Spirituality in the Trenches

I retired from full time ministry last year. That experience alone is worth a sermon or two. However, I want to share with you some of my reflections on my last 12 years as a hospice chaplain. Since I will be talking about ways in which my hospice chaplaincy has transformed my spirituality, I will start by sharing with you my definition of hospice from a spiritual point of view. Hospice is a process by which death beds are transformed into sanctuaries of palliative care and spiritual growth. Hospice is a counter-cultural alternative to our society’s fear of and avoidance of death. Choosing hospice is an act of courage in the face of the distorted understanding of death and dying that society continues to perpetuate to our detriment.

As I reflected on over a decade of experience as a hospice chaplain in preparation for this sermon today, I continued to be amazed at the ways hospice has pushed all of my theological and spiritual assumptions into the depths and beyond such that my relationships with myself, other people, and the universe have been profoundly challenged and deepened. I find myself less concerned these days about the externals of religious, political, and cultural myths, rites and rituals and more focused on engaging viscerally and non-judgmentally with people where they are in real time on their spiritual journeys. I call that focus spirituality in the trenches. I am discovering that I am more and more paying attention to and finding sustenance in those contemplations, meditations, and actions which lift up and affirm inclusiveness, right relationships, and universal grace. I am less and less interested in those things which insist on excluding those who do not choose to accept only one particular set of religious, spiritual, or cultural precepts. Both the universal and particular are important and need to be kept in a balance, but not for the reasons I used to believe.

Let me tell a story to try to illustrate my point: Coincidentally, a priest and a rabbi were both sent at the same time to serve new congregations, in the same town. When they arrived and learned of this coincidence, they called each other to offer support in the transition and to see what they might have in common. They soon learned that they both loved to play golf. So they immediately made a tee time at the local golf club. As the game progressed, a pattern seemed to emerge. Both players were equally good at making long, straight shots on the fairways. But it was a different matter on the putting greens. The rabbi consistently struggled to make even the simplest putt. The priest, on the other hand, would walk up to the ball, make the sign of the cross, and putt it in every time, no matter the distance from the hole. At the end of the first nine holes, the priest was well ahead of the rabbi and the priest’s putting style did not go unnoticed by the rabbi. So the rabbi, somewhat tentatively asked the priest, “Do you think it would be all right if I made the sign of the cross before I putt my next ball?” To which the priest replied in an open and friendly manner, “Of course you may my friend. Be my guest. Just remember that it won’t do you any good until you learn how to putt!” Hospice taught me how to putt. Hospice gave me experience in an embodied, acted out spirituality in the trenches.

As a hospice chaplain I had to learn and relearn; live and relive on a daily basis the reality that there are no road maps, no shoulds or should nots, no external authorities who can tell anyone what to do or how to be in life’s most that most intense, vulnerable, and intimate moments. Time and again throughout my hospice chaplaincy I listened to people of every faith and no faith say in one way or another, “You know what, Ed, it doesn’t matter what religion I am or you are. Who am I to judge what the correct spiritual path is for anyone else? What really matters is that we are here together fully present to one another in this moment.” If you wanted to define “spirituality in the trenches” in one word it would be the word “Presence.” And if you want to unpack the term “Presence” you might reflect on the meanings of words like gratitude, acceptance, serenity, calm, openness, and willingness.

And I have to ask myself why it is that most people do not receive that epiphany until they have come to the end of their lives? Part of the reason, I think, is that so many of us have been taught to face the end of life with a sense of denial, despair, or anxiety. The good news is that these negative feelings about death and dying are slowly becoming replaced with the notion that the end of life brings with it a brand new developmental life stage in which we can begin to reflect on our past in such a way as to become able to accept and embrace all of our life experiences – the good and bad, the gains and the losses, the healing we have facilitated and the pain we have caused – into a meaningful whole that we might call, for lack of a better term, recovering and healing wisdom.
Some of you may be familiar with Erikson’s Eight Stages of Life beginning in infancy with Trust vs. Mistrust and ending in old age with Ego Integrity vs. Despair. It seems to me that the end of life presents us with a ninth stage which, again for want of a better description, I call Acceptance/Letting Go vs. Shame/Holding On.

This is a wonderful stage of life first, because it is a time for the dying person to integrate all of their various life experiences, to accept them as they were and are, warts and all, and to begin to achieve a little bit of that peace that passes all understanding. But the end of life does not only offer these gifts to the dying. They are also available to their caregivers. If you have cared for a loved one at the end of life, then you know that it is the most difficult job in the world. It is all consuming. The physical, emotional and spiritual demands can feel overwhelming. Your relationship to your loved one is in your face, up close and personal 24/7. Studies show that caregiving can negatively affect your own health and sense of yourself. And nobody who has not had this experience can even begin to understand what you are going through. Caregiving is a time of life when Jesus’ invitation to unload our burdens and find rest in him, the man of sorrows and experienced grief, can become a very real oasis of support and affirmation. I cared for my mother for several years before she died. My mother could be a very stubborn person. ((Sorry Mom, but you know it’s true!) And I still remember the times when she would refuse her medicine to the point that I would feel like screaming at her. And then I would feel guilty for feeling angry with her. But over time, I came to accept that it is perfectly normal and human to feel anger at certain times, even with my dying mother. And I also learned that it is normal and human to manage that anger so that it doesn’t become toxic or harmful.

This very basic interaction is spirituality in the trenches – when there are no easy answers or Bible quotes to throw around like pain dulling medication. My mother and I talked this issue through and eventually created an informal ritual that we used when it was time for her take her medication, which she hated doing. She would say in an over the top drama queen voice, complete with a twinkle in her eye, “Are you really going to make your poor, tired, old, sick, dying mother take those horse pills again?’’ And I would reply, “You bet I am. This is called end of life role reversal, and pay back is sweet.” We would laugh and she would take her medication. They don’t teach this kind of spirituality in seminary. Spirituality in the trenches is not academic, abstract, neat or tidy. It is real, immediate, and sometimes even fly by the seat of your pants creative. My mother wanted to stay in her own home until she died and I wanted her to be able to, but the time came when it was no longer possible to give her the care she needed at home and I had to place her in a facility. I felt like a complete failure as a son and caregiver. But over time I was gifted with the insight that I and we are not called to be perfect-not perfect caretakers, nor perfect family members.

What we are called to be is ready for responsibility when it is our turn to step up, and to do the best we can with what we have. And today I define spirituality for myself as the willingness to be ready for responsibility when I am called upon, to do the best I can with what I have, and to let the rest go. Life, after all, cannot be wrapped up at the end like a gift box with a pretty bow on top. It is messier and more complex than that for all kinds of reasons-physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual. My experience as a hospice chaplain has led me to conclude that the popular cultural belief in closure is a toxic barrier to healthy engagement with grief and loss. The notion that we can gain closure from our grief and loss is simply untrue and it is not going to happen.

What we need to focus on is not closure, but acceptance. The difference between closure and acceptance is that closure is an end result-it is a goal to be achieved in order that our lives might return to normal, whatever that means. Closure implies the willingness to cut off the past, to close the books on your relationship to your loved one, to engage in premeditated amnesia. The problem with that of course is that you can’t put closure on love, nor should you even try. But that is what our culture teaches us to do.

Following the death of a loved one, our false cultural myths around death, dying and bereavement stand in our way like a police officer at a crime scene telling everyone, there is nothing to see here. Move along, move along. After all, you can’t do your patriotic duty to work, spend and consume unconsciously and uncritically when you are engaged emotionally and spiritually with another.

Acceptance, on the other hand, is an ongoing lifelong process in which we remain open to embracing and reflecting on all of the losses in our lives as simple reality and not as a punishment or failure on our part. Just as your dying loved one was given the gift of acceptance at the completion of their life, so we caregivers are also given the gift of being able to receive our histories with our families as accepted warts and all without guilt, resentment, fear or despair in order for real healing to take place. Acceptance happens when we embrace our incompleteness, our brokenness as a natural part of life and not shame or guilt inducing failures that keep us trapped in a downward spiral of hopelessness and despair. To work toward acceptance means no more false guilt or toxic shame, no more blaming the past for our present limitations, just simple openness to what is given us right here and now. Acceptance is what makes us ready for the responsibility of caretaking and acceptance is what gives us the strength to let go and grieve well when the time comes.

That ability to accept life and death, our past and present, on their own terms, and not as we would like them to be is ours when:

  • we affirm that we have the power to take charge of our lives and to stop being dependent on any external authority for our self-esteem and security;
  • we learn to trust our own inner reality and daily affirm that we see what we see, know what we know and feel what we feel;
  • we dare to accept life as it is on its own terms;
  • we try to make our every decision and action as if we truly believed that we are cared for and accepted just as we, with no strings attached

Again, none of this is easy, but the payoff is the ability to catch a glimpse of that mysterious peace that passes all understanding and the courage to be able to give care and to receive care and then to grieve well right in the midst of all the day to day chaos.

Finally I want to send you from this sacred space today to seek out and embrace a spirituality in the trenches in all of your life. May you be blessed anew with the gifts of presence in the face of denial, acceptance in the face of anxiety, and readiness for responsibility in the face of seemingly overwhelming expectations so that wherever you are on your life journey you can be open to new life, new hope, new wholeness, and new gratitude for all that you have and for all that has been taken from you. And may you open yourselves fully to Jesus invitation to lay down your burdens and take up his easy yoke. Or, as one of my hospice patients used to tell me every time I visited him:

“Life is what it is. So there’s no point in trying to control it. Just be grateful for everything you have and for every minute of your life and let the rest go.”

And if that isn’t spirituality in the trenches, then I don’t know what is. Amen.