Often when people hear about the work I do at hospice—and this is true for other people on my team as well—the person says, “Oh, I don’t know how you do it. It must be so depressing.”
I can understand why someone who hasn’t been part of hospice work to think that. After all, I do deal arewith patients who know their time is growing short. I’m a witness to beloved family pets—the dogs who won’t leave grandma’s side, the cat who refuses to move from his spot on the bed—and I know they are grieving too.
And yes, there is sadness and loss and heartbreak. And knowing what I know about grief, I am sorry to tell our families—and walk with them through it, I hope—that the road of grief is long, much longer than we expect. And it is exhausting; a true rollercoaster of emotions during which sorrow will have her way and despair will move right into your house for time.
Grief-sorrow-trouble-loss, truly a rough road.
For the last 13 months or more, our world has been traveling a rough road, a road of uncertainty and threat, of contagioun and exposure, and certainly serious illness and death. All our normals got changed. Where we work, who we see, how we plan, where we go. The virus touched—and some would say, torched—it all. It has been a very, very rough road. And it’s not quite over yet.
This is partly the way I’m wired, I look at life this way—but I’m hoping you see it too: Right alongside us on this painful path have been amazing and unexpected graces that give us hope, that lift our spirits, and maybe teach us something or deepen our understanding and faith. I see this over and over again in hospice—the difficult time we experience, the rough road we travel, is never all difficult, all bumpy, all perilous. There are also graces: the arrival of the nurse at just the right time; the cousin from Florida who finally was able to visit. The wedding ceremony performed in the hospital room; the dog that was able to sleep on dad’s bed one more time. And at the center of all these moments of light, kind hearts, generous souls, compassionate people who God brings close to cheer and guide and comfort in just the right way, at just the right time.
In fact, my work at hospice isn’t depressing at all. I see hope and goodness everywhere. I see the very best of humans and the way we love one another. I see God, tenderly caring for his children, a hundred different ways every single day.
I wonder whether, thinking back over the troubles and challenges of this last year, you can also spot in your own life gleaming little instances of God’s grace showing up in the midst of your difficulty. If you had health struggles, like I did with my broken collarbone and surgery, maybe the graces were an excellent doctor, a kind physical therapist, someone who had just the right suggestion for you that made the pain better. If your challenges were financial, maybe you noticed that somehow—maybe mysteriously—you had what you need when you needed it. The work came. The bills were paid. Maybe thanks to generous people God brought alongside to help. Maybe serendipitously, when a bill deadline was moved out. Whatever the cause, you had enough to make it through, God saw to that. And we are grateful.
Chances are, you were challenged by isolation this year—most people were, to one degree or another. We were separated from our loved ones, couldn’t see our grandkids, weren’t able to travel, and restricted even from our normal activities like worship services and committee meetings and craft groups. We miss each other; and we feel at a distance, lonely, out here all alone. Into this quiet and hurting space God brings God’s very own self, with comfort, and peace, and a presence that is unmistakable if we are paying attention. There is no greater grace than that. Emmanuel, God-with-us.
That grace—God’s gift of God’s very own self to us—is what the psalmist was writing about In Psalm 46, our Old Testament reading for today. He reminds us that God—the source of all life and the creator of the universe—is “our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea…”
The psalmist talks of great troubles—earthquakes and floods, wars and desolation—and yet
“There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy place where the Most High dwells.”
God ends the wars—to the ends of the earth, the psalmist says—and breaks the bow and shatters the spear. Weapons are neither needed nor welcome in the city of God. Instead,
“He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God.”
A grace of peace, of presence—what a miracle that is, and always ours. Perhaps after this time of solitude and struggle, we now know that more than ever. We know it experientially, as George Fox famously said.
When I look back over the last year I am amazed by the measure of help that poured forth—good hearts and willing hands—they came from everywhere, doing all they could, chipping in to make masks and donate supplies and make sure our patients and families had all these needed. They cared about our coping too, and brought lunches and treats and trinkets to lift our spirits. Whether they knew us all or not, wherever they worked, whatever they believed in their spiritual lives, they showed up to help at just the moment they were needed, coming alongside us to help fill the gaps.
Over and over again, I saw real-life Good Samaritans, crossing the road for others out of the kindness of their hearts, stirred perhaps by God’s silent and maybe even unknown prompting. At the opening of the story of the Good Samaritan in the book of Luke, one of the law scholars stands up and asks Jesus a question. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” he asks. Jesus, knowing the scholar was likely trying to test him, answers that question with his own, “How do you read what is written in the Law?” The man replies, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind; and ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Jesus tells him this is the right answered and encourages him to do just that.
The man then asks, “And who is my neighbor?”
This is an important question and one we are wrestling with in our world right now. Jesus answers by telling the story of a Levite man traveling along the road when he is attacked and badly beaten by robbers. He is left there, half dead, lying by the side of the road. A priest walks up—a man of God you would expect to care and intervene to care for the man—but he crosses to the other side of the road, not wanting to get involved, and passes him by. Another Levite man walks up and sees him and he, too, crosses to the other side to avoid the man, even though he is of the same people. It is the Samaritan man, a man foreign to that region, who feels compassion in his heart and goes to the man to care for him. He bandages his wounds and puts the man on his donkey to take him to an inn where he’ll be safe and cared for. Then he pays the innkeeper to look after the man and nurse him back to health, promising to pay any extra he needs to pay to settle up when he returns.
At the end of the story, Jesus looks pointedly at the scholar, and asks him, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
The man replies, “The one who had mercy on him.” And Jesus says, “Go and do likewise.”
When our hearts call us into moments of care, we do what we can to help. It’s what God asks us to do, and it’s what God does for us. I think of a time I was in a busy store at Castleton Square Mall—many years before a pandemic would empty everything and close the mall for a time. A little boy, maybe four or five, suddenly lost track of his mother. He was just a few feet away from me. I heard the panic in his little voice. “Mom?” he called, “Mom?!” I looked up to see where he was and started to go over to him, and at the same moment, I noticed at least five other women—probably all moms—in the same area doing the same thing. Faces of concern suddenly looked up, responding to the call for care. It wasn’t even 10 seconds from the sound of his last, “Mom?!” that a half dozen caring people were hurrying toward the frightened boy, intending to comfort him and help him find his mother.
This is what God does for us in times of trouble. Yes, the diagnosis, the bills, the uncertainty, the isolation, the illness may be scary for a time. But God is bringing—even now–caring hearts, people with skills and experience and answers and depth of soul. God has a real knack for bringing just the people we need at just the right time. This is not only a grace—it is a huge and never-ending mystery. It is also evidence of the fabric of love woven and at work in all of God’s creation, the city of God.
I’m glad to say the boy’s mom wasn’t far—she’d crossed the aisle and thought he was right behind her—and she was so grateful to see all the caring moms surrounding her momentarily lost little boy. How wonderful it is that the ultimate grace of God’s presence is even closer than that—as close as our very own breath—providing what we need, anticipating what’s next, planning our steps, and companioning us along the way, an ever-present, ever-loving help in times of trouble.”
I’d like to leave you with the poem Kindness, by Naomi, Shihab Nye:
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.
- OT Psalm 46
- NT Luke 10: 25-37
- Naomi Shihab Nye: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/naomi-shihab-nye