Saturday, May 28, 2016

Dying Well - It's In God's Hands: A Tribute to Manley Burchett

As Mitch Albom writes in The Five People You’ll Meet in Heaven, “part of the secret of heaven is that each affects the other and the other affects the next, and the world is full of stories, but the stories are all one.”  

Last weekend, I had an awesome opportunity to celebrate the life of a godly man, husband, and teacher, Manley Burchett.  He has been a patient of mine off and on over the last several months and he left this world for another on May 11, 2016.  He was 82-years-old.  His wife, Carol, has given me permission to share him and his never-ending teaching spirit with you.  

I wasn’t surprised when Carol told me that Manley liked Psalm 23.  He lived it to the very end.  When we talked about how his story might end over several hospitalizations, he would hold both palms up and serenely say, “It’s in God’s hands.” 

Can you walk through the valley of the shadow of death while sitting in a recliner, hooked up to an oxygen tank?  Undoubtedly, Yes.  I saw Manley do it and I saw Carol sitting by his side.  He had no fear.  None.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I fear no evil;
For thou art with me;

I came across a story which I cannot verify, but it said that Jack Nicklaus was beaten one time by a blind golfer.  It cost him $5,000.  He said as he wrote out the check, “I met a person who refuses to let fear control his life.”  If Manley were blind, I would have wondered if he was the nameless man in that story.  In fact, just the week prior to his death, he told me, “Fear and faith are diametrically opposed.  They cannot exist at the same time.”  I was certain that was never more true than in his hospital room.  

When there still seemed to be choices on the table for treatment, Manley held them with an open hand.  Not with a clinched fist like you might expect.  He considered pursuing surgery, even with severe side effects like not being able to eat or speak again, just for another shot on the green or a cast in his favorite fishing spot. 

For a man who, in his own words, had “a lot of living left to do”, you would have expected to sense a little desperation at the possibility of time running out.  It would only be natural…But, try as you might, you couldn’t find that desperation.  A few more moments or years to live seemed to be all the same to him, and his wife shared this "holy indifference". 

They were completely abandoned to the will of God.  Abandoned, as in yielding (oneself) without restraint.  And it was this abandonment that was Manley’s final gift to me.  

In Our Greatest Gift – A Meditation on Dying and Caring, Henry Nouwen discusses watching his sister-in-law, Marina, die from cancer.  He writes, “As I have seen Marina prepare herself for death, I have gradually realized that she is making her own dying a gift for others – not only for my brother, not only for her family and friends, but also for the nurses and doctors and the many circles of people with whom she has spoken and shared…Having taught all her life, she now teaches through her preparation for death.  It strikes me that her successes and accomplishments will probably soon be forgotten, but the fruits of her dying may well last a long time…She has shown me, in a whole new way, what it means to die for others.  It means to become the parent of future generations.”  

It is in this way that Manley has become a parent to me and I imagine, to as many people as have met him.  I didn’t know Manley as well as I would have liked, but maybe I know enough.  If it is true that we die like we live, then he lived very well, indeed.  He showed me what faith in action looks like.  It looks like abandonment to Divine Providence, even and especially when it is life and death.  It looks like Manley in his recliner with his palms turned skyward, saying all the while, “It’s in God’s hands.” 

Saturday, May 7, 2016

An Unraveled Hem - A Tribute to Mothers Who Have Been Left Behind For Now

Mother's Day.  My children are all alive and live under my roof.  I talk to my mom every Wednesday on the phone, have a stepmom who loves me like her own, and live two doors down from my mother-in-law, whom I adore.  I don't think I've ever been more grateful for these richly layered blessings, and on this Mother's Day, in particular. 

Over the past year and a half, working as a hospital chaplain, I've had a most privileged view of motherhood.   There has been more good than bad, but the good is expected and the bad is really bad.  Really bad, in that it is really hard to make sense of and impossible to forget.  In the world, there are probably more children losing mothers to old age than mothers losing children of all ages, but not in my world.

Only a mother knows that an 11-week old fetus can be born with hands that look like they're folded in prayer, and that this same child who lived secretly within her will largely remain a secret.  Others carry their children into labor along with their dreams for them, only to never hear them cry.  Even once.

Some have their children long enough to see them grow into successful college students, marry, or become parents of young children and then...they're gone.  How can God take them now?  Just when...

As proposed by a meditation whose source I can't recall, I agree that whenever possible "What now?" is a much more fruitful question than "Why?!".  Stack all of the good things that can come from the death of a child (or anyone we love) as high as the stars, and it will likely still be too short to satisfy our why.  So, what now? 

Children are always on the brink of starting something new.  Elementary school, middle school, high school, military service, college, being married, having babies, a new career, retirement, grandchildren...

Every day is a "just when" day when you're a mother.  That's who we are.  We anticipate the good things that lie ahead for our children, as we should.

These women who have lost children, young and old, come home with me.  They show up in my tears when I tuck my children in at night and stand invisibly near our table during mealtime prayer.  Psychological jargon will tell you this has a name.  Transference.  Wikipedia defines it as "a phenomenon characterized by unconscious redirection of feelings from one person to another."

Yes.  Maybe.  Maybe it is unconscious in the beginning, but not for long.  I carry these mothers with me consciously and intentionally.  They are my heroes.  They make me a better mother and help me to stay present.  They remind me that when I am not overwhelmed by the demands of motherhood, I will grieve the absence of them.  These women are honest (yet, great actresses, too), courageous, generous, and humble.  They know their limitations, which they feel poignantly.  They are the greatest proof that living when you'd rather die is not only possible, but beautiful - and empowers others for whom living may be hard, too - whatever the reasons.

These women do not belong to me, but I want to keep them close and hold on to the hem of their garment.  I want to feel the flow of strength they cannot feel, but that I can see, so vividly.  I'm not sure, but I think everyone can.  You may be one of these women and wondering why strangers keep pulling on your clothes.  If not, you undoubtedly know one.

If you can, please join me in saying,

"Thank you, Moms, for letting us remain near you and for your example.  Sorry about the hem.  You should probably find a good seamstress, 'cause we're not turning loose any time soon..

For you, we eagerly await the day that you are with your children who have gone before you, and all will be well in your world once again.  May God continue to grant you grace sufficient for the moment, as we continually and unfailingly see Him doing, in you.  Happy Mother's Day."