Monday, July 28, 2008


There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory.

-- Sir Francis Drake

The greatness of the matter and the extent of its glory are doubtful. Only time, and a lot of it, will tell. And persistence. But humble matters must also have their beginnings, and I start humbly.

I am a chaplain, and I work in a hospice. There is a silence when I tell you this. You take an involuntary breath. You look at me with concern. “Oh!” you say, drawing out the syllable. You are not the kind of person who laments. Ululation is not in your culture. But your brow is furrowed. You are concerned for me. “Don’t you find that work – depressing?”

Hospice – the place where people die. When I go to work, I walk amongst those who are very sick and will not get better, those for whom hope has been abandoned. I wade in grief. I swim in annihilation. That’s what you’re thinking. I can hear what you’re not saying. You’re not saying, how can he bear it? You’re not saying, he never has a happy ending. I can hear you not saying these things.

I’m in an elevator, and someone has read my nametag. A visitor. A person who loves a sick person somewhere in the hospital. She surprises me. Looking right in my eyes, she says, “You’ve got a really hard job.” I’m not sure what to say. She honors me, but I don’t feel that I’ve earned this particular honor. I say, “Thank you.” She says, “It’s a really hard job.” I say, “It does get my attention. Thank you.” “God bless you,” she says.

The truth is, my clients don’t depress me. Not so far. I can imagine that they might. I have heard others say they’ve seen too much, they need a change, and I do not doubt them. I’ve had my troubles with the job. There have been days when I had to wash the job off me with soap. But on those days, it was my clients who saved me. It’s not that they’re all nice people; some of them are – challenging. It’s not that they all trust me; some have extended a biblical arm and commanded me to leave the room the moment they knew I was a chaplain. But until they died – and some have not – they were all alive.

I don’t visit the dead. I visit the living. I visit people who are looking death in the face – their own death or the death of someone they love. They are living in the face of death. So are we all, but we look away. My people – the people who accept my visits – are blessed with inability to look away. They try, as we all do, to look away, but the effort is becoming every moment more ridiculous.

Forrest Church, the most famous pastor of my faith, says that “Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die.” The moment when we do not look away, when we alive know we are dying, is an opportunity. We can screw it up, or we can rise to a new level. We are given an opportunity to become who we are. To become as e e cummings named us a “human merely being” in the good image of God. To encounter new life.

So what I do is no different from what any pastor does, except that the job presents to me in concentrated form. Every now and then, in the simplest of ways, I help people to live. I can do this every now and then if I keep my head on straight. Remembering all the things I cannot do, I have a chance to learn and – with fear and trembling – wield my powers.

I cannot fix the problem. I cannot rescue a client from death. (I cannot rescue him from life either.) After almost four years of this work, I begin to enumerate my powers. Powers to Hear, to Travel, to Name and to Bless. We keep forgetting that these are, in truth, powers. If we use them well we can empower a client to live, if that is her choice, in the way she would choose.

I hope I have begun humbly enough.

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