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.