Tuesday, June 3, 2008

hard love

Loving people is hard work. Even loving your friends at times is hard work. But I think God calls us to love people as He loves us. In knowing myself it must be hard for God to love me at times with the crazy stuff I do, except that God chooses to love us unconditionally even as we continually fail to love God back unconditionally. Because we are called to love all people, God's people, we in turn allow ourselves to become vulnerable with people when we love, which at times results in being hurt.

I received a call on Saturday from my mom during which she let me know that Drew had passed away. Drew had worked in the same office as my mom for many years, and so when I worked there various summers I also got to know Drew a bit. Over the past year to year and a half Drew was diagnosed with cancer and began the hard fight of battling cancer. He had to discontinue work, but from what I hear attempted to maintain as much normality of life as possible until the end, doing the things he had been doing as much as he was able. Since my mom found out for certain about his diagnosis we have been praying for him, and so it is hard to hear that he has passed away. Drew had such a sweet, quiet and gentle spirit about him that just radiated from him. Our prayers continue for his wife Sandy, and the rest of his family and friends as they mourn his passing.

But it is hard to know someone, love them and lose them, and so how do you remain joyful in the midst of so much suffering and pain? How do we continue to find and see the beauty in life when we are surrounded by so much pain, disease and death?

On Thursday of last week I got to see the In-patient Care Facility (ICF) for Duke Hospice out in Hillsborough and spend some time with another chaplain, Rachel. While I was out there Rachel took me by to visit a patient, Lazarus*. During our visit with Lazarus* he commented about how "everything was hard" and "if you can't trust God who can you trust?" Over and over again I've been amazed at the openness of the patients I have met. His comment about how "everything is hard" triggered my memory from hospice volunteer training about how those near the end of life describe it as a hard process. We are not entirely sure what that means or what exactly they are referring to, but that nearing the end of your life can be hard work. Rachel and I stayed with Lazarus a little while longer and offered to read him some Psalms. When asked if there were any in particular that he would like us to read he said "anything you want to read" as if he cared more about our just being present with him, than what we were doing. As I read to him Psalm 91 he laid still and closed his eyes as if to take in every word. Rachel offered a prayer with him before we left and he thanked us for visiting with him.

Upon checking work voicemail a message had been left that Lazarus* had passed away last night. Although I had only met him a few days prior and spent maybe a half and hour with him it is still hard to hear that he had passed. As a chaplain we offer compassionate caring for patients and being part of hospice we know that our patients are coming close to the end of their life, but it is hard to not be affected by the death of any patient you meet. How do we faithfully follow God's instructions to love people? I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes from CS Lewis:

"There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket -- safe, dark, motionless, airless -- it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell."

The call to love people is a call to be vulnerable because when we love we open ourselves up to being hurt, but we must continue loving while we are on earth and we look forward to Heaven where our love will be perfected and there will be no more sorrow and no more tears. "Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away" (Rev. 21:4b NRSV).

As a hospice chaplain we love people through offering presence and providing their spiritual care and needs, so I think it only natural that you would be affected by their death. As a hospice chaplain how do we continue on in hope in the midst of people facing the end of their life? And how do we find the beauty in life with those suffering from terminal illness and disease? I'm still struggling with those questions because I believe there is beauty and God's presence in the midst of suffering and death, even though it may be hard to see. I can say from two weeks of field ed that is has been beautiful to spend time with people who are suffering offering presence to be with them, and journey with them a bit in their suffering. This isn't to say suffering is beautiful, because it most definitely is not, but I am saying in the midst of journeying with someone suffering there is something beautiful about opening up to one another even in a mere 30 min visit. It is beautiful for one to be present with someone dying, being present for the patient despite your insecurities about what to say and anxiety about seeing someone suffer from a disease because you want to help them live well even if they are facing death. It is also beautiful see someone dying in being allowed to enter sacred space of being with them in their possibly final hours and days of living, and to share with you about their life, what they are experiencing, or anything! It is truly a privilege to be invited into such an intimate time and moment with them, but it is also hard love for those of us who remain.

(* names have been changed for confidentiality)

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