I do the ministry of hospice chaplaincy in extended care facilities and in people's homes, traveling all over Sussex County, from poor rural farm house in places like Selbyville, Gumborough and Greenville to fairly upscale condos and lovely homes in places like Rehoboth Beach, Bethany Beach and Fenwick Island.
I keep myself fairly busy when it doesn't get occasionally frenetic.
I've always been - and probably always will be - a girl who just can't say no. Not to work I love. Especially in the absence of the Killer B's of parochial ministry: budgets, boilers and bishops.
In one of our post-Thanksgiving Day conversations, I was talking with one of our children about helping me design a web page for my private practice, which continues to grow at a steady pace, despite the slow recovery of the economy here in Lower, Slower Delaware. S/he asked me to begin by considering what 'logo' I would use to depict my work.
The first image was something with the ocean and a lighthouse, which brought groans of disapproval for something that has been admittedly overused and boarders on the hokey. It is, nonetheless, something which speaks to me of the outward and visible sign of this sacramental ministry.
The ministry I am privileged to provide is amazingly, astonishingly, sometimes overwhelmingly sacramental. People trust me with their brokenness in ways that humble - and sometimes startle - me with their honesty and trust. It is in the sharing of that brokenness in a place that is safe that begins the process of w/holiness and forgiveness and healing.
It is holy work, this business of helping people to connect the broken places in their mind and body and soul and begin to find w/holeness and w/holiness of life.
There is another part to that work, however, that is messy and mucky and just plain awful. It is, for the most part, the cause of most of the brokenness. This is not limited to but most especially true in my work with people who are at the end stages of their life and in the care of Hospice.
Yup, that would be how I often feel as I sit and talk with Hospice patients about forgiveness, reconciliation, salvation, atonement, heaven and hell.
Oh, the patient does not necessarily say, "I'd like to get your views on God's forgiveness /reconciliation / salvation / atonement / heaven / hell" - although, sometimes, they do.
All you have to do is listen to the conversation under the conversation to hear the themes.
One of my favorite books by May Sarton is "Crucial Conversations," in which she says that just beneath the polite banter that marks most of our conversations lie the crucially important conversations we need to have.
As one of my mentors always used to say, "It's not 'the thing' that is 'the thing'; it's 'the thing under the thing' that's 'the thing'." I have been carefully trained and am highly experienced in listening for - and to - the 'thing under the thing that is the thing' in those crucial conversations.
I simply can't believe some of the garbage some of these folks have picked up and collected over the years from good Christian preachers.
I've had Roman Catholic husbands weeping in my arms as their Protestant wives lie dying because they are afraid that they really won't see each other in heaven. They were carefully taught as children that only Roman Catholics will go to heaven and, even though they are now adults and long ago rejected that theology, in moments in which fear and anxiety cause emotional and spiritual regression, they wonder and question and struggle.
That belief is reinforced by "father" who told them that, as long as they hadn't been married in the RC Church (which they couldn't do because their spouse would not convert to Catholicism), they were considered "living in sin" and could not - indeed, would not - be afforded the sacraments of the church. Any and all of them.
I've had grown, adult women from Jewish/Christian families who had neither been baptized nor had a Bat Mitzvah who experience enormous anxiety about what - if anything - to believe about the after life, much less heaven and hell and what one has to do in order to get there.
I've had more conversations than I care to remember about "tunnels" and who might be there and "looking for / going to / following 'The Light'". I had no idea that there were so many books about end of life and what happens - most of which is "new-agey" and romantic and, quite frankly, so devoid of any semblance of logic that it makes my stomach lurch. I don't think it's any better than some of the really bad theology that gets preached or taught or sung in churches.
Proof of Heaven" that everyone is talking about. No, I've not read it. Yet. It's on my list.
That being said, what I can tell you is that it has brought more people more comfort and hope than many theology books or sermons or hymns they've heard in most churches.
I've also experienced "inquisitions" of sorts, which I don't take personally. Some of the folks whose homes I walk into have had it "up to here" with bad theology and they certainly don't want any more of it while they have to deal with dying and death - either their own or that of the one they love.
So, I get peppered with questions like: "Does prayer 'work'?" "What does prayer 'do'?" "If you are going to pray for me, what are you praying for?" "How do you know prayer works?"
Or: "What happens when I die?" "What will happen to me after I die?" "Will I go to heaven?" "Will I be there with my spouse?" "How do you know that?" "Why do you believe that?"
As we talk and I explore the "conversation under the conversation", it doesn't take long for the theological garbage to come tumbling out. Stories of priests and pastors and ministers who said something at a point in the formation of their development that left its mark - sometimes, a deep, open, unhealed scar - that has never gone away.
It's a sacramental dis-grace.
Grace has been dis-missed.
Which is when I take out my theological shovel and begin to clear a space for Grace. So they can feel Grace. And, experience Grace. And, know Grace. Unearned. Unmerited. Undeserved. And yet, so very, very present.
Grace is always free. No strings attached. It's always available. Unfortunately, so many people have gotten themselves all tangled up in the strings of useless guilt and shame and regret - none of which has much to do with moral failures or ethical infractions. Rather, all this guilt and shame and regret has been heaped upon them by inept or theologically corrupt pastoral leaders.
And when there is evidence of sin? I try to help them to be fearless in making a searching moral inventory, seek true repentance and forgiveness and reconciliation - if there's time.
And, I offer absolution and anointing and laying on of hands and yes, Eucharist. I offer them with the same relentless truth and searing honesty as I have experienced from the person - from deep within my heart and soul - so they might catch at least a glimmer of the unconditional love of God who created them and now calls them back home.
When I took my ordination vows, I promised, among other things: "In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ's people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come." (BCP 531)
I take that vow as seriously as a heart attack.
A huge, rough samurai once went to see a little monk, hoping to acquire the secrets of the universe.I pray that religious leaders and teachers may offer less of the disdain and fury, rage and menace which are the images of hell, and more of the compassion and surrender, gratitude and peace which are images of heaven.
"Monk," he said, in a voice accustomed to instant obedience. "teach me about heaven and hell."
The little monk looked up at the mighty warrior in silence. Then, after a moment, he said to the samurai with utter disdain, "Teach YOU about heaven and hell? I couldn't teach you about anything. You're dirty. You smell. Your blade is rusty. you're a disgrace, an embarrassment to the samurai class. Get out of my sight at once. I can't stand you!"
The samurai was furious. He began to shake all over from the anger that raced through him. A red flush spread over his face; he was speechless with rage. Quickly, menacingly, he pulled out his sword and raised it above his head, preparing to slay the monk.
"That's hell." said the little monk quietly.
The samurai was overwhelmed. Stunned. The compassion and surrender of this little man who had offered his life to give this teaching about hell! He slowly lowered his sword, filled with gratitude, and for reasons he could not explain his heart became suddenly peaceful.
"And that's heaven," said the monk softly.
Maybe then, when the end of our time here on earth comes, more people may find their own way back to God, by whichever path they happen to take.