Very human beings

Have you ever experienced things in your life that you’ve done because you couldn’t not do them?  I’m aware that’s a double negative, and grammatically speaking so very wrong.  Yet in terms of meaning, it can’t really be said with the same nuance any other way.  I first heard that phrase when I was a first year seminary student.  I was looking at the bulletin board outside of class and there was a request for respite volunteers for Kansas City Hospice, it was before the Hospice House on Wornall had been built.  It was to go into people’s homes to allow the caregivers a break to go out and shop or walk or simply breathe for a bit outside the intensity.

I decided I needed to do the training and the sooner the better.  I wasn’t exactly sure why, but somehow I knew that if I was going to be in any kind of ministry, I needed to know if could be present with persons in the last chapter of their lives.  I needed to know if I would be too afraid to be helpful.  If I would be too overwhelmed to say and do all the right and perfect things.  Remember I was 22 and not too experienced in the world, so I believed there were right and perfect things to say and do.

I signed up for the training which took Thursday and Friday evenings and all day on Saturday.  I’m certain a huge amount of really helpful things were said, and we did role plays, and went over rules and boundaries and ethics and all the things.  And what I remember most about all of it was the trainer who had been doing hospice care most of her life as an oncology nurse said that most people who enter professions that focus on death and dying and stay with it past 3 years are only those “who realize they simply can’t not do it.”  She said she would never do anything else because this was her call and her passion.  She also said she would never recommend it as a profession to many people unless they insisted because it’s messy and complex and there are very few right or perfect things to say or do to make it all turn out for the best, because finally death is the result every single time.  Only do it if you simply can’t not do it. The phrase made absolute perfect sense to me then, and it has continued to make perfect sense to me in all the years of ministry and even now.

Of course as life sometimes goes, they did not have a Hospice Chaplain at the time I went through the volunteer training so I immediately agreed to do it when they asked.  I made quite clear I was a first semester, first year seminary student and knew essentially nothing except I’d read the bible all the way through a couple times.  They smiled and said I would be great.  I now pretty much know it was because I was breathing, and I maybe didn’t really know any better.  I received my first official name badge and was scared out of my wits.  But somehow I simply couldn’t not do it.

When I told my advisor and student mentor at the seminary what I had signed on to do and that I’d gone through the training without sorta telling anyone, they were a bit aghast. Not because it wasn’t a very worthy thing to do but they thought it might be too much along with starting seminary.  “Oh I’m from the farm,” I quickly said, “one thing I understand is work.”  One of them suggested it might be better for me to volunteer for the Hospice folks in my 2nd year when I would be taking a class in Pastoral Care, part of which was training around both the theology and practice of ministry and death and dying.  My reply was something about having common sense and it would all be o.k.  The o.k. part they agreed with because, well, God; the common sense part I imagine they are still wondering about.

My goodness what I learned in those early days.  And God had those people in ways that, the oh so many mistakes I made in thinking and speaking and advising, were softened by the generosity of heart and spirit of the families and the other volunteers.  I learned, because I had to, about religious systems with which I had never experienced and had no comfort level.  I would get angry at that judgment of sin having caused the illness by some churches, was awe-struck by how others came and cleaned house and cooked food and took the children to school and did so without wanting any recognition and no talk of sin.  I was astounded that some of the most judgmental also took the greatest care and were the most compassionate.  I came to appreciate a diversity of world religions some of which I had never heard or knew existed.

And because I somehow couldn’t not do it, I received far more than I ever, ever gave.  I have never listened so hard in my life . . . at round table meetings with medical folks and social workers; at family meetings where sometimes there would be intense disagreements and anger which sometimes resulted in estrangement; but most of all to those who could still communicate and respond who were in their final journey.  Stories of joy and sorrow, of accomplishment and failure, of tremendous moments of courage and harrowing moments of fear.  I listened and I wrote.  I wrote for myself, I wrote for the families, I wrote for the world to remember that each life I met had an intrinsic value that was far beyond any vocation or family situation or religion or portfolio.  Some families wanted what I had written and other families I sensed not even to offer, I can’t really tell you or myself why, but I learned to trust my instincts more than any other time in my life.

Every year when September comes, I think of that first year of seminary, and mostly my hospice training.  Somehow it grew me up in ways that would have taken much, much longer any other way.  It speaks most particularly to me in these days of my growing frustration with our inability as human beings to see each other as people with intrinsic value in the midst of our huge differences in perspectives and life experience.  I hope we all realize that at the beginning of our lives and at the end of our lives we are really all the same – the condition of being human means there is an ending to each of our earthly stories.  How we get there, not when, but how we live until we get there is really the choice we have.

I am grateful, through absolutely no wisdom of my own but by God’s grace alone, to have been invited and confronted into the diversity of human life at such an early stage in my ministry.  To have seen in all the differences of economic and education level, the best and sometimes the worst, but mostly the best of humanity in such raw and authentic ways.  When death is short in its coming, the masks most often come off.  My heart was softened toward what I pray has allowed me to lead with compassion when I’m at my best, and maybe softened my stubbornness at my worst.

We are finally very human beings together on the same planet – maybe we can simply try, as Ram Dass says, to simply walk each other home. 

(link to video)

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