November 22, 2017

Under Roiling Skies

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The skies today in central Indiana were as wild as any I’ve ever seen.

Such contrasts! Here and there, brilliant patches of naked blue broke through a pervasive chaos in the firmament, suggesting some paradise beyond the swirling fury. White, black, and every shade of gray between percolated across heaven’s dome. There was no discernible pattern, just helter skelter as far as the eye could see. A mythic battle ensued overhead all day long while we mere mortals trudged along below.

Where my day was typical for a hospice chaplain.

It started in the hospital, with a visit to a man just admitted to end of life care. I walked into a dark room, filled with family — a daughter, son, grandchildren, great grandchildren. I introduced myself and sat down to talk. The patient was non-responsive, the daughter looked beaten down, and the grandchildren were preoccupied with eating their biscuits and gravy breakfasts. In recent months, the family had lost a grandmother, an aunt, and a mother. Now dad was dying. When I expressed sympathy for their losses, the daughter squinted her eyes and recoiled as though a cold wind had gusted and slapped her in the face.

I did my best to let them know I was available as a friend. What did they hear, I wonder?

photoAs I was starting to leave the hospital, I received a call that another of our patients there had just died. I turned around and went to a different unit. There, two adult daughters were weeping and consoling each other over the loss of their mother, who had just passed after a weeks-long family vigil at the bedside. I asked permission to join them and sat down. This was listening time, and that’s pretty much what I did for awhile. What could I say? I did praise them for keeping faithful company with their mom during her last days, but this was their time to talk.

The visit ended up lasting a couple of hours. I moved in and out of the room, checking on them, giving them some space, doing a few small tasks on their behalf, touching base with the staff, and mostly just waiting. One daughter remarked how quiet it had become in the room, how little there was to do now. Other family members eventually arrived and we gathered around the deathbed where I commended them all into God’s care.

Then I moved on, and they walked out to face the turbulent skies.

On the way to my next visit, the sun began shining brightly, and as I drove through the city I was surrounded by resplendent trees under wide swaths of azure. The dear lady I went to see in her home has the most beautiful white hair, and as she sat in front of the window, the rays shone through and it sparkled like a million tiny diamonds. This woman, in her 90’s, always dresses to the nines whenever members of her care team visit. She loves to entertain, tell stories, and make us laugh. Sometimes she sits with three cats on her lap and one on the back of her chair, looking every bit like the queen of paradise, with her fancy sweaters, glimmering jewelry, and flashing, smiling eyes. I always kneel before her and pray at the end of my visit.

God save the queen.

photo(6)When I left her home to drive to my next stop, I noticed that the battle in the sky had intensified. The gods had marshaled their forces, the trumpet had sounded and all over heaven the lines were advancing with swords and shields drawn. No peace in sight. With each turn of the steering wheel, another vista of cosmic warfare. Maybe I should take shelter. But I can’t look away.

My day ended with a few mundane activities: a meeting, a cancelled visit, a stop back at the hospital where I found a patient alone and asleep and decided not to disturb him. Time to go home.

All the way to my house I thought about just how fine the line is between ordinary and extraordinary.

Nothing could be more common than what I do. Travel. Greet. Sit. Listen. Converse. Pray. Repeat.

But it all happens under a roiling sky, a cosmic battle, Job’s whirlwind.

Today I saw it. I really saw it.

Sometimes I wonder how any of us makes it home alive.

Comments

  1. Chaplain Mike, this is a beautiful description of a very full day. Ordinary and cosmic.

    I love the imagery of Job’s whirlwind. It is one of the best images in the Old Testament – it is both bracing and descriptive of experience.

  2. Are you sure you were not following me all day?

  3. Wonderfully observant meditation, CM.

    Wife and I finished the last part of our drive today under your same sky. Indeed the roil was magnificent. The sunset, as we turned north on 69 toward Ft. Wayne, cast brilliant colors into Job’s Whirlwind.

    Wife’s mom is making the slow slide into dementia. We’re headed to Toronto to be with her for a few days.

  4. Chaplain Mike,

    You have been blessed with a calling to an important ministry. The important ones are the ones that don’t make headlines but keep being faithful.

    I knew this in my head but my heart learned it by passing through the sorrows of loss. People like you who walked with me showed me that God was with me too. Thanks for sharing this.

  5. What a refreshing story! I work with children/youth with ‘special needs’, and while it seldom involves ‘end of life’ issues, your story resonated with me in terms of the melding between the mundane and the resplendent, which so often describes MY days. Such a refreshing break from what so often seems like a constant litany of ‘evangelical’ bashing…deserved or not. Thank you!

  6. As I am leaning into my first calling, serving as pastor of a small New England city Baptist congregation, I have a growing sense of the thin veil between the seen and unseen. What I am sensing looks less like a Transformer’s movie, and more like turbulent water flowing beneath a thin crust of ice. I can hear it, when I place my hand on the ice I can feel the vibration. It tells me there is much going on beneath the surface that I can’t see and that is far beyond my control.

    I get this sense when I am praying, often alone, but even more strongly, when praying with someone who is going through a painful time (something I have had the opportunity to do lately). And sometimes when I am preaching. When conversing with others about our congregation and caring for our neighbors.

    Frankly, I don’t understand what is going on, but I also don’t feel like I need to. I am so inadequate to “DO this JOB.” I find myself in a place I have never been before — a place of actually praying without an agenda of my own. I simply have no idea how to “make things happen” here. So I find myself simply lifting up to God those around me and waiting and listening for what He will do with those offerings.

    And I am seeing what I think is his unfolding grace in our midst. And yet, all this with the roilings you write of over and under and around us all.

    I think a few years ago, I would have thought this post was poetic and evocative, but from outside my experience. Now — I am feeling the barometer shifting. Lord, have mercy. Hosanna.

  7. OldProphet says:

    It’s really a good post CM. I’ve done work in hospitals with terminal patients Hard stuff. God’s favor on you pouring out your life and heart for the truly desperate.

  8. Keep up the awesome work Chaplain Mike. How you do what you do in addition to this blog is mind blowing. Godspeed.

  9. Chaplain Mike, how long did it take before you called what you do “ordinary”. Most would think of accompanying the dying and their familes as “dramatic, even extreme.” Funny but as I was driving into the Senior Center this morning to work at the front desk the word ordinary was my “meditation.” I thought how I used to think every day had to be “Dramatic, living for the Lord, witnessing to him.” Now, years after my own “Job’s whirlwind” I have learned that it is among (as my pastor often tells us) the little, the least and the lost that we usually find Jesus. Just sitting listening (everyone has a story), journeying with other widows, making countless cups of coffee, laughing, eating meals together and yes shedding tears together. The ordinary. Today a woman came in for a Medicare appt. As she sat and waited she asked me if we had a pool at the Center. She proceeded to tell me about her numerous surgeries, her limitations, her growing frustrations with a body that no longer obeys her. I listened. When it got busy again and I had to get back to the phone etc. she simply said, “Thank you for listening to me.” Ordinary. Every day ordinary.

    Thank you for your post, you say it so much better.

  10. “At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
    Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
    But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity,
    Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
    Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
    There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.”

    From “Burnt Norton”, by T.S. Eliot

  11. Such blessings! Some never look up from the ground to God’s skies. Once, with my elderly aunt as I was driving to pick up a relative from the airport, my aunt said, Oh Look! Suddenly the skies were like a canopy of beauty, purple, gold, pink, yellow, blue, fuschia, in all hues, like a huge dome over us. Cars stopped by the side of the interstate, people pointing, taking pictures. I had never seen anything like and have not since. But, this is weird, I felt frightened, my aunt did too. She said, I want to go home. It was The Lord in all his glory. Btw, this phenomenon was reported thru out the Midwest. I would definitely felt frightened at your skies, CM, don’t ask me why. I have spent a lot of time I sitting in hospitals by bedsides with relatives and could relate to your experiences. What a blessing you were; you will never know, God Bless.