I met Anja* when she had just been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
It happened many years ago, when I was a Lutheran chaplain in a large city hospital. We saw many patients who had come to Australia after the Second World War and had a Lutheran background but no connection with a congregation.
“Have you seen Anja this morning? She is so peaceful.”
That’s how I met Anja. She was 52 years of age, married with no children, baptised as an infant but never confirmed. She had no real knowledge of the story of Jesus and no active involvement with the church.
Over the weeks I visited Anja we became quite good friends, but she always refused my offer to pray for her and resisted any attempt on my part to bring God, the Bible or spiritual matters into our conversations. I guess some would have said I was wasting my time.
One day Anja was crying when I walked into her room.
I asked her what was wrong, and she said that a social worker had come to see her ‘to tell me how to die’.
I responded that I was there to talk about how to live. While I thought that was a pretty clever line, it got me nowhere with Anja.
Even so, I kept on visiting and we kept talking about many things. I also spent time with Anja’s husband, Wolfgang*.
Then one night the phone rang at 4.00 am. A nurse from the hospital apologised and asked if she had wakened me. She told me Anja had been crying ‘I want to die, I want to die’ all night, and they didn’t know what to do with her. I agreed to come in to see her.
As soon as she saw me, Anja asked, ‘Will God accept me when I die?’
I responded that we can only come to God trusting that because of Jesus he will forgive us for the things we have done wrong. Anja closed her eyes, folded her hands and began speaking out loud to God, telling him all the ways she had failed him and the people around her.
When Anja was finished I turned in my Bible to the end of John’s Gospel where it says, ‘If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven’, and I assured her she was forgiven. I then explained that faith is more than just believing that God exists; it’s trusting that when Jesus died on the cross he took our blame upon himself and died for us, so that we are forgiven.
This means that, even though we die, we will be welcomed by Jesus to live with him forever.
I asked Anja if she believed this. She said yes.
I prayed for her and we talked a bit more. She was on a substantial dose of pethidine and drifted in and out of consciousness.
The next morning I was back in the hospital around 9.00 am and ran into Wolf in a corridor. He was radiant.
‘Have you seen Anja this morning?’, he asked. ‘She is so peaceful.’
Wolf had come to the hospital only after the night staff had left, and he knew nothing of the dramas of the night before. We sat and chatted, and I explained what had happened.
The next night the phone rang at 1.00 am. I had told Anja to ask the staff to ring me if she needed me. (She didn’t really; she just felt like chatting a bit.) I told the night staff that if Anja really did need me, she was welcome to call me any time.
The following night the phone didn’t ring.
The night after that the phone rang again. Anja had died. She left this life in peace, confident she was going to another life where she would be welcomed in love.
How did this change happen in her life? Not because a clever pastor spoke the right words at the right time, that’s for sure. Rather, it was the Holy Spirit’s time. Anja and I had become friends and, when she was ready, I had very simply spoken the gospel of forgiveness to her. The Holy Spirit then worked faith and peace in her.
That’s the opportunity for you and me—to build relationships with people and be available to them when they need us. We can share the welcome we have received from our heavenly Father. In so doing we can truly be a church where love comes to life.
Pastor Steen Olsen serves as the SA/NT Director for Mission and as a member of the LCA Board for Local Mission.