The right directions

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As a pastor, I often go to the hospital. Not that ministry is bad for my health! I visit church members and their loved ones to offer my support. As most of my parishioners live in northern Chatham County, I frequent the UNC hospital near campus. You might think I would know my way around.

But the irregular floors and twisting hallways of this vast hospital system are labyrinthine. There’s even an iPhone app for navigating to a patient’s room.

I prefer a human connection, specifically at the information desk in the main lobby. Every employee I’ve met has been helpful and unfailingly kind. Over the years, I’ve come to know a few personally.

Last week, there was an unfamiliar gentleman behind the desk. He gave me pinpoint directions with a warm smile. It turned out that the patient’s room was down the hall from the chapel, so after I’d made my visit, I slipped inside to pray.

This was during Holy Week. Easter lilies had been arranged on the altar before a kneeling bench like you would find in a church. Hung on the back wall was a 3D woodcut of a tree — a sacred symbol in Judeo-Christianity as well as many Eastern religious and indigenous traditions. In the corner of the chapel, a compass had been painted on the floor with the word “Qibla” substituted for “East.” This is Arabic for “direction” and points toward Mecca, the direction that Muslims face to pray five times a day.

But what held my attention the longest was the labyrinth painted on the floor. This kind of walking path does wind back and forth. But a labyrinth is not a maze, not a riddle. Unlike the confusing hallways of the hospital, there is a single clear direction to the center, then back out again. Labyrinths have been used for centuries in different ways. Some believers walk the labyrinth while praying for loved ones and the world. Others walk as a personal spiritual practice, a way of journeying to the holiness inside of them. You might simply try to clear your mind and relax. There’s no wrong way.

As I walked, I prayed for the health and healing of the people I had visited in the hospital as well as other colleagues and friends who were sick, hurting or grieving. It was a peaceful time of prayer. Also, a little lonely. The hospital’s chapel was designed for people of different faiths to pray or meditate alone. I needed a human connection. I knew where to walk to find it.

The same gentleman was still at the information desk. He smiled expectantly as I approached, assuming I needed more directions. I said I just wanted to thank him. Perhaps sensing my real need, he gently inquired about the patient I’d visited and discovered I was a pastor. He shared that he was a lay leader at a local church, specifically involved in visiting the sick.

“It’s all about showing up,” he said, smiling. “A kind word can be good for what ails you.”

“Amen,” I replied, and after thanking him again, I left the hospital that day feeling like I had the right directions. I also knew how to find my parked car.

Andrew Taylor-Troutman is the pastor of Chapel in the Pines Presbyterian Church. His newly-published book is a collection of his columns for the Chatham News + Record titled “Hope Matters: Churchless Sermons.”

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