A couple decades ago I was allowed a sabbatical, a four-month time away from my position as pastor at Saranac Community Church, with full pay. Those generous people wanted to give me time to regroup, to study, and to pray, and perhaps to fish more than usual. I had been there eight years before the sabbatical. I decided ahead of time that I wanted to learn more about how to help people who are suffering. I made a plan.
I planned to interview people wherever I could find them serving others who were in trouble, or suffering physical problems. I also planned to read a whole long list of books and articles to get better educated on the subject of suffering and how to help those who were hurting. Before I began this project, I took the first week to spend at the Hermitage, a unique retreat center in Michigan. This place is designed to give you a wonderful atmosphere where you can read and pray, or walk in the woods and commune with God in nature, whatever you want to do to deepen your spiritual experience. You can be in silence all day. No one will bother you. It was actually only six days, but it prepared me for my sabbatical.
A few unique places I visited include the Veterans Administration hospital at Battle Creek, MI, where I had arranged to interview three persons on the staff. I interviewed staff members of three small medical facilities in Washington, D.C. which serve indigent residents. That was a real eye-opener. There were many others along the way in different states. Some were planned meetings and some were wonderfully unexpected encounters with people whose stories were unforgettable.
From there I went to Maine where I stayed in a cabin belonging to a good friend. Since it was only the month of May, the place was deserted and he came along to open it up for the season. I was alone on the lake. It was there that I experienced the “near-death” that I described in my previous blog. There was no electricity, just gas for heat and lights. But that quiet, isolated place allowed me to spend a month studying and thinking without any other responsibilities. I will always be grateful to that special friend!
That summer I spent nearly two months in a national forest campground in the Michigan Upper Peninsula. We had a small pop-up camper at the time. Mary Ann joined me for a week or so during that spell. I had plenty of time to study and think. But I was not done.
As you may have guessed, my study went on for years after that. I kept learning from more people. Eventually I became an interim pastor, so I got to meet people in many different churches and different states where I worked. I interviewed helpers, some professionals, but many were amateurs, volunteers, or average people who just loved others. Some I listened to were people who had themselves suffered greatly. It has taken me a long time to fit it all together in a way that really made sense. Many friends helped me with their suggestions while I taught what I was learning about the subject in several churches.
Finally, this month, my conclusions are coming out in the book, Courage to Care. It has been a long time coming. I thought I could learn what I needed in four months! But it took twenty years to finish the job. And now I know, there’s always more I can learn from the next person I meet.