September 20, 2018

Another Look: Mark

Portrait of a Patient at 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.

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.

Portrait of Trabuc, an Attendant at St. Paul Hospital. Van Gogh

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 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. Christiane says:

    “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PoncXfYBAVI

    Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison

  2. Klasie Kraalogies says:

    Jail is no place for the mentally ill.

    • Robert F says:

      That struck me too. It’s tragic that our jails house so many mentally ill inmates.

  3. Sorry, everyone, but I deleted several comments. I get the connection that some of you are making, but I simply don’t want this comment thread to include a discussion about POTUS or today’s news.

    One of the reasons I publish these stories is to take our attention off all the noise happening on a media level so that we can get back down to earth into real encounters between people at ground level, no matter what opinions are being thrown around in the political or cultural atmosphere. If somebody has a story about personal experience with what’s happening in this whole immigration debacle, fine, let’s hear it — good or ill. But only if you can tell me about a human face into which you have actually looked.

  4. john barry says:

    CM, good call, I responded to the comment but there was no need for the thread to go there. Yours was a personal experience with a personal message not about national policy. There is other times to explore the issues , there is a time and a place for everything.

  5. Rick Ro. says:

    Thanks again, CM, for sharing some of your personal experiences and journeys. Your last paragraph was very touching.

  6. Robert F says:

    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.

    And yet Jesus frequently put himself into contact with people like Mark, and others with other kinds of problems. It’s hard to imagine that anyone used to American church culture as the norm would have felt comfortable around Jesus and the people who orbited him: the strange, the unbalanced, the troubled, the forsaken, the untouchable. Exactly the wrong kind of crowd to hang out with for anyone who wants to make something of themselves in the world, for anyone who wants to be thought well of or confirmed in their comfortable habits.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Exactly the wrong kind of crowd to hang out with for anyone who wants to make something of themselves in the world, for anyone who wants to be thought well of or confirmed in their comfortable habits.

      “She saw the streak as a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of black n___s in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like her and [her husband] Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned in to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.”
      — Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation” (short story)

      • Robert F says:

        Jesus did not seem to spend a lot of time in the synagogues. I suppose that most of us, myself included, are a mixed bag: we shall partly enter with that band of misfits, and we shall partly be among those whose virtues will be burned away.

    • Rick Ro. says:

      –> “Exactly the wrong kind of crowd to hang out with for anyone who wants to make something of themselves in the world, for anyone who wants to be thought well of or confirmed in their comfortable habits.”

      Well, I can’t get too high-and-mighty about this, and I think this kind of thing is less about American church culture and more about how difficult certain mental illnesses are for people to deal with. I’ve known three bipolar folks in my life, and when they are off their meds… Look out!

      Now, am I being un-Jesus-like in not wanting to interact with them when they’re flying off their meds? Maybe, but it’s not because I’m wanting to make something of myself in the world nor thought well of in my comfortable habits; no, it’s because seriously-ill mentally ill people are really difficult to be around.

      So… No, I wouldn’t make this about the failings of the evangelical American church. Iit takes a special person with a special calling to do that, and I commend CM and the other social workers who were with Mark for their efforts.

      • Robert F says:

        I see the point of your criticism of my remark. I would only say for purposes of clarity that I was thinking of the American church in general, not only only the evangelical church. In fact, I didn’t use the e-word at all.

      • Robert F says:

        While I may agree with you that it takes a special person with a special calling to deal with people with certain mental illnesses, I will say that I believe it is a general calling to all Christians to spend more than a token amount of time with people who discomfit us, who are misfits in our normal social (including church) world, who disrupt us and our plans and expectations of other people. Jesus was and is such a one.

        • Robert F says:

          Of course, some of those who discomfit or disrupt us may be our fellow parishoners!

        • Rick Ro. says:

          My pushback wasn’t intended to be too harsh, more of a gentle reminder to us all that some of these things are easier said than done.

          –> “Jesus was and is such a one.”

          I couldn’t agree more! And we are to be his image bearers, so alas that does put some responsibility on us. I’m not very good at many aspects of my walk, so I can’t throw too many stones…LOL.

  7. CM, thanks for being there.

  8. Thankyou Chaplain Mike. That was the most tender, beautiful message I have ever read about the heart of Jesus. I really needed it today. It’s my birthday and in two days time I will be attending my son in laws funeral. He was 29. He believed passionately in the social justice message of Jesus.