Dying is Teaching Me About Living

“The doctors mentioned putting him on palliative care,” is what a nurse told me on the floor this week.  My heart sinks. I thought they were going to send him to a stem-cell transplant? I thought there was more treatments to try? I thought this boy had 1-2 years of fight in front of him? Now, we could be talking about removing all treatments this week?! It’s unexpected and sudden…or is it?

When this 3-year-old patient came to the floor I knew he was a very sick little boy. As I got to know him, the sickness fell away and the little boy emerged into the spotlight…into focus. It started with his love for trains and helicopters…then painting and watching cartoons…then it was his eyes, his smile, his hands…his laugh…that I connected with. I connected with him. Assessing spiritual needs means I am always digging deeper into his spirit and into his soul. I am watchful for what this little boy’s deepest needs are, and then I try to meet them…to fill them. Me. An honor that goes beyond words, but a connection that makes illness fall away and spirits emerge. A connection between two people regardless of the life circumstances that brought us together.

It wasn’t until I started really seeing you that fears emerged. Fear of what is going to happen to you…of what the journey to death may look like. I found myself thinking that if you are going to die, I want you to go now. My heart breaks at the existence of such a thought. It is then, in that thought, that I see clearly the crippling fear talking. Fear of drawing close to something or someonchildhood-cancer-survivor_2e that I know is going to leave…that I know I’m going to lose. Fear of the pain that losing you is going to cause. Fear of helplessly watching you suffer…sweet boy, I don’t want you to suffer.  I don’t want to listen to those cries of pain and loneliness and fear. But the alternative of leaving you is not an option. Strangely, I want to be here…I have to be here…I cannot do the alternative of leaving you, regardless of the painful journey.

But, there is joy. There is beauty. I look into your eyes in a way that I never have before. The way I take in…soak up…the beauty of your smile and hands and laugh astonishes me. This complete seeing and cherishing you…this complete loving yimagesou…can only be called Divine. It’s a love and cherishing that I’ve never experienced before, and if this way of seeing is how God looks down upon me then I am so very loved…loved with a depth and adoration that I never thought God could have for me. But the unbelievable reality is that this love for you is but just a taste of true Divine love. God’s love for you…and for me…is so much bigger. That truth cannot be explained, just known. Deeply known.

And so it is you, sweet boy, who is teaching me. Your dying is somehow teaching me about abundant living. About abundant loving. Oh, the beauty and complexity and love and mystery is overwhelming…

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The Chaplain is Here. It’s Time.

I am on call. 24 straight hours at the hospital. 15 of which I am the only chaplain in the entire 900-bed hospital.

I get paged to the ICU. A family is requesting a chaplain. I find the nurse and the she tells me that the family is ready to take their husband, father, son, brother, uncle off of life support…and they are gathered in the conference room waiting for me. Waiting for me?! I walk in to a mother, her 3 children, niece, sister and mother-in-law weeping. Some are holding each other while others turn inward holding themselves. I sit down and wait. The woman looks at me and I quietly say, “my name is Tiffany, I am the chaplain.” Cries get louder and the gasping gets deeper. I am the truth that just walked in…the truth that they do not want to accept. The truth that their husband, father or family member is about to die. It’s about to end and there is no more escaping or prolonging it. The chaplain is here. It’s time.

I share eyes and hold hands while they cry out. I hand them tissues. Get them water. Minutes later, as the grieving subsides I say, “Can you tell me what kind of guy Sam is?” They start chiming in, one by one, practically interrupting each other, which leads to laughter and joy. Laughter and joy over what a wonderful man Some of the laughter as the beginning of a sentence ends in tears by the end of the sentence. After some time of sharing, it turned quiet. Silent. Then the wife looked at me. Her eyes desperately searching for an answer when she asks, “how do we do this? Tell us what to do.

ME? I am instantly shocked by their dependence on me. I’m thinking, “I’ve never done this before.” I take a moment and wait until all of the jabbering in my mind stops. And then I just tell them that we are going to make sure it is done peacefully. Peace for Sam and peace for everyone in that room that Sam is leaving behind. I also tell them that there is no rush and we are going to do it together. I ask them if they have each had time to talk with Sam. It was time to say everythEyeTVSnapshot[1]ing they wanted to say to him….whether it be thank you’s, I love you’s, and/or goodbyes. I told them that some of them may want to go in alone, and others may need to go together…regardless, it was important that everything they needed to say had been said. Cries got louder and gasps got deeper…from what I said…again. I felt the lump in my throat. I took a couple deep breaths…I couldn’t cry. Not yet. They need strength, and a calm presence.

Then, we talked about prayers and Scripture reading. They requested several things, but Sam’s little brother Tim was on his way. They say Tim is going to take it the hardest. They want to wait until Tim gets there. The weeping continues. I need to step out. Collect my thoughts. Gather the prayers. Gather myself.

As I’m walking out Sam’s sister is standing there and just looks at me. I ask her what she thought the family, and Sam, needed in order to experience this peacefully. Her eyes well up as they stare at me. She says, “Sam hasn’t been going to church. He used to go. But since he’s been so sick, he couldn’t go. I…don’t know what to think.” I sense her question. This is a big question. And a big moment for her. I look directly at her and say, “Faith is a condition of our heart, not any action we do or do not do.” And she says, “I just can’t do this peacefully unless I know where he’s going….(tears, lots of them).” I reassure her that Sam loved his family well and expressed a faith most of this life and that God is loving. I told her that I trusted completely that God was ready to receive him. With a deep sigh of relief she said, “oh, good. That’s what I believe too, but I didn’t know what you believed. I wasn’t sure. Thank you so much.”  She then returned back to be with her family and I told her I’d return soon. As I started to walk down the hall tears instantly filled my eyes. Their grief, their questions…their dependence on me. God was using me in powerful ways that I am inadequate for. In that moment it all came rushing over me. I took a couple of deep breaths. I cannot cry. No. Not now. If I start crying, it’ll be the kind of cry that leaves a mark on my face for a while. That is not what the family needs. I sensed the emotional family needed strength and a calm presence.  I give myself a little peptalk, and pray under my breath as I walk down to my office.

I return and spend over an hour with them as they say goodbye, turn off the machines, do final paperwork and ask me to pray. I laugh and cry with them. At some point, they no longer needed the guidance…they found their rhythm and what felt right for them and it was beautiful. I stayed present with each of them…in very different ways…simultaneously. It was pretty incredible.

MulticareTGH_3_bigAnd then, all of a sudden you realize it’s done. It’s just done. Sam is no longer alive. After all the necessary steps were complete the wife looks at me and says, “now what?” I say that if they have all seen and been with Sam as much as they needed that they do the crazy, strange, devastating thing of gathering their belongings and walking out of the hospital. They go home. One less person. The one less person being a man who gave your life meaning and love and joy. It feels odd, unnatural, unbelievable…yet, that’s the next step. “No”, they say…”Prayer.” They want prayer again. I can do that…

After prayer I tell them what an honor it was to be with them during that time, that they had a beautiful, loving family and thatfriends bible I would be praying for these next few hours, days, weeks and months. Then, I left. Just like that. It’s this crazy instantly-deep connection I share as I walk alongside strangers in one of the hardest moments of their lives…and then it’s over. I leave. Never to see or talk with them again. It’s a strange, unfamiliar and emotional experience.

As I reflect on it more, I see just how little they are actually expecting from me. They may think they want me to guide every step…but really, they want me to help them find the place in themselves that tell them what needs to be said or done. At first, it felt like they were clinging to me, asking me to show them the way. The way of doing something I have never done, or ever even seen, in my life! But, then they let go of me and hung onto each other, onto Sam and onto God. We made it. Together. And it was beautiful.

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Catching His Breath

“Just breathe.”

“Take a deep breath.”

“Don’t hold your breath.”

Breath has power. Do it deeply and it can soothe, heal and relax. Or fight for it, and you’ll experience tension, fear and panic. Breath gives life. The deeper we breathe, the more of life we are able to see and feel. The more of life we are able to live.dying-man

He couldn’t catch his breath. The middle-aged man who has been fighting lung cancer for years. He can’t breathe. He has decided that his body is done fighting. He’s tired. No intubation. No more treatments. No more fighting. He is ready to die and wants all the saving measures to stop. He calls the chaplain.

As I pull a chair close to the patient and his wife who are holding hands tightly, the patient shouts, “I confess my sins and proclaim that Jesus Christ is God.” He’s scared. Eyes wide. Looking right into me for an answer, for a release from his panic. This panic is spiritual. Even though the patient’s body is violently working to catch the next physical breath…it’s the Breath of Life that he truly craves and needs. The Breath of God.

I lean into him. I pull my chair closer. I am here. We are going to help you catch your breath. Together. I am not going anywhere. There is no rush.

But there is a rush…there is urgency. Within me. I see his skin turning the color of death. I watch as his chest looks like it is going to give up at any moment. I want this man to get the peace he’s grasping for before he takes his last strained breath. The patient has never been baptized. He wants to be baptized. Cleansed. He wants to invite the Holy Spirit to move mightily in his soul….whatever he’s got to do to “get right with God.”

He is already right with God. God is here…in the room, in our conversation and in the patient. I sense his Presence…his movement…his power. But, it’s about peace. Giving the patient what he needs in order to open himself up to the Divine peace that is already present. The peace will enable a deep breath of relief and of assurance.

It was my first baptism and it was beautiful. We prayed, took communion and he confessed all that was heavy on hbaptismis heart. We laughed, cried and held hands, expressing love and gratitude for one another. The gravity and intimacy of what we were sharing was felt deeply.

After baptism the man was able to see his family one last time to say goodbye. My next page to the room was hours later, in the middle of the night. The family had left. The patient was deteriorating. They needed the presence of the chaplain. Not that there was anything for me to do. They just needed the calming presence. The reminder of the One who is here in the room with you.

The patient was much worse physically. “Active dying” is what they call it. But, I couldn’t help but notice how light he was emotionally and spiritually. No more anxiety. Less fear. He “just wants to go home,” and we all knew what “home” he was referring to. I say to the patient how great it must have been to have his family come up one last time. He opens his tired eyes, turns his head, looks directly at me and says, “It’s nothing compared to what you did for me.” The wind is knocked out of me.  The man who is gasping for his next breath, has now just taken my breath away. My body is paralyzed by the power of his words. The power of his truth. All I could do is reach out and touch his hand. Nothing more needed to be said. I sat with them until the patient was more comfortable. Then, I sensed that these last hours were meant for this couple of 40 years to spend alone.

The patient continued to work hard for his physical breaths, but he did so with more ease because the breath he had caught was sweeter. The baptism, prayer and time of surrender to God helped the patient to take a long, deep breath of God that soothed him spiritually. It was the Divine breath that truly saves. The patient’s inner turmoil was now gone, giving way to the peace that surpasses all understanding. All that was left was for his just_breathephysical body to adjust and transition to where his spirit now was. Resting in the arms of God…breathing deeply.

Breath is Spirit.  The act of breathing is Living.  ~Author Unknown

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Believing in a Miracle

Doctors talk percentages. Chances. Likelihood. This child has 30% chance. This other child, 10%. And this one over here…this one with the cancer relapse…she has 1% chance of survival. I don’t have to be around the hospital too long before my own mind starts looking at situations through the lens of likelihood. This child with the 1%, she hbaby-heart-problem-marseille-franceas parents who want to keep fighting. They want to try everything, even if it doesn’t change the 1%. You can easily look at those parents as people in denial. People who should be focusing on making these last days ones of love, peace and “goodbye”.

But, the parents insist on not giving up. So, doctors roll their eyes….nurses sigh deeply. They know what this means. To keep fighting means to prolong the inevitable. It means more suffering. More pain. More struggle before the child is allowed to die. I found myself easily, and quickly, and naturally joining them in the frustration…in the judgment.

And then I walk into the room. I see her. She is beautiful, energetic and silly. She looks like any other 1-year-old. You would never know that inside her body a battle rages on…a brutal battle that is going to end in death. Or is it? The grandmother hears that I’m a chaplain and is quick to share her faith. God is going to move…mightily! God is going to bring a miracle! She looks at me expectantly…expecting that I believe the same. “It’s only when the doctors’  hands stop, that God’s hands come in.” She is trusting in a miracle, and so is the rest of the family…and her church community. And the cloud of witnesses who are watching…and who are praying. They are not in denial. They acknowledge the sobering probability that this baby is going to be taken from them. But they are simultaneously clinging to the promises of God! The promise that God heals, redeems…and performs miracles.

I feel the stirring of my spirit in that room. God can perform miracles. He can save this beautiful baby! I forgot. I forgot that I stand on that truth. I forgot just how much I trust that God can, and might, move…regardless of percentages. He can move in the 1% just as easily as He can move in the 30%. He moves despite the doubts of doctors, the frustration of nurses or the fears of family. He moves when it’s His will to move…and we do not know when that is going to be. All we can do is pray, have faith, trust in His Will and stand in the truth of God’s love for miracles.

I am not a medical professional. I do not think in percentages, and I must work diligently to not let my medical surroundings influence my faith. I am there to believe in the Love and Power that is bigger and stronger than any likelihood. Patients and their families look to the chaplain to find…and cling to…hope. And it is a hope that is real and alive and active…so I will stand in that 1% with them.

The most important thing in illness is never to lose heart.  ~Nikolai Lenin

Hope is the physician of each misery.  ~Irish Proverb

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Fear and Hope

Throughout Scripture, we are told not to fear. “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Is. 41:10)

No fear. God is with me…Emmanuel…so I cannot fear. If I fear, then I must not be doing this faith thing right. If I fear, then I’m doubting God…and I can’t doubt God. I mean, what happens once I start doubting God?! Will God help me, will He care, if I’m doubting him or questioning His Will?

Anxiety builds as we are simultaneously instructed by Scripture to hope. If there is one word to describe the message of Scripture it would be hope. The good news of the Gospel is the news of hope. Hope for salvation, for renewal, for forgiveness, for reconciliation…for a strength to get through today, and a trust in a better tomorrow. We are told over and over again to hope. To never let go of it. And if I let go of hope…well, then I must be letting go of God.

So, this means I have to choose, right? Fear or hope. One or the other. I often feel the tension between the two. It bends me. Challenges me. I fight its battle time and again. Scripture makes clear what the “correct” choice is…”Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” (Rom 12:12) But what if it’s fear that I’m experiencing? What if I have more fear than hope? What if that which I am told not to feel is exactly what I feel in the deepest parts of me? What if I keep trying to hope but every few minutes fear continues to take hold of my mind and heart?

A better question is what if it’s not fear or hope? It doesn’t have to be an either/or. What if, sometimes, it is fear and hope?  …Because sometimes I don’t have the luxury of choosing between the two. Sometimes it’s and. Fear and Hope. Together. Coexisting. Or possibly…even…dare I say…working together. 

Without fear, could I ever experience the full reality of hope? Without knowing fear, living and breathing it, could I ever fully know the relief of hope? The comfort and strength that is alive and active in it? It isn’t until we experience rain and storms that we truly appreciate the beauty and warmth of sunshine. It isn’t until we experience rejection and hate that we are able to experience acceptance and love fully. The fullness of hope lies within fear. Even when I cannot see the hope myself, it’s there. Sometimes someone else has to see it, live it and hold it for me until I am able to receive it for myself….but it’s there. Even when fear brings me to my knees…and all I have left in me to do is cry before the Throne…that cry itself is hope rising. ThHope_Rising-displaye act of going before the Throne of God is an act of hope. Hope that He’s listening. That He cares. That He is Emmanuel…that He is with me in this. I am hoping that He’s with me. And as this hope rises, the Word that says His perfect loves casts out fear begins to come alive…

The hospital rooms I sit in all day long hold both, fear and hope. Even if only one is overtly showing its face, I know that the other is just hiding somewhere….somewhere in that scared, lonely, and confused heart lies the other. And I try to help that person find it. I try to help them find it because God wants it. God wants all of it. Hope and fear.  He already knows it’s there. He sees it all.  But God wants to hear about it because its the heart of his beloved. Even if the only way to hear about it is through tears, screams, curses or cries…He wants to hear about it. He can handle it. If I try to deny the fear that is taking over me then I am barricading and isolating myself in the fear. Blocking anything…or anyone…from reaching it, including God.

Allowing God into my fear does not mean my circumstances change. Or even that the fear goes away. It just means that God is able to reach that scared, lonely, confused place in my heart, and bring peace to it. Bring comfort. Love. And possibly even Hope.

Emmanuel. God With Us. It is not God with us only in hope, love and joy. It’s God With Us. Period. God is with us in our fear just as much as He’s with us in our hope. There is no choice to be made between the two. They can coexist and the results can be beautiful.

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Listen to Me!

We just want to be heard. We want our voice to matter.

Books that teach techniques of influencing others become best sellers. People are desperate to learn how to speak and act in ways that will receive the attention and respect of others. They desperately want something, anything, to make their voice matter. To get power. To get others to listen.

Politicians, scholars, patients, inmates, celebrities and scientists. The young and the old. The sick and the healthy. Teachers, students. Lenders and debt collectors. Judges and juries. Women and men. Patients and doctors. The majority and the minority. The rich and the poor. They all want to be seen and listened to. They work, strive and at times, risk their lives…just to be heard.

Demonstrators protest hoping that will do the trick. Hoping that if not the volume of their voices, but their mere physical presence will send a loud enough message that it is impossible to ignore. Sheer numbers of people give a message volume, thus power, even if the demonstrators are silent. And when do people feel compelled to demonstrate more than when a voice is not being heard…or maybe to defend a voice that cannot speak. Planet Earth, unborn babies, sick children, or animals on the brink of extinction. It’s amazing to witness the human instinct when it responds to a fragile, yet critical, voice that is being ignored…

This world is noisy from everyone fighting to be seen, and heard. Horns honk. Sirens wail. Babies cry. Teachers are constantly hushing. Preachers are constantly shouting. And social networks are busting at the seams. Facebook and Twitter gives you a voice…a public forum even. A forum that feels louder…more significant. So now daily, mundane, insignificant activities of your life feel more meaningful. Less lonely. People “liking” and responding to you makes you feel seen. Heard. Important. Thus the attraction.

The fight for airtime continues at the hospital. Doctors, nurses, social workers, patients, patients’ families, chaplains, and psychologists. They all want their voice to be heard. To matter. To make a difference. How much about medical care would change if egos and personal needs to be heard were taken out of the equation? What if everyone prioritized the same voice? What if everyone put the patient’s voice above their own? That would require humility of those who strive to be heard…

Maybe being heard proves something? Knowledge? Worth? We all want to know, “Did what I say mean anything to you?”

How does this align with Scripture when it says, “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you” (1 Thess. 4:11). A quiet life?! If I’m quiet, then no one will notice me. No one will care. I’ll be forgotten. What fears come up when picturing a quiet life? What is at stake when living in such a way? Why do I need to be heard? Is it because I don’t trust that He sees me?

“Nature has given us two ears, two eyes, and but one tongue-to the end that we should hear and see more than we speak”

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Don’t Laugh at Me.

Bodies fail us. They are all imperfect. Broken. Yet, somehow, the physically disabled ones experience a completely different life than those of mental or emotional disabilities. Instead of being able to hide the imperfections from the world, physically di1.5.5_boy_carsabled bodies are evident to the eyes of all. There is no hiding.

The most heart-wrenching aspect is that kids with physical disabilities or abnormalities are not necessarily mentally disabled. They are a preteen trapped in a disfigured body. Or they are a teenager who can no longer move their mouth or limbs. Their brains work fine…excellent in fact…yet, because of their bodies, people treat them without dignity, respect, or love. They are treated different. Talked down to. Ignored. Looked past…or stared at. Yet, the person inside…the heart inside…is that of any other normal person their age.

As I sit and talk with a girl who suffers from extreme physical disability, I hear her mention how she “looks scary,” and that kids at school laugh at her. I continue to just listen as she goes from mentioning bullying to mentioning her favorite hobbies without skipping a beat. They are all words of her heart being poured out because there is a space for them in that moment. At the end of it all, she asks me if I want to hear the song that makes her feel better. Yes! Of course! I could not think of anything more fitting than sharing in that song with you. It would be an honor, actually. So there we sat. In silence next to each other, listening to the music, the lyrics, of this little girl’s heart.

There are little words to say after listening to this with her. My heart breaks for the world she is living in…and yet, at the same time, I am thankful that I was invited into that world, even if just for a moment.

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