This week everyone is playing with death. Halloween, whether everyone is conscious of it or not, is a cultural meditation on death. I (Ben White) spent a couple of years as a hospital chaplain very close to death and I’d like to share some of my stories, so the posts won’t be anonymous this time. The work of a hospital chaplain is mostly to be a companion, an institutionally connected person who seeks to connect with the emotions and human needs of sick people and their families. Most of my work in the hospital was very momentary, especially in the middle of the night. Each story happened, though the names have been changed.
Today’s Bible reading
Read Matthew 16:13-28
From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things. –Matthew 16:21-23
More thoughts for meditation
I met a man named Peter when he was close to death and then a few months later I met his family when he was actually dying. The nurses had called me to be with a family as a brain surgeon told them that the intervention he had just attempted was not successful. Their husband, father and grandfather had hours to live.
A deathwatch is an awful thing if all you do is watch a person die. Some families do it that way, and this night I had just finished doing a silent, grueling watch with another family. When we got into the room with Peter, I was asked to say a prayer. The family gathered around on either side and I stood at the foot of the bed. I remember thinking that his dying body was very much like a pulpit. I delivered a fairly formal prayer because he had told me when he could that he went to a very traditional Presbyterian church. I thought his family would feel comfortable with that. But after the prayer we were just there together. Desperate not to repeat the silent deathwatch, I asked the family to tell me about Peter. Son and daughter hesitantly said how great of a dad he was, trying to sound as formal as I had been in my prayer, but then something beautiful happened. His granddaughter said, “He was always singing.” And everyone laughed. They weren’t sure if they were allowed to so I laughed with them and told them this was a great moment to celebrate his life.
Then the stories flowed. Of how he would get up on the roof of the University of Pennsylvania lab building where he worked which was across the street from Franklin Field where the Eagles used to play and watch the game for free. Of how his son, the sound engineer, recorded him singing some old hymns and when Dad listened to the playback in headphones he shouted, “I SOUND GOOD.” And everyone did an impression of him saying “I SOUND GOOD!” And we laughed and laughed. And then more tears, and it all sounded good.
Suggestions for action
Today, at least as honored in the West Philly of my youth, is Mischief Night. The way the kids did it when I was younger was to mess with people and their stuff in as rude a way as possible. I learned of this tradition the first October I lived in Philly, when my 12 year old brother got egged by a stranger on our way to school. I was mortified, and angry. But that random teenager’s desire to mess with stuff, while misguided, shouldn’t be completely condemned. The restless energy reminds me of Peter, Christ’ disciple. Even if he didn’t know any better, we can appreciate his zeal. The good natured variety of mischief that can be done on Mischief Night reminds me of the Peter whose family laughed as he died. As we descend into our culture’s annual meditation on death, we need not be only somber. That energy to resist the powers that be, rebel for rebellion sake, can be channeled in the right direction.
Do some Holy Mischief today. Redeem the rebellious spirits of those who might just graffiti a wall today with the “F” word. Awaken the teenager within you to do something fun that challenges the status quo. Take all the brochures form the army recruitment stand and put them in the recycling bin. Hang a flyer for Circle of Hope on a bulletin board without asking permission. Show up at a friend’s house for dinner uninvited. Pray in public. Start a cell from scratch.