The God at work behind closed doors

Communion of Dying. Alexey Venetsianov

My Internet Monk career began with an interview about something that Michael Spencer was struggling with — how Christians deal with death and dying. I wrote the following as an introduction when I edited and re-posted the original article in 2011.

On November 17, 2009, I wrote my first post for Internet Monk. Actually, it was an interview that Michael Spencer did with me called,“Chaplain Mike Mercer: Evangelicals And The Pastoral Care of the Dying: The IM Interview.”

…My work is one area of my life right now where I have a positive sense of the presence and activity of God. Being able to minister in a pastoral fashion to my neighbors has kept me spiritually hydrated as I’ve wandered the post-evangelical wilderness with regard to the church and as I’ve struggled with other issues related to mid-life.

But this is not really about me. It is about the God who is at work behind closed doors, where family members sacrifice greatly to care for dying loved ones. It is about the privilege of being able to go to them and show kindness and concern. It is about knowing that God has gone ahead of me in each encounter, that I am entering a story that has been being written for many years, and I may have a part to play. It is about working on a team of talented, compassionate people, who use their gifts and work together to bring peace to patients and their families.

It is the most Jesus-shaped thing I have ever been involved with.

I thought it only right to make one of my final posts about this theme that is so much a part of my life.

So, today (Tuesday) I did a funeral for one of the funeral homes in the city. Occasionally, they ask me when the family doesn’t have a minister. It gives me an opportunity to step outside of the hospice world and walk with folks through others kinds of death and grief experiences.

This one was certainly different. A woman my age went to bed one night last week, cuddling one of her dogs. Her husband let her sleep in because she’d had a long day. Then he made her an egg sandwich and took it in to her. She did not respond. He tried to shake her awake, and then he felt her cold, stiff arm and the chill skin on her cheek.

She had no previous health concerns. In fact, she had been taking care of him over the past few years because he had developed some serious problems. By all accounts, she was a vibrant, enthusiastic, outgoing, active person to the end. She was planning on retiring next month so that she could enjoy a retirement season pursuing artistic and travel interests along with her friends and family.

Then she went to bed. She didn’t wake up.

That was not in the plans.

That was not what anyone — anyone — would ever have expected.

Her family and friends were kind to me and expressed their appreciation for the service, but I would be surprised if they heard a thing.

As I left and made my way to the office, one of our nurses called and asked me to come pray for a patient who was close to death.

This octogenarian African-American woman has been with us a few weeks, and I observed some tension and interesting dynamics on an earlier visit. When I arrived, she was breathing rapidly in shallow spurts. Her son and daughter and their kids and grandkids were moving in and out of the room, while those in charge of caregiving were asking questions of the nurse, getting instructions about medicine, and making a plan to employ enhanced comfort measures. I went to the kitchen and sat with the daughter, said a brief word of condolence, and she started crying and lamenting as she anticipated losing the one she called her “best friend,” the central pillar and support of their family.

Then I heard stories from her and others about why the family needed Granny so badly. Stories of ingratitude, stealing, addiction, purposelessness, even murder. This woman had raised two sets of children born to other family members already. She’d even spent the last year of her life doting on a grandchild who had taken every gift and generous gesture and had, in turn, abused this dignified matriarch who had so freely shown her such kindness.

There were responsible, caring grandkids and greats as well, and they were the ones here now, weeping at the bedside, giving her loving attention, and supporting each other. At the right time, we gathered together around her and prayed and sang. One of the family played a gospel song she used to play every Sunday morning, a song about climbing the mountain and making one’s way home to God.

I was there for a good hour and a half and probably didn’t say more than a half dozen sentences until we prayed. Didn’t really need to. They said it. Some of them needed the chance to get close and say their peace to Granny and to update each other about what was happening. And I found it hard to improve many of the silences that blessed our time together.

She’ll die soon. I don’t know if I’ll see any of them again. I got dropped in for a particular moment. Maybe I helped, maybe not. The challenges they will face in the days and years to come I’ll never know and I fear the worst. No way I could begin to help them with all that. In my past life of messianic self-conceit, it would have felt like a failure and it would have bothered me and brought me down. But today I left feeling satisfied that the seeds I was meant to sow had been planted. I’m available to them if needed and it works out that I can be there, but I also know that I’m part of a whole team of trustworthy people with a lot to offer.

Whatever happens next, I’m sure I won’t forget these two families. They’ve become part of me now and I’ll be processing my experiences with them — brief though they were — for a long, long time.

I have a sneaking suspicion that, in the end, they will have helped me more than I helped them.

26 thoughts on “The God at work behind closed doors

  1. Chaplin Mike, I echo the above comments and am so glad I checked the site tonight. Another great life lesson about dying? I have learned how to deal with the issue I always wanted to avoid or gave generalities about. Sum up, as I have mentioned before, thanks for sharing your journey , expertise and faith on this topic. God Bless and will check in til the end for gems like the above.

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  2. +100

    Ditto for me in so many ways. This site has been an enormous help on what has sometimes been a dark and stumbling, but nonetheless good, journey. Thank you CM and all who have made this possible. It will be missed more than you know.

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  3. Absolutely agree as well – and I’ve only been a lurker all these years! Where to now??? Thankfully God knows and will open the doors. I work in the same field as Chaplain Mike – supporting our chaplains as admin. assistant, but doing the work of a chaplain to a number of our German folks, 34+ years already. I can echo with him, ‘…they have helped me more than I have helped them.’

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  4. Chaplain Mike, thank you for your faithful presence. For being here for this blog, at this time in God’s history in order to carry out a purpose that is bigger than any of us. You have faithfully done the work, and lived out the life God has given you for this time and place.

    Your presence here is just a part of your life as Chaplain. You have the gifts that God has given you to listen, be in the moment, to pray, and to be silent when silence is most important.

    I am personally thankful for all that you are through Christ Jesus. May His peace be with you.

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  5. Prayers offered up for you and your family and co-worker Robert.

    On a similar note. My wife is now isolating as she waits two days to be able to get a test, and then waits for a result.

    Even if she is negative Christmas even within our own house will have to be delayed a few days.

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  6. Off topic: Yesterday a coworker to whom I frequently work in close physical proximity, and that includes yesterday, went home after lunch. Her adult daughter, with whom she lives, had received a positive test result for COVID just before lunch. I found all this out from another coworker right at the end of the workday. I know for a fact that the coworker in question and her entire household take seriously and conscientiously follow the measures for preventing spread of the virus, since two of the members of the household are in very high risk categories. My coworker is the only one who leaves the house daily to work in our essential business place. Yet her household is now infected, and who knows how the virus got in or what the outcome will be. Please pray for my household and hers.

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  7. CM, I think you’re doing the most important work of anyone who has ever wanted to serve God as a pastor. Surely this is something to which the Lord has called you and for which he has given you what you need to serve in this way. May he bless you and your family, and continue to touch people through this outpouring of love in Jesus’ name.

    Dana

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  8. Thank you, CM, for so many penetrating posts and thoughts down through the last decade here at iMonk. And thank you for doing the most essential work of a pastor, a chaplain, a minister: being present to this community and to us as people, and that being present, despite the limitations of an internet medium, makes what you’ve been to this community miraculous. God bless and God speed to you and yours.

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  9. There is a certain mystery about what you do. On the face of it it’s quite plain. You minister to people in a dire situation. But when you post about it there is usually a connection, of an emotional sort, that I as a reader feel far from. Or you might say I don’t feel it. It is a rare situation in life for almost all of us to be that close to death. I’m sixty and I’ve only had one such experience. I don’t know that the true depth of feeling is so easily elaborated. In a similar vein I think people who do prison ministry have experienced connections that are not so easy to detail. When we get to the core of things, words are not always the most highly operative, prominent feature of our communication so finding words to describe that silent harmonizing of thoughts and emotions is not so easy to do. In some cases I suspect there simply are no words. My one experience was being with my uncle. He was a Trappist monk at St Joseph’s Abbey. When it was over it fell to me to share the experience with my dad and his other brother because they couldn’t be there. I was able to share numerous details but I don’t know that I was ever able to describe the mix of how troubling and tender and solemn and holy and agonizing it was all at the same time. There was a texture to it that was unique. It was much much tougher than I thought it would be. It’s just very difficult to convey the essence of such a thing. It lingers inside you. I guess it’s the same for all loss of someone close to us. It is common to say there are “just no words.” The unusual thing is that that’s where you go to work and you’re expected to use words. It’s a finely tuned balancing act I am sure.

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  10. I remain in awe of you and your ministry, Chaplain Mike. I simply don’t possess the psychological and spiritual architecture to do what you do. I suddenly realize how much I’m going to miss this place.

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  11. Hello Chaplain Mike and Internet Monk family. I have been reading here regularly for over 10 years, but haven’t participated in the comments. It’s hard to describe what this space has meant to me as I’ve navigated my own spiritual journey. 

    When I was first deconstructing my evangelical/fundamentalist background, Michael Spencer gave voice to some of my own discontent with Evangelicalism before I had the language to articulate it. He gave me permission to question without condemning my lack of faith. Since then, this blog has introduced me to countless resources…books to read and people to listen to. It is where I met Eugene Peterson and NT Wright. When I was ready to start rebuilding what I DO believe (after wrestling through what I DON’T believe anymore) I was given a solid foundation for developing a flourishing and Jesus-centered faith. 

    Chaplain Mike, on a more personal level, your articles about grief and your work as a chaplain became some of my greatest sources of comfort as I walked through some difficult losses in recent years. It seems strange that I don’t know you and yet you have been there for me in some of my darkest hours.

    To the other contributors to Internet Monk, I have enjoyed reading your different perspectives and seeing your personalities come through your posts. I truly can’t imagine who I would be today without all of you. I don’t know how one properly thanks internet strangers, but from the bottom of my heart, Thank You. 

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  12. I’m super grateful for your work with the dying, as I was super grateful to my Mum’s Priest for his work with her. She had cared for many dying patients & she reaped what she had sown in terms of her own care.

    Thank you for so much gentle, deep & encouraging work here, bringing together such a disparate group of readers. IM has been a well needed oasis in a long dry land for me. All blessings & good things to you as this chapter ends, & to us all as we move on.

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  13. So grateful for you CM. I found this blog 6 years ago. You have made a real difference, helped me on my journey more than you can know. I appreciate all the work you have done, and the honesty and humility you have shown in sharing yourself with us here. All the best, God’s bless and give you joy and meaning in your continuing ministry.

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  14. “I have a sneaking suspicion that, in the end, they will have helped me more than I helped them.”

    this is the miracle beyond understanding

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  15. “I have a sneaking suspicion that, in the end, they will have helped me more than I helped them.”

    Interesting how it often happens that way.

    Like

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