Jan 1, 2017 By Norris Burkes
As the calendar closes on my first year as a hospice chaplain, I can’t help but recall the words of friends who warned me that my job would be much too sad for them.
The truth is that it was such a high honor to serve these amazing patients that I am using today’s year-end column to recall what I wrote about them in 2016.
In my opening January column, I wrote about the first patient assigned to me in my new job. She was the 90-year-old woman, and lifelong atheist, who asked me if I thought there was “something” after this life?
I asked readers to consider what the woman meant by “something.” I suggested that she might actually be asking, “If there is a God, will he be loving? Will he accept me the way I am – doubts and all?”
I smiled at the woman. “You know I believe there’s something after this.”
She nodded. “Do you think I’ll know that I’m dead?”
“I think you’ll know a loving presence,” I said.
She returned my smile with the satisfying warmth of a setting summer sun.
While I got some pushback from readers who felt I didn’t follow the Evangelical script, I nevertheless took opportunity to repeatedly reinforce that sentiment before she died this summer.
In my Veterans Day column, I introduced you to Ernie Head, the 96-year-old World War II veteran who lived life by a personal motto: “No matter how you feel – Get Up – Dress Up – Show Up – Never Give Up.”
Ernie learned the meaning of his motto during the war in the Pacific Theater of Operations. The stubbornness of the Japanese Imperial Forces required Allied soldiers to be ruthless in ways no one thought possible.
“I told God that if he’d get me out of this situation, I’d do anything,” Ernie said. “He got me out, but I’m not sure I lived up to my end of the bargain.”
Then he said, “I want you to baptize me. Now.”
With his confirmation, I dripped water over his forehead, repeating the century-old formula, “Upon your profession of faith, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost.”
“Thank you,” he said, his words cascading into multiple thank-yous.
I did Ernie’s funeral last month, and I can tell you he died much like a lot of old soldiers die these days. They die with honor, they die with pride, and like most people, they die with a few regrets.
Finally, I wrote about a barely conscious patient whose daughter asked me to pray for her in what was likely the patient’s last wakeful moment.
The family gathered around the bed. We joined hands and I cleared my throat to say the blessing.
“May you hear the familiar voice of your loved ones.
May you hear the tender call of God’s invitation.
And may you experience the love of both.
With that, our patient shut her eyes. But just before she did, I saw flashes in her spirit of the Apostle Paul from 2 Timothy 4:7 who said, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
I have one comment for those folks who warned me that my new job would be too sad for them. “Sad” is the last word I’d use. It’s not sad. It’s an honor. It’s a calling.
– Chaplain Norris is available for public speeches, church retreats, marriage seminars, worship services, university or private high school chapels, in-service for healthcare and hospice, and veterans’ events. If you would like to host Norris at your event, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.