I have visited people in hospice. There is no other circumstance in life that is like hospice: managed care. Palliative care is different, although hospice managed care is a kind of palliative care. With palliative care, there can be human hope for an improved quality of life. Hospice is the waiting room at the doorway of one’s final hour.
Both kinds of care are also for loved ones of the patient. I have not had a loved one in hospice. I have had a loved one in an “Intensive Care Unit” (ICU) in a hospital; and there came the signs along the way — “I don’t like those numbers,” the doctor said, referring to his vital signs early one morning. “You may want to call in the rest of your next of kin,” counseled the chaplain, when she saw that, while there was nothing definitive about his condition, there was nothing promising either. “Code Blue; Code Blue.” No one needed to explain that one, but I did see the frantic pace of the doctors and nurses through a door which had been left unattended (I always assumed it was one of those “coincidences” which was to assure me that they had done all they could possibly do, and more.). Those two words signaled the time to call my mother and my wife. My mother, incidentally, had already been awakened from her sleep by another voice she needed to hear in those final moments.
October 20, 2017
Early this morning I was awakened from light sleep about 2:30 and chanced to pick up my phone and see a new post on Facebook. It was by a young man about the age of our sons, and he was reporting on the final stage of his young wife’s battle with cancer. She was being moved into Hospice Care. The burden of the moment left only a few options as to how to respond to this message on Facebook. What is Facebook at such a time as this? I could not become cynical, as this is the modern way of reaching out at 2:30 a.m. It is better than sitting alone, for sure, since there is always someone there on Facebook. Some respond with a “Like” emoticon; some with a “Sad” emoticon. I responded with a “Love” as I my emotions were for him and a “heart” seemed like the way to convey my support. I also took the opportunity to pray for him, his wife, his child, his parents. And then I typed in some feeble attempt to say “I care” and “God is with you.”
A “Hospice Waiting Room” is full of quiet-but-messy-and-always-too-deep-for-words emotions, and its Facebook equivalent likewise full of thoughtfully “tapped” emoticons.
Suffering is the most common denominator of human life and experience. It can be our own, hopefully shared with someone who loves us. It can be the suffering of another, one whose suffering we bear in whatever manner is permitted and appropriate. But whether ours or theirs, it is in suffering that the soul is purified. In the Hospice Waiting Room, suffering is a kind of purgatory.
I imagine the “waiting room” at the foot of the cross as my mind races back two millennia to gather some understanding and perspective on this particular family’s pain. Why do I go there? Why do you?
I go there because it has become my “go-to place” for such times as this, and for times when the agony and the pain are even much closer. It is not the proximity of suffering or the relationship I might have (or not) with the one whose distress is erupting that is important. Suffering is the common ground on which we find ourselves as members of the human family. Sometimes I stand or sit on that ground hand-in-hand with the one whose pain spills over; sometimes the person may not even know that I am there. It is not about me, or any single one of us in particular, when God permits shared suffering; it is about the One who has created within us the interior language which only the heart can know. Therefore, as a pastor, when called to the home of a family in grief, I go back to the Cross. As a pedestrian, seeing the rescue operation in which I have no place, I go back to the Cross. As a person, hearing words of despair which may have been meant for someone else or no particular person at all, I go back to the Cross.
John R.W. Stott observed that “the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross reaches through every age and transcends every race and culture.” What a promise! And how much more is that promise when we believe it, and when we receive it into our own lives.
His Mother and the disciple who he loved stood, along with his mother’s sister and Mary Magdalene, all standing in the “Hospice Waiting Room” at Calvary. Many others were kind of in and out, and some merely finding what seemed at the time a comfortable, safe, acceptable, supportive distance. Many — maybe most, maybe all — were women. A rich man named Joseph, of Arimathea and one of His disciples, was standing off in the distance, awaiting the “Code Blue.” Ironically, he was not awaiting death; he was waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God.
Jesus said, “Woman, here is your son.”
Then he said to his disciple, “Here is your mother.”
And suddenly the biographies of both were re-written on the cross, and those who heard it were left with the assurance that someone was bearing the burden of his mother; likewise, someone was bearing the burden of the disciple. At that moment, while there was no rest or distance from the suffering for anyone in it’s grip, there was a kind of reconciliation — together, we can get through this; and most of all, those closest to him will eventually be okay.
And so in such moments, those of us who have had the message of the Cross written on our hearts return to the scene, run — literally or in prayer –to the “Hospice Waiting Room” where there is someone we know. While there, we find in another — a Holy Waiting Room –that solace, that reassurance, those few final words, to signal to our souls a purity and perhaps a peace which derives in pain: the sanctity of shared suffering.
At The Disciples College and in The Mission for Biblical Literacy, providers of this blog, we teach and learn the ways in which we can understand for such times as these the message of the Cross. If you would join us, contact us.
Bob Harris, 770-815-9078 or firstname.lastname@example.org