Stories of Comfort and Hope

The Least of these Brothers and Sisters of Mine

Many of you are familiar with Jesus’ parable of the separation of the sheep and the goats at the last judgment in Matthew chapter twenty-five. As Jesus speaks to the sheep He commends them for giving the hungry something to eat, giving the thirsty something to drink, giving the naked something to wear, seeing the sick and looking after them and visiting those who are in prison. As I thought of these simple acts of kindness and compassion my reaction was and often still is, “What is so great about doing something so simple? Couldn’t anyone do these things? Couldn’t the littlest child and someone who is mentally challenged do these things? Why do we even have to mention that these people need our attention and care?”

As we face the current pandemic and the public demonstrations that have sprung from the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis it seems to me that Jesus’ words are more profound and challenging than we might first believe when we read them in Matthew chapter twenty-five. Consider some of the sick in Jesus’ day. Consider the lepers who had to leave their communities and confine themselves in leper colonies. Many people fearing that they might catch leprosy if they got too close to a leper would find it very difficult to go to a leper colony to visit or bring food or to treat a leper’s wounds. Many of those who were in prison for robbery or murder would cause many people to ask why should I show any kindness to someone so cruel and cold blooded?

The challenge of Jesus’ words is that He makes us aware that the least of His brothers and sisters make us uncomfortable because it makes us aware that the reason we don’t always visit the sick and those in prison is that we are afraid of the sick and we don’t have an ounce of compassion for those rotten people in prison. 

I know from my own experience how challenging these words are.  I have been a hospital chaplain for thirty-four years and I am still afraid to visit the sick.  Back in the nineteen eighties when AIDS patients were first appearing in the hospital I was afraid to enter the room of such a patient in spite of my gown and gloves and protective gear.  I was even more afraid of where would I find the words to comfort  the patients who were often sick and in pain and struggling with issues like being rejected by their families.  To this day as I talk with young mothers dying of cancer who don’t want someone else to raise their children the challenges to bring peace and comfort are enough to make the most courageous person pause to go to that bedside.  COVID -19 only ramps up our fears to an even greater degree.

So let’s look at our fear of looking after the sick.  I discovered that a lot of my fear was based on what was I going to say.  How would I explain things?  How could I find the perfect answer?  How could I take away the pain and grief of the person in that bed?  The biggest thing that has lowered my fear has been my coming to understand that Jesus was already there.  He says, ” I was sick and you visited me.”  So I have found that if I don’t have to fix the person but instead I am there to visit, it changes the dynamic between us.  I listen instead of talk.  I draw near with an open heart and an open mind to see what the person in the bed can teach me instead of what I might teach them and time and time again I find that what I was going to say would not have been helpful.  What I ended up saying after I listened had much more meaning and healing because I heard what the patient’s heart was saying.  

I discovered much the same thing in my work with those in prison.  I still remember a young man who was awaiting trial because he had sexually molested and murdered his girl friend’s young son.  How could anyone forgive this man for such an unspeakable crime?  As I got to know him over a course of many weeks I found that this man had more than one side to him.  He was musical and artistic and thoughtful and gentle and I just couldn’t figure out how such a man could so such a violent thing.  One day he told me that he was two people.  There was the person that he could stand to live with and there was the person he couldn’t bear to look at.  He had been sexually molested as a child and had been traumatized by that experience.  He had never received any treatment for that experience.  He had never talked to anyone about that experience and it didn’t surprise me that the walls he had erected to keep that pain away crumbled and the rage and hurt burst forth leading him to now have to spend the rest of his life in prison.  I couldn’t commute his sentence.  I couldn’t take away the damage done to him and the  damage he had done to himself but I visited him and his heart was lifted that someone heard his story.

So the present pandemic and social unrest stirs our fears and brings up those ugly feelings of judgment we don’t always want to acknowledge are coming from our hearts.  I am not going to march on the streets right now because of the pandemic and my age makes that an unwise thing to do should I contract the virus.  But I am going to vote for people who believe in changing the way we treat people so that there is room at the table for everyone who is a part of our society.  I am going to challenge views that judge people before you have talked with them and understood where they are coming from.  I am going to continue to be a chaplain and work on my fears of entering the world of the sick.

And you, my readers, must also find your path.  If you can’t go to people physically because of the pandemic you can call someone you know who is mourning the loss of a loved one.  You can email.  You can write a letter.  You can make your voice heard.  You see Jesus’ parable is not about the least of his brothers and sisters.  It is really about how we see them and how we see ourselves.  If we see them as beneath us and we are powerful and they are weak we will stay safe behind our walls.  But if we see that the least of our brothers and sisters have so much to tell us and so much to show us then we will go to where they are.


Living Stones

Humans have been building things with stone for thousands of years. When Jean and I traveled to Italy we saw walls and buildings constructed of stone that were over a thousand years old. In Egypt the pyramids are over five thousand years old, are made of stone, and are still standing. This makes a very strong case that if you build something with stone instead of wood or straw as in the story of the three little pigs, you will have something that will stand the test of time.

The negative side of stone construction is that you can build a wall that divides you from others. China built its great wall to keep out the Mongol hordes. Many other nations have erected walls at their borders to keep out people they fear or people they perceive to be a threat to their way of life. As we look at the history of China and at the border walls of today we find they don’t work. The Mongols found ways to breech the great wall of China and they could not be held at bay. Today borders continue to be penetrated in myriad ways in spite of all efforts to seal them from outsiders.

This makes me think of the apostle Peter and his words about living stones. A couple of weeks ago, Peter’s words were the epistle lesson for the day. He said that we are living stones built up to be a spiritual house.  The image of a living stone makes me think about how being a stone and being a living stone have similarities and yet also differ from each other in significant ways.  A stone that is not living cannot change its shape or its innate qualities.  It is the size that it is and it can’t change its size because you are trying to move by it.  “Sorry,” it says, “You can’t come in here.  There is no room for you here.”  It cannot change its character.  It has always been immovable and unchangeable and it isn’t about to become something different now.  But a living stone is different in that it can change and grow and become more than what it was.  Peter is living proof of this.  Jesus changed Simon’s name to Peter in the Gospel of John because the word Peter means rock.  Jesus wanted Peter to be strong and tough.  He wanted him to bear witness to Jesus.  And Peter did until he denied Jesus the night before His crucifixion.  Peter was strong in bearing witness to Jesus after the resurrection until he caved in to pressure from the early Jewish Christians and didn’t think the Gospel should be shared with the Gentiles.  That was when Peter found out he was a living stone.  Crushed by his denial of Jesus he didn’t think he could ever be a disciple again until he was forgiven and restored by Jesus and told that he was supposed to feed Jesus’s sheep.  Peter didn’t see that he was racist in his views that Jews deserved God’s grace but Gentiles didn’t qualify until God opened his eyes and showed Peter that He loved all human beings.  This was when Peter realized that he could be a strong rock but he could also learn from his mistakes and he could change his prejudices and thus he could be flexible and changeable as well as strong and firm.  This was when Peter became a living stone.

It makes me think of the expression, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  I am among the generation of people who  have become old dogs.  My parents and grandparents had no time for Elvis Presley when  I was young.  They disliked him and dismissed him out of hand.  There was no way I could make them understand why I thought he was cool and why I liked and listened to his music.  Now I find myself not able to listen or understand the music young people listen to today.  I have become a rock in a sense.  I don’t want to listen.  I don’t want to understand.  I don’t want to take the time to understand my grandson and how his mind works and how he sees the world we live in.

What a challenge for me and for many of you who are reading this blog to try to be a living stone.  I want to have strength of character and I want to model that life has not broken me or left me an embittered old man, but I also want to show those around me that I can still learn.  I can still admit to mistakes.  I can still come to understand that I am not as understanding and open minded and openhearted as I thought I was.  Peter saw that Jesus was his corner stone that called him back when he strayed and restored him when he fell.  In these days when I feel myself wanting to build a wall to keep myself apart from voices I don’t like or want to hear I need to stand again on Jesus my corner stone so I can listen and understand and bring new stones into God’s house.

I’m back !!

Some of you may remember an actor by the name of Arnold Schwarzenegger.  His enemies would often seem to get the best of Arnold and they would leave him lying on the ground beaten to a pulp.  Later they would discover that they hadn’t vanquished Arnold after all as he would reappear and with a note of triumph in his voice he would say to them, ” I’m back!!!”  Many of us like Arnold’s movies because we know what it feels like to be put down and we have this fantasy that some day like Arnold we will be able to say to our enemies, ” I’m back!!”

“I’m back,” can also be spoken by people who have come home from work or from a trip of some duration.  It can mean that we are glad to be home and we hope those at home are glad that we have come back as well.

And then there are the words, ” I’m back,” spoken when we have been out of action for some time and have now returned to what we were doing before we were taken out of action.  In this case we might be thinking we will be picking things up where they were when we left.

I left work on January 17th this year not knowing that I wouldn’t be back to work until May 1st.  As I recovered my strength in the weeks after I had a blood clot in my leg that lodged in my lungs and almost took my life, I looked forward to the day when I could return to Froedtert Hospital and could say, ” I’m back.”  In the meantime while I was recuperating I attended a symposium in early March and I got into a conversation with a lady I had met before.  We caught up with each other on what had been going on in our lives.  As I told her about my hospitalization and the aftermath she said to me, ” When you go back to Froedtert you won’t be the same chaplain that you were.  This has changed you.”

I thought about her words in the weeks that followed that symposium.  I thought there might be some truth to what she was saying but I wasn’t sure exactly how I would be different.  A few days after i returned to work I sat in the room of a patient in her mid-nineties.  She was telling me about how she had always been pretty healthy and active until recently.  But recently she had gotten new glasses and she found she still had difficulty seeing.  She went to her eye doctor and complained about her new glasses with the hope he would make things right and fix the problem.  Instead he said to her rudely, ” Of course you can’t see.  Don’t you get it?  You have macular degeneration and new glasses aren’t going to fix that.”  As she tried to come to terms with this news she realized she wasn’t eating like she used to and she was losing weight.  She found she was also having memory troubles and that was distressing her.  She didn’t want to be a burden to her son.  As she saw the things she was losing she began to wonder what else would she lose beyond what she had already lost and what would happen to her then?

As I listened to her I found myself thinking about my time in the hospital and of how I had lost consciousness and for thirty-six hours didn’t know where I was or what was happening to me.  I had been in free fall just as she was now in free fall.  I shared with her how in that time in my life I found that God was with me.  In the words of Psalmist I found out, ” Oh, Lord, you know my down sitting and my uprising.  There is not a word on my tongue but lo, you know it all together.  If I ascend to the heights, behold you are there.  If I descend to the depths, behold you are there.  If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, even there your hand will guide me and your right hand will hold me fast.”  I told her when I didn’t know where I was God did.  When I didn’t know how far I would fall, God had his hands around me. And I said this was also true for her.  God knew where she was.  God has his hands around her.

That was when I realized my friend’s words were true.  I was not the same chaplain I had been.  What happened to me made me see something I hadn’t seen before.  What had happened to me made me understand something I didn’t know before.  And I was able to give this lady something I probably wouldn’t have been able to give her if I hadn’t spent time in the hospital as a patient.

So, when we say, ” I’m back,” it doesn’t mean nothing has changed and let’s pick up where we left off.  It means everything has changed and yet much remains unchanged.  For all of you who have come back from surgery or a stroke or a tragedy in the family or the loss of a loved one you may also discover what I discovered.  ” I’m back,” means I have more to offer than what I had before.  I have more insight.  I have more compassion.  I have more life experience.  I have more to give.  So when you reenter the world you had to leave for a time say, ” I’m back,” with a smile.  Say it with a thankful heart because now you know you have been given even more grace than you had before.