Hugs from strangers

The sounds of an emergency room are unmistakable. The swift footsteps of nurses as they hurry into a room. Machines beeping an urgent rhythm as they track heartbeat, pressure, and the flow of medicines. Doctors issuing orders. And all the while, loved ones endure an anguished wait.

As a volunteer chaplain at our local hospital, I am on-call for a weekend every month so that our hard-working chaplain can take a much-needed break. When a call comes in, I know it will be urgent. Often it is a family requesting a priest who can administer last rites.  I used to explain to the nurse on the phone that I was not a priest and therefore was no in position to offer Catholic sacraments. But over the years I have learned that most people yearn for any assurance that God is with them in a time of crisis. Even when the person delivering that assurance is a female Protestant minister.

Early in the morning, I huddled with a family, separated from their loved one only by a thin floor to ceiling curtain. We could hear the effort that was being put in to save this particular life. Calm but urgent voices counted CPR beats as carts were wheeled in to supply additional support.

And then – silence. Talking stopped. Machines were turned off. The hurried steps of these brave first responders ceased. The curtain was drawn back and the dreaded sentence was spoken, “I’m sorry; we did everything we could.”

That’s when grace enters in. Suddenly these strangers became the first comforters. Nurses came to offer hugs. Doctors stopped to offer condolences. The ambulance driver brought in chairs so the overwhelmed family could rest. Someone offered coffee, another brought in a pitcher of water. This was compassion brought to life.

Names were not necessary. In that moment kindness ruled. Everyone was aware that this was someone’s mother. Someone who had made breakfasts for decades and worried when her children came home late. Someone who played cards with neighbors and was always ready to offer a cup of coffee and a listening ear.
And now she was gone. Just like that. With no warning.
Tears ran down cheeks of people who may not have even known her name. Strangers gave hugs. And the family received comfort.
Living kindness and offering compassion is what we are called to do as human beings. The need for love is greater than all that divides us. Thoughts of which political figure was supported or disdained disappeared. We were just people together, confronting the fragility of life.

In that moment of life and death, love prevailed. Compassion, care and comfort were freely given.

It reminded me of how we are meant to live – with the ability to care for our brothers and sisters around us.  Even the ones we may not know.







Living in the land of “we’ll see”

Fork in road

The congregation of the people of Israel came to the wilderness…” (Exodus 16)

  • Do you ever feel like you don’t know what tomorrow will bring?
  • Are you in a time of transition and it isn’t clear what direction you’re heading?
  • Is the future unclear or perhaps a bit daunting and frightening?

In our house we call those in-between times of life “the land of ‘we’ll see’.”  We end a lot of conversations with “we’ll see” because we simply don’t know what is going to happen next or how it will all turn out.

  • My parents are moving into assisted living. Will they be happy?  Will they enjoy their new circumstances?  We’ll see
  • Two of our children are graduating from college this year. What will they do next? Will they find jobs?  How will they live on their own?  We’ll see
  • Winter is coming – what will it be like? Will we experience as much cold and snow as last year? We can’t know that yet. So – we’ll see

What transitions are you experiencing?  Maybe you are caring for a loved one who is sick. Maybe you are changing jobs. Life brings us a variety of changing circumstances.  Children grow up, jobs change, friendships shift, parents grow older, illnesses come and go, our own abilities alter – nothing stays the same.  Any of these events can bring us into the land of “we’ll see.”

It is not an entirely comfortable place to be. It is never easy to have more questions than answers. It is human nature to want to plan and count on something. We like to know what we’re dealing with and how things will turn out. The hard truth is that certainty is simply not always available.

The land of “we’ll see” is like the wilderness described in Exodus. The people of Israel escaped their captivity by crossing through the Red Sea. Suddenly they found themselves facing a daunting wasteland with no clear direction and no end in sight. They were entering into the land of “we’ll see” as they searched for a new identity and got accustomed to their new reality.  The way forward was not clear.

Here’s the Good News – God is in the wilderness with us. God lives in the land of “we’ll see.” God reassures us that we are not alone in those troubled, turbulent times of our lives. Day by day and moment by moment, God journeys with us, surrounding us with the strength, compassion and courage we need.

We may not have a lot of answers.  But we are assured of God’s love and presence.

Blessings on your journey.

The Joy of a “comfort book”

Illuminated Life by Joan Chittister
Illuminated Life by Joan Chittister

Comfort, yes, comfort my people, says your God.”  (Isaiah 40:1)

What do you do when you need comfort? Where you turn when you feel stressed or overwhelmed?

  • Some people go for a walk or do some gardening.
  • Others turn to “comfort foods” (think M&M’s, for me…).
  • There might be the temptation to self-medicate with pills or alcohol (I don’t recommend this – it ends up hurting too many people).
  • I once heard an actor talk about the “comfort movies;” he watches films he knows will reliably lift his spirits or make him laugh.

When I am searching for a “no calorie” way to calm my mind, restore my soul, and feed my spirit, I often turn to a “comfort book.”  I am basically too cheap to actually buy books but I am fortunate enough to serve a church that sits across the town common from our public library. Usually I simply borrow any book I wish to read.

But there are certain books – those comfort books – which I have purchased over the years because I know I will turn to them again and again. My stash of comfort books are in the bookcase by my bed – they are within easy reach so I can grab one and let it fall open anywhere. Most of the books are so familiar that I don’t need to read them cover to cover any more. There is an eclectic mixture of devotionals, a few novels, and even some children’s books – there is nothing like a chapter of Winnie the Pooh to bring me straight back to my safety and security of my childhood when things are spiraling out of control.

One book that reliably offers me inspiration and remind me of God’s presence is Joan Chittister’s Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light. Sister Joan is a Benedictine nun who shares her insights and wisdom on-line ( ) and through her writing.  Illuminated Life offers 26 reflections (one for each letter of the alphabet) which encourage readers to intentionally seek God in every circumstance.  This book is just right for me – each reading is long enough to provide some food for thought, but short enough to fit into my time-crunched day. I love the reminders like…

  • A = Awareness, to “see everything in life as sacred” (23).
  • G = Growth, because “union with God is not a static thing” (50).
  • S = Silence, which is a “lost art in a society made of noise” (106).
  • Z = Zeal, which brings us to God, “the energy that drives us” (136).

This book encourages me to be “contemplative” in the midst of a busy life.  Being contemplative has nothing to do with a somber, dour life filled with silence and ritualized prayers. Instead, it is an active, joy-filled invitation to search for God now, in the middle of whatever chaos you may be experiencing, because surely God is there.

Life can be overwhelming, tiring, and discouraging. This book is a celebration of God’s faithfulness. It reminds me that God wants to be found/discovered/experienced by us every day.

And that offers me great comfort.