Dying in a Church Pew

The pithy little hymnal started and I hoped we’d sing only one verse. The comments from the missionary and the guest speaker were enough to squelch any inkling of interest I might have had in a missions conference. I wanted to sing a hymn and depart, the sooner I could be on the road and spouting my intellectual complaints the better.

The sentimental hymn finished and the pastor started a real send ’em out prayer–but I was no longer listening. Ralph–the miniature old man who collected the Sunday School attendance sheets with the gusto of the energizer bunny–had turned the color of an onion. He didn’t stand for the hymn, he didn’t stand for the prayer, and his wife had a distant, immobilized glaze over her eyes. A woman rushed forward, scanning across the rows of bowed faces. The associate pastor nearly bowled over his wife. Another woman butted her way through a row and disturbed a praying doctor. He rushed forward and began slapping Ralph’s weak, bony hand. They laid him down, and began undoing his tie and his shirt.

The prayer ended and eyes opened, the organ began a rousing goodbye tune, and everyone in the vicinity turned to leave. Then their eyes fell on the commotion and they all stopped. Ralph’s head was half hanging off the pew, people were scrambling, and everyone else just gawked, unsure of what to do. I wanted to reach out and help, but there were already too many people helping. The pastor stepped off the platform and into the fray, not even realizing what had happened. All color had left Ralph’s face, and I didn’t even recognize him as the jovial man who dutifully took the attendance from us Sunday, always waiting patiently when I’d forgotten to fill it out.

I walked out of church slow, hesitant. The man had probably suffered a heart attack. The ambulance hadn’t pulled up by the time I left, and I didn’t hear sirens the entire way home. I wanted to do something for Ralph. I wanted to do more than watch and wonder. The man may be dead by now. He may be in heaven, or a stuffy hospital room. Either way I don’t know what to do. My complaints are quickly forgotten, and I don’t remember them until later that evening. There’s something about a man dying in a church pew.

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