December 16, 2017

Another Look: Mark

Note from CM: I have an extraordinarily busy week ahead of me since I’m covering for our other chaplain’s caseload as well as my own. So, on Mon-Wed I will re-post some of my favorite stories from my work as a hospice chaplain. If I don’t get to clear comments that get held right away, please be patient. I’ll do my best.

• • •

The Garden of St. Paul Hospital, van Gogh

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him?

• James 2:5, NRSV

• • •

We stood and sat on a quiet green spot at the cemetery under sunny blue skies filled with white billowing clouds. Besides the funeral home staff, there were fewer than ten of us, and not one was related to the deceased. Mark had no family left in this world, not since his sister died seven years ago. Despite his own handicaps and limitations he had cared for her in the final season of her life. When she died, he took it so hard he ended up in jail.

That’s where he met Dewey. Today, Dewey was sitting in front of me and he was the first to volunteer to speak when I asked for us all to share our memories and thoughts about Mark. He walked up, stood behind the blue metal casket, put a hand on it, and said, “I…I guess I should start. I knew him longest. We met in jail after his sister died. Wasn’t long after that we got out and became roommates. And yeah, we had our ups and downs. Mark, he liked things just so, you know. I was a little more…I don’t know, free, you know? We went through a lot together, Mark and me. I’m gonna miss him.” We were all impressed with Dewey’s initiative and eloquence.

Mark was schizophrenic with mood disorders and had a history of other problems I didn’t fully grasp. When I first visited him with a couple of my hospice teammates he sat on the couch, his stuffed monkey in the corner on a pillow, and he rocked back and forth as he talked. Sometimes, I was told, he insisted you call him by another name — I forget now what it was — that represented an alternative identity. When he was that person, he tended to be more volatile and unreceptive. I never met this other Mark, however. I only knew the soft-spoken, obsessive Mark who repeated his words over and over again and tried to help you understand him.

On that first visit, I came to suspect that he had been hurt by religion or churches, ministers or church people somewhere along the line. When he heard I was the chaplain, he launched into a long stream of consciousness explanation about why he could never take communion because he didn’t believe in eating people and no one was ever going to force him to do that. Not wanting to upset him, I just let him ramble, though every once in a while he left an opening where I could say, “Mark, I’m only here to be your friend. I’ve come to support you and won’t ask you to do anything you don’t want to do.” I could well imagine the impression Mark might have made in a church setting, and how it would have been hard for a minister or church folks to know how to talk to him. It was hard for me, at least on the first visit. So I played it low key, listened a lot, and whenever I spoke I tried to find some words of reassurance and support. It seemed to go pretty well.

Mark was under the care of a team of social workers and counselors from our network’s mental health office near his apartment. With their help, over the course of ten years, Mark had gotten to the point where he could live alone and function with some independence in the community. They visited daily to make sure he took his medications and help him with any problems he encountered. They had been working with Mark in two different locations for over ten years, saw him through the crisis when his sister died, and assisted and supported him through many other challenges. We met with his team when Mark first came on hospice and became partners in providing care for him now that he had developed stage four lung cancer that had metastasized to his brain. As nature is wont to do sometimes, cancer added insult to injury by raising a swollen mass behind his eye that caused it to bulge out, affecting his appearance. Mark was sensitive about that, and even went out on his own and bought an eye patch to cover it up.

It was this small group of people who gathered in front of Mark’s casket under blue skies: the only “family” he had, a friend he met in jail, a couple of us from hospice, and a half dozen case workers who had diligently cared for Mark for many years. I had been asked to lead the service, and as we sat and stood there together, I thought it important to give everyone a chance to share their thoughts, memories, and feelings. Each one tearfully and eloquently did, and what was said reflected the gifts Mark had given to each one as they had worked with him. They spoke of his big heart, his generous manner, his habit of always thanking others for their help and expressing his appreciation. I praised them all for doing God’s work, for giving dignity to someone most people in the world would ignore, for recognizing his value, for giving of themselves to someone who otherwise may have lived and died alone.

 

Trees in the Garden at St. Paul Hospital, van Gogh

And I remembered Jesus’ words, about how he came to bring God’s blessing to the unfortunate, the “losers” (as the world categorizes them):

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be satisfied.

Then I recalled that Jesus also commended those who follow him by bringing aid and comfort to those unfortunate ones, whose work is often scoffed at, even opposed by those who do more “important” things in the world:

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

When Jesus said these words, he was going against everything the world stood for — even the religious world. Most people assume that the ones who are truly “blest” in this world are the rich, the comfortable, the well-adjusted, the healthy, the happy people, the people who make a lot of money or gain a lot of power and prestige. We tend to think that God’s favor is for the winners, not the losers.

But Jesus said just the opposite. He said he came to lift up the lowly, to reach out to those the rest of us avoid, to give priority to powerless, mistreated, hurting people. He came to seek out the lost, hidden, overlooked folks. The people on the margins. The difficult cases. The intractable problem people. The poor, the oppressed, those who are physically, mentally and emotionally frail. Those whom society calls the losers.

People like Mark.

When we care for people like Mark and get involved in their lives, we realize that the world’s categorization of “winners” and “losers” amounts to a pile of horse manure. Every single one of those people present before Mark’s casket that day testified of his dignity, his value, his worth, and what they gained from working with him. Every person mourned that day because a beautiful life had left the world. It matters not one whit that this life had been wrapped in a troubling disguise. Yes, it took long work and faithful attention for some of us to uncover and appreciate the beauty, but it was there all the time awaiting discovery.

If you read the stories about Jesus, you see that he interacted with these kinds of people all the time, treated them as important and delighted in giving attention to them. Those in power and leadership didn’t like it very much because they thought that Israel’s Messiah should first come to bless the leaders and make them stronger and more prosperous and capable of overcoming their enemies. But that’s not where Jesus placed his priorities. And they were offended.

Even today, it is sad that the world doesn’t usually honor people with those kind of priorities. I remarked to that group of folks who worked with Mark that I didn’t have to tell them that. All we need to do is look at our paychecks and contrast what they pay people in other kinds of jobs to see what the world values and rewards.

But a lot of those better paid people will never know what it means to receive gifts from folks like Mark.

The last time I saw Mark awake and alert, he had been admitted to a nursing home because he couldn’t live alone any longer due to the progression of his disease. A few of us went to see him and found that he was now mumbling his words to such an extent that they were indecipherable. Still, he tried to communicate, and we in turn tried to reassure him. I took a moment just before I left to kneel down in front of him as he sat on his bed. “Mark, we’re here for you and I’ll check on you again soon, OK? I want you to know we’re praying for you. See you later.” Once again, knowing that the topic of religion could set him off, I tried to keep a light touch.

I arose and started to walk out the door, and when I did I perceived some movement out of the corner of my eye. I looked back at Mark and he was sitting there with his hand outstretched, reaching out to shake mine. A wave of profound joy overwhelmed me at that moment. I took his hand and when I let go, I walked away holding a gift that no one can ever take away from me.

Comments

  1. Robert F says:

    If you read the stories about Jesus, you see that he interacted with these kinds of people all the time, treated them as important and delighted in giving attention to them.

    Perhaps if we knew ourselves well, we would know that we also, each in our own ways, are these kinds of people.

    • Robert F says:

      At least, I know I am, as are many people I know, including some who think they’re not.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      –> “Perhaps if we knew ourselves well, we would know that we also, each in our own ways, are these kinds of people.”

      Yep. It’s like I told the guy’s at men’s group on Saturday morning, “I’m more screwed up than you guys will ever know.”

      That’s not to make light of people with debilitating psychological and physical issues, but the humble reminder is good. And as I reflect on watching my mother age and die from Alzheimer’s I realize that if we aren’t “these kind of people” yet, we soon might be.

  2. Dana Ames says:

    Thanks, Ch Mike, for reminding and re-reminding us of what’s important. Van Gogh’s paintings are perfect for this reflection.

    May the Lord grant you much grace this week. Christ is risen!

    Dana

  3. Doubling down this week, CM, your daily blessing for strength, relief, and a break or three.

  4. Christiane says:

    God’s greatest gifts to us come in the stranger packages. If we never understand this, we are the poorer for it.

  5. Incredible writing and life experience Imho. I never knew why but I have always gravitated to those who most would consider losers. I’ve always enjoyed their company and I never knew why. I sometimes felt maybe I was one too. Maybe I am but I have had a love to work thing going on because I couldn’t steal. God has protected me even when I most certainly should have been charge with something. ( not stealing or hurting anyone besides myself). Was in a car accident hitting a tree at 60 mph six feet around at its base with a pound under the front seat a quarter in my jacket and coke in my wallet at 15 and was never charged and never even searched as I was unconscious on top a case of Elephant beer. How does that happen? Or like waking up from a black out on a motorcycle 50 miles from where I was totally lost and going down a dead end dirt road. Who was riding that bike.

    Tom a man I would drive 130 miles to see died in his forties as he couldn’t put stuff down. He would offer me steak or anything I wanted to eat but in truth there was no food in the fridge. I use to take him a bag full of eats and just loved to sit and talk with him. I held no expectations and always would get something in like that crap is killing you man. He’d laugh and say something to go elsewhere. I miss him a lot. Me I get so far and then I get stubborn and would rather die then go back. He would always say I’m weak man, you know that.

    Working downtown I would hand out twenties to the homeless as long as we got to say a short and sweet prayer together. They always would and I would never keep them. My fellow workers made fun of me. I always just shook my head and would say you don’t know what I hear inside. One time I even heard all that’s in your wallet give it to him. A hundred bucks….okay the man’s jaw just dropped as he was trying to sell me knock offs. He said why? I said God just told me to and that’s between you and Him. That’s all I can tell ya.

    I’ve seen so many things I could go on forever. The people working in stores downtown were looking for me as I was the man praying with homeless and was over heard. The homeless would come looking for me but I was somewhere else working and only know because those fellow workmen who made fun of me told me. They would show the twenty and say tell him I didn’t spend it on beer and I still got it. Treasure I guess comes in different forms as I treasure things like butterfly wings. Those workman saw some stuff too don’t ya think. I’m done.

    Great writing Chap, Love ya

    • I enjoy your writings w. Keep it up.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Or like waking up from a black out on a motorcycle 50 miles from where I was totally lost and going down a dead end dirt road. Who was riding that bike.

      Where I came from, that’s called “driving on auto-pilot”. The other stuff… let’s just say you’ve had a real colorful life and could win a Testimony Night contest without resorting to fiction.

      A hundred bucks….okay the man’s jaw just dropped as he was trying to sell me knock offs. He said why? I said God just told me to and that’s between you and Him. That’s all I can tell ya.

      W, you were the archtype of “The Holy Fool”. Crazy in a GOOD way — like St Francis and some of the Desert Fathers, sort of dancing through life doing things in the name of God that makes everyone else scratch their heads and go “Bwah?”

      • Dana Ames says:

        HUG,

        you might enjoy a newish book called “Laurus” by E. Vodolazkin. Not sci-fi, but definitely another world – the world of the holy fool. Much praised by those who believe and those who don’t. It may be in your library system by now.

        Christ is risen!
        Dana

      • Hmmmmmm… I actually think that was a good comment…Just saw it now at 8:30 PM here Tuesday….

        You know HUG most people would think I’m crazy and hake more than half the time I think I am. I once heard as I looked across a 4 lane highway to the other side and saw 2 people and heard turn around and give them the 50 in your wallet….. I was like c’mon it’s late I’m tired… The conviction was so great I thought I would perish. 10 miles I hit a ramp that would turn me around and really I couldn’t get back there fast enough. I gave them the the 50 and the man said and his girl was sitting there we were just praying for help. I said I hope it’s enough and drove up to the next exit 10 miles opposite and went home. My son hates when I do this stuff and he is in the truck with me. He always says c’mon man. I say I can’t help it I can’t go by.

        He broke down the other year coming home from the outer banks in NC. A couple stopped to help and their names were Bill and Dianne. My name and my wife’s. They said you’re lucky this isn’t as good as it use to be and there is a lot of crime here. Bill would see a turtle in the middle of the road and they would have to stop so he could move it to the other side. Man that’s me to a tee. I do it all the time. They had a dog with 3 legs and I saved a cat who only has 3 legs…… Some of this sh** just blows my mind. I’m telling you the truth with all my heart HUG. I hear all the time for you forgiveness and I would never want to put a weight on ya. I hear it for many here. I’m not a judge and could never be. With all my heart be free HUG….

        • I need to add this…..Been on my mind for days. Miguel if by chance you see this the Lord comes out of your very being in every pore. Just because you might not have discerned his voice doesn’t mean it isn’t there. You have been an inspiration to me in so many ways. I suspect it true of many. You don’t understand the things that bombard you from other places. Wish I could tell ya face to face. Your mind is amazing to me. It hurt so bad when you said you never heard him and I have. I think I needed it and you didn’t at the time. I asked in His name for all the best for you with all my heart. Sooner than later. Like a cork from the wine bottle and the wine poured with bread…..All my love

  6. This is gold. Thank you for sharing this again.

  7. Susan Dumbrell says:

    off to my Clinical Psychologist again tomorrow.
    No one ‘out there’ know what goes on behind our cool exteriors.

    Christ is Risen

    • Amen Susan. The Lord knows our brokenness. He is with us regardless. God’s peace to you.

      He is risen indeed.

  8. Susan Dumbrell says:

    Pray for the victims of the Manchester UK attack.
    Pray for peace.