Encouragement for a lifelong journey of faith

Author: Benjamin White (Page 1 of 2)

Pastor of Circle of Hope stationed at 3800 Marlton Pike in Pennsauken, NJ

November 5, 2017 – Hidden Jesus

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 John 20:1-29

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb… Then the disciples returned to their homes. But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” When she had said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. –John 20:1,10-14

More thoughts for meditation

Part of what I tried to do in the hospital was meet everyone who had been admitted in my assigned are for 5 days or more. I would introduce myself and describe the services of the department of Pastoral Care at least, and depending on the patient and the timing, that would become a deep and meaningful conversation. I could be a sounding board, a support and an encouragement to them in their difficult situation. And other times that didn’t happen.

I went in to Sam’s room and from my first sight of him I could tell he didn’t want me to be there. Or maybe I just didn’t want to be there; I’m still not sure. Sam was old, but covered in tattoos. His teeth were rotten and the room smelled awful. He was gruff and dismissive as I tried to be cheerful but empathetic. I could barely understand him.

I tried to strike up a conversation with him by asking “What are you in for?” I am painfully aware that these words betrayed my prejudice towards him. “What are you in for” is what inmates ask each other, isn’t it? I obviously assumed this man was a criminal. He might have picked that up or he might have just wanted to be alone, I can’t be sure, but he made it clear that he wasn’t interested in talking to me. I left soon after I arrived and as I did I said “I’m available if you need anything. The nurses know where to find me.” Sam responded with “I’ll be right here. You let me know if YOU need anything.” I paused for a moment and let that hit me in the gut. And then I walked away.

When Sam, the broken and sick man, offered help to me, the supposedly strong and healthy man, I was struck with my own weakness. Who was I to be needed? I am not as strong as I think I am. This veneer of cheer and institutional importance thinly veiling my disgust, I wasn’t far from a fraud. I, the professional holy person, was ministered to by the presumably unholy man, Sam. Jesus was there, and I didn’t recognize him.

Suggestions for action

Look for Jesus today in some unlikely places. Death is an often unexplored place we can find him. We have been meditating on this all week as our culture has had a week of celebration of death. Can you see him in the costumes and candy, in the horror movies and on Stranger Things? Can you see him in the difficult relationships in your life? Can you see him in the random person on the street? Can you see him in yourself?

The disciples ran away from the horror and confusion of the tomb. Only Mary stayed. Stay long enough for Jesus to come to you. Take comfort, God knows you aren’t that strong. You don’t have to be. It is in our weakness, that Christ’s power finds its best expression. Maybe this old Rich Mullins song can help you. It’s a favorite of mine.

November 4, 2017 – Ash Saturday

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 1 Corinthians 11:23-26

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. –1 Corinthians 11:26

More thoughts for meditation

The first time I met Daniel was on Ash Wednesday.  I distributed ashes to him and his girlfriend, Veronica.  Veronica’s emotion was at the brim of her composure and she spilt her tears on my shoulder for a moment after I crossed her with the deathly symbol.  She was overwhelmed by the timing of it because she was very scared for Daniel’s life.  I took note of her neediness and resolved to follow up.  Daniel was discharged from the hospital the next day but returned soon, and I had a chance to speak with him alone at the suggestion of one of his nurses.  I had been informed that the doctors had broached the subject of hospice care for the first time that morning because his cancer was not responding to treatment anymore.

Daniel had bright red hair, he was from Frankford in Philadelphia, and he was Catholic.  Unfortunately, as part of his Catholic upbringing, Daniel had picked up an understanding of “the rules” that precluded even the consideration of hospice care because it was tantamount to committing suicide.  He thought he would be giving up on life and he knew that was a sin. I disagreed with him openly, and he didn’t like that and told me so in no uncertain terms.

Daniel was certain about something he should not have been certain in my opinion.  Where did he get those ideas?  Had he received an un-nuanced “sanctity of life” pamphlet in the church lobby and based his last days on it?  Of course, I can’t be sure.  I can’t even be close.  I can wonder what value specific teaching on this biblically very grey area can have. I doubt God wants that.  I’m willing to venture that he doesn’t care.  God does care about the simple faith of Daniel.  I should highlight this as well.  His love was strong, if fiery; his faith was contagious, at least to Veronica; and, in a sense, he died for his cause.  Could he be a soft sort of martyr, standing up to the hospital as its treatments stood him up for much longer than he could have lived without them?  This is a very long stretch, but provocative enough for conversation.  What does God require of Daniel?  What did Daniel offer that God did not require?  And, of course, who am I to judge? (Thank God, nobody.)

Suggestions for action

Proclaim the Lord’s death today. Wear a spiritual ashy cross on your forehead as we often do on Ash Wednesday (Which falls on Valentine’s Day this coming February). Safe under his symbol of victory over death, you can proclaim your own death, too. Daniel had strong ideas about how he wanted to go. Whether he was right or not, I think we need some of his fire.

From dust we came and to dust we shall return. Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again. Maybe you’d like to listen to these Catholic friends sing that part of the mass. Maybe put this video on loop until it sinks in. Stand firm today. Ask Christ to help you.

November 3, 2017 – The Weight of Resurrection

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 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own?  For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. –1 Corinthians 6:19-20

More thoughts for meditation

“It is as if Death and grief were not part of The Order of Things.” –Thomas Lynch in The Undertaking.

Thomas Lynch observes the downside of some of the sterilization that occurred at the turn of the 20th century. In the United States and Britain Thomas Crapper gets a lot of the credit for universal use of indoor plumbing. He did not invent the toilet as we know it but he did sell it to us. He’s the reason we say “crap.” At the same time that indoor toilets were being adopted, we were getting death out of the house too. Funeral Parlors also became prevalent at the turn of the 20th century. Before their assent, families would lay bodies out in the actual parlor of the house. Touching the dead body was normal. Flowers were essential at funerals originally because they masked the smell of death. All that has change and we as a culture are quite separated from the bodily realities of death.

Once in the hospital I was honored to participate in dressing a dead body. The patient’s wife, now a widow for only a few minutes, was frantic to get clothes on her deceased husband. She was old and only her daughters were present. It fell to me to lift his body so that she could pull his pants up. The cold, literally dead weight of him is hard to forget.

When you get close to death so often and so intimately, it is impossible not to consider your own death. During this period of my life, the resurrection descended from a belief in my head, to an absolute necessity in my bones. It took on mass and weight. It needed to be substantial to counterbalance the pounds and pounds of death I seemed to be putting on.

Suggestions for action

Be in your body. Feel the weight of your hands on your knees, the weight of your toes on the floor. Imagine your body sinking into the chair you’re sitting in. Be still. This body, this one that is breathing deeply and pressing into your knees, the floor and chair will die and one day be brought to new life. It is a mystery how that new body and this one will be the same, but it will be this very same one somehow for eternity. Appreciate this body of yours. It is a temple of the Holy Spirit. Breathe, feel your weight and feel the resurrection. You’re going to need it, if you don’t already.

November 2, 2017 – The Ancestors

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 Psalm 6

Turn, O Lord, save my life;
deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love.
For in death there is no remembrance of you;
in Sheol who can give you praise?
I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eyes waste away because of grief;
they grow weak because of all my foes.

More thoughts for meditation

This story is more of an elegy for my Grandmother, Margery Mockler (her name has not been changed), who died on Good Friday in 2012. I was working in the hospital as a chaplain at the time. Writing this was one of the ways I grieved for her.

You weren’t very welcome in her living room, but sometimes when I was supposed to be napping I would sneak in to admire the “precious moments” figurines in the curio cabinets.  My foot prints betrayed me, detectable only by their impressions in the uniform shag of perfectly vacuumed beige carpet.  The couches were uncomfortable and formal. They had brocade flowery swirls on them.  We sat on them only on Christmas Eve. I think I remember the day she bought us big wheels. One for me and one for my twin brother on our fourth birthday. They were in the spare bedroom intervaled between the two single beds.  I couldn’t believe it.

She was always so generous in my memory. I remember signing the back of the first check she gave me. I rested it on the top of the TV next to the rooftop antenna control at the parsonage on Fairview Avenue. I was nine. Every year since, Christmas has come with a big check.

She always had way too much of the food I loved that I didn’t get at home: sugar first cereal, particularly Trix before it was shaped like fruit- just colorful round balls, tarter then, and less gloopy in milk. Also tortilla chips and peanut butter sandwiches, ice cream—Neapolitan to be exact, Pecan Sandies, Carl’s Junior, marshmallows and hot dogs roasted on that small grill on the patio. “Benny, you’re going to pop!” she would always say as she gave me another scoop.

My lungs almost burst in her pool, collecting six rings from the bottom all in one breath—first on my arms and then on my feet.  Once I jumped off the diving board and hit my head on the side of the pool.  I didn’t tell anyone.  She had an organ in her dining room, but we never ate there. Sometimes on the chairs at the bar in wet bathing suits- they were vinyl- but usually on the patio, next to the square patch of yard, where Pokie the puppy pooped, next to the fence that separated their property from the University owned fields on the other side and the avocado tree that my grandfather would pick.

The smell of her garage was dog food and clean cement.  You could walk behind the garage and play in the sand there, the smell was fertilizer. I played army men, another forbidden fruit at home, in the side yard by the gate to the front yard that I never once went through. There you could smell the evergreen bushes.

My memory of Grandma is tied up in that house on LeConte. I mourn her in a swirl of nostalgia that mourns my lost childhood, my lost California boy and his friends. It was never the same after that. I’ve seen her less than a dozen times since. Learning that she has died today, those 3000 miles away, takes me back to her house and the boy who played there. That boy certainly loved her, even if it was mostly for her toys and treats. This man loves her for that too. The adult treats are this house, my car and many years of financial security. It feels strange to love her for that.  But I will. I still do.

Suggestions for action

The Day of the Dead or All Soul’s Day is a day for mourning. Properly mourning our losses is an art. Our hearts are so easily hardened. It hurts to remember sometimes. When someone is gone, there is no immediate opportunity to heal any broken parts of the relationship. My incomplete experience of my grandmother is evidence of that for me.

Making peace with our memories begs for healing. God is with us in it. All of the rituals connected with the Day of the Dead aim at this reconciliation with the past, even if parts of the theology are suspect. Connecting with the ancestors is something humans have done since history began. There is power and insight in knowing who you came from. Some people are actually cut off from their distant ancestry by outside forces, most notably in the United States by slavery. All of our heartache needs attention. Today is a day to connect. Read Psalm 6 again and see if you can use it for your own grief. Think of “the foes” as the things that you feel oppressed by, or the personal pain you still suffer from your losses.

– – – – – – – – –

On our sister blog, Celebrating Our Transhistorical Body, there is more to reflect on about Halloween (Oct. 31), All Saint’s Day (Nov. 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2—AKA Day of the Dead). Together these three days are part of a celebration that used to be known as Hallowmas.

« Older posts