Some of what I’ve encountered in recent days, personally, and as a hospice chaplain…
I found out that two friends, husband and wife, the man a former pastor with whom I shared a ministry, were diagnosed with Covid-19. At last report, they are not doing well, and may soon be admitted to the ER. They also have other family members in the hospital with the virus. I pray they will get the support they need and that God will reassure them with his presence and care.
Other very dear friends let me know that the baby they’re having has been diagnosed prenatally with a genetic disorder. At this point, no one knows quite how this will all turn out, but it’s pretty clear that the whole course of their life just changed dramatically. I don’t know what to think or feel or pray at this point. I can’t even imagine the anxiety and angst they are feeling.
I talked to the spouse of a gay man who had just come on to our service. A friend who has had a lifelong relationship with this man called to let me know he’d be in hospice. He’d been a banker, a leader in his community, and a person of faith his whole life. He had benefited my friend directly by helping him get started in business. As I listened, I chuckled and said, “Your friend reminds me of George Bailey, my hero from It’s a Wonderful Life.” He laughed in reply and said, “Yes, the world has been a better place because he’s lived.”
I made a bereavement call to a woman who lost her husband about a month ago. Now she’s alone, dealing with her own health problems, trying to carry on raising a teenage nephew and young niece on her own. Her daughter has been one of the most devoted family members I’ve ever seen. She drives about 100 miles each way almost every day to check in on her mom and to help her in practical ways.
I went on a death visit for a Korean woman who had married an African-American soldier and came back with him to the States. She had a large, diverse family, and they came from far and wide to be with her. Those who couldn’t were participating by video chat. There in the city, at a bedside surrounded by new black and Asian friends who welcomed me, a stranger, into their sacred space, I heard their stories, absorbed their tears, and prayed them and their loved one into God’s care.
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve had a bit of extra time to work in our yard. One of the main joys I’ve had was being able to plant some trees. It reminded me of one of my favorite stories.
The Man Who Planted Trees, by Jean Giono, is the tale of a hermit shepherd who, day after day, planted seedlings in an effort to reforest an area in the foothills of the Alps.
His name was Elzéard Bouffier. He had once owned a farm on the plains. It was there he had lived his life. But he had lost first his only son, then his wife. After that he came here to be alone, enjoying an unhurried existence with his sheep and his dog. But it struck him that this part of the country was dying for lack of trees, and having nothing much else to do he decided to put things right. (p. 13)
The author in this fable tells how he followed the shepherd for many years and was astounded at the transformation the old man had been able to achieve through the simple act of planting trees.
When I reflect on the fact that one man, with only his own simple physical and moral resources, was able to bring forth out of the desert this land of Canaan, I can’t help feeling the human condition in general is admirable, in spite of everything. And when I count up all the constancy, magnanimity, perseverance and generosity it took to achieve those results, I’m filled with enormous respect for the old, uneducated peasant who was able, unaided, to carry through to a successful conclusion an achievement worthy of God. (pp. 30-31)
In the midst of all the talk lately about changing the world, it’s good for me to slow down for a few moments and pay attention to what’s possible right before me: digging a hole, disentangling the roots on a small sapling, replacing the soil, packing it down, and saturating it with water.
Listening to a friend cry over the phone. Trusting in the Spirit who prays when I have no words. Being present with and praying for strangers in pain. Giving thanks for people who live wonderful lives.
Planting. Our vocation.