"I am with you always, even unto the ends of the world."
~ Matthew 28:20
I spent a portion of last evening sitting in the hallway of a healthcare facility. As I did, I thought of the hallways, much like this one, that I have spent time in. For me, hospital and clinic hallways are sacred spaces, much like that of a pew in a church.
They are the places where messages are heard, prayers are lifted, and where stories of life and death are shared. Miracles are related, and relationships are created, while saying "hello" and "good bye."
I identify these hallways as sacred pathways.
I remember the beep of the 3 a.m. page awakening me while trying to sleep in a room that was tucked behind one of the chaplain offices on the top floor of the old Lutheran Pavilion at M. D. Anderson Cancer Center while completing my Clinical Pastoral Education nearly twenty years ago. Those beeps were often the prelude, that then would give way to prayer, even before I had arrived to the floor where I had been summoned.
At MDACC, every patient had cancer, and cancer didn't care if the person was old or young. I would often remind myself that cancer begins with one cell in the body that creates a new plan for itself.
Too often that "plan" would be associated with a God who seemed to be making plans for innocent, good people. I still cringe when I consider the theology of those who explain how the cancer is, "just part of God's plan," while staring into the eyes of the patient who then spends restless hours trying to figure out why the "One" who proclaims unconditional love allows for conditional cells to invade and destroy.
During my daughter's senior year of high school, she was part of a "Don't Drink and Drive" demonstration entitled, "Shattered Lives." Emily and I had agreed to be part of the project, but nothing could have prepared me for what I encountered as I entered the parking lot where broking cars holding broken bodies, would be on display to provide an illustration for the message they wanted to convey.
As I approached the scene, playing the role of clergy who had been called to the scene to render aid, I discovered that my own daughter was a fatality. I just remember staring at a lifeless body, covered in makeup that looked like bruising and blood. While I knew that it was a demonstration, something inside of me would not allow me to move. I watched as the funeral home arrived, with strangers taking her body, and placing her in a body bag. Just before the bag was completely closed, the instructor gave Emily permission to tell me that she was okay, as this demonstration was robbing me of my ability to breathe or speak.
The instructor followed me to the Hearst as Emily was rolled in on the stretcher. He placed an arm on my shoulder, once again sharing, "You know that she is okay?" I could feel the tears welling up within, and I had to touch the car that now held the body of my daughter that I would never hold again.
I try to draw from that day, as well as, the thousands of sacred encounters that I have experienced with patients and their families since.
I am reminded that those last words are lasting words, and that those last words are all that remain when the moment passes.
A few years ago, one of our hospice patients mouthed, "I love you," to his husband, after the last breath had left his body. As the life left his body, he was able to focus every bit of the energy that he had remaining to leave his husband with these three words. Although silent, the movement of his lips were noted by those who were present, and suddenly the sermon of this sacred moment had been spoken, and his husband had been given the words of the Benediction that he would carry forth for the rest of his life.
It is easy for my mind to begin to wander these hallways as the memories invite me to take a step towards a moment that I was invited to witness. Often I am reminded of the silence, rather than what is said. We forget that our presence also represents words that are often unable to find their way from our heart to our lips. When I have found the words to share, I never begin to ponder what the Creator may have planned, or why heaven was more deserving of a life of someone that a six-year-old loved so dearly.
In the summer prior to beginning my final year of seminary, I began my chaplain journey by completing my first unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Baptist Hospital East in Louisville, Kentucky. As a student chaplain, I was responsible for the Cardiac Unit. This unit was the first place that reminded me that we can live without many things, but we cannot live without our heart.
It was the first place that taught me that insurance companies, guided by profit hungry executives, could offer to pay for the heart transplant of a father of two young children, but not pay the exorbitant price to precure the heart, and the image I encountered a few weeks later, as I held the hands of those two children as they cried because their father had died.
While this memory can still create the feelings of anger within me, I can also remember the tears I shed, as I peered through the glass at newborns sleeping in the Labor and Delivery Unit that was located just a few feet from the entrance of the Cardiac Unit.
As I sat last night in a hallway that reminded me of every healthcare facility I have wandered, I realized that this moment was for the Holy that resides within me. This moment was for me, and that God had not created some journey that would be guided by some eternal plan, but instead, would offer grace and mercy, as I continued on my way.
May we all discover sacred spaces that offer us an invitation to recognize the God that is in this place.
Stay in God's grip!
G. Todd Williams, (c) 2021 www.stayingodsgrip.com
Rev. G. Todd Williams lives in the Houston metro area and is a Hospice Chaplain at Essential Hospice, Webster, Texas, and is an ordained Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) pastor.