Moments ago, on Epiphany, three seminary friends arrived at Steve and Nadja Shoemaker’s home on the prairie near Urbana, Illinois. It’d be a stretch to call Harry, Bob, and Don the Three Kings or the Wise Men. More like three wise guys, not from the East, but from the West and North – Corsicana, Texas; Prescott, Arizona; and Highland Park, Illinois – bringing a lighter touch to Steve, the patient with the terminal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.
Harry, the musician among them, will lead them in his own freshly-written lyrics to the tune of the Epiphany hymn “We Three Kings” – a trio of bass and baritone voices – bringing laughter to the room Kay and I can hear all the way in Minnesota.
Many years ago, a similar thing happened in New York City where Episcopal lay theologian William (Bill) Stringfellow was in Surgical Intensive Care following near fatal pancreatic surgery.
Entering the room following the surgery, Stringfellow’s close friend Bishop James A. Pike exclaimed, “Well, I’m a bishop. I should do something!” He promptly disappeared. Moments later he returned with Bill’s attending nurse and a large bottle of petroleum jelly. He consecrated the jelly, declaring to the nurse with typical Pike humor that “this substance has now been set apart for uses other than those ordinary and familiar for Vaseline.”
“Taking a thumbful of this freshly made urgent, he came to the bedside and anointed me,” wrote Stringfellow, “signing my forehead with the cross, and saying:
“‘I anoint you in the name of God; beseeching the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all your pain and sickness of body being put to flight, the blessing of health may be restored to you. Amen.'” [William Stringfellow, A Second Birthday, Doubleday & Company, 1970]
The bishop’s prayer of unction for the sick was near verbatim from The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church.
When the surgeon told the patient that his recovery was spectacular, Stringfellow replied, “That doesn’t surprise me at all. I was anointed by Bishop Pike! – what else would you expect?”
This Day of Epiphany, I hope the Three Wise Men, Steve and Nadja may enjoy the same fellowship, humor, and prayer all these years later. They bring no gold, frankincense or myrrh, but everyone in the Urbana gathering tonight knows that when the end is in sight, only the frankincense, the myrrh, and telling stories only dear friends call tell are appropriate. The third gift – gold – no longer matters, if it ever did!
- Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Epiphany, Jan. 6, 2016