the story of Lazarus. With my head down, intent on the page, I read the final passage:
You don’t have to wait for the End. I am, right now, Resurrection and Life. The one who believes in me, even though he dies, will live. And anyone who lives believing in me does not ultimately die at all. Do you believe this? (John 11:25 The Message)
I raised my eyes and ventured a peek at Larry, who was—with the only arm he had any control over—giving me the “thumbs up” sign. With relief, I called to Wanda June and told her what had happened. I told her that Larry was going to be okay.
It is the season of Epiphany which is the season of unveiling and of enlightenment and illumination. Whatever else Epiphany means, it makes the claim that the God-light has come into the world. God-light helps us to see our way clearly. It also makes the longest journey possible and pierces the darkness of human hearts.
Like all authentic moments in ministry, I did not know who had ministered to whom on that day. I made my way back down Wanda June’s long walk that I had but an hour earlier traveled with so much trepidation. It all seemed so clear now—the true light that enlightens every human being had come into the world. Did I really believe this? I definitely did in that moment, and I, too, gave a thumbs up.
A few months later, I received another phone call from Wanda June. Her precious boy had gone to be with God.