As a hospital chaplain, I introduce myself to nearly two dozen patients every day. Most of them greet me with the friendly respect they normally afford their own pastor or faith leader.
However, there are always a few who meet me with suspicion; they think I’ve come to convert them, or worse yet, bring bad news.
I try to counter their misguided impressions with a one-two punch. First, I explain that my visit is routine and I’m not carrying any bad news. Then with a reassuring smile I add: “No worries. I’m not here to convert you, baptize you or change your mind about religion.”
However, while I’m not the one who delivers bad news, I am the one who sits with the patients as they process it. I’ll pull up a chair and help sort out the things that suddenly have become important.
This is often when I hear people recite through what I call their “woulda-coulda-shoulda” list. They say they woulda taken better care of their health; they coulda taken more vacations; they shoulda been a better parent or spouse.
But the biggest “should” that dying patients impose upon their story that they should have shown more love for people – and in turn received more love.
I believe the kind of love they miss can be found in the famous love chapter from 1 Corinthians 13. Even if you don’t read the Bible, you’ll recognize the popular chapter from the wedding ceremony.
This past week, as I contemplated the terminal prognosis of a chaplain friend with brain cancer, I sat down and paraphrased the chapter for myself. While I’m not nearly as poetic as the Apostle Paul, I trust you’ll find my version meaningful.
Even if I become as persuasive as Martin Luther King,
If I’m as eloquent as John Fitzgerald Kennedy,
Even if I sing opera like Charlotte Church,
If I give the riches of Bill Gates to cure the diseases of the world,
Even if I use the brilliance of Steven Hawking to fathom the secrets of the universe,
Nothing much matters if I don’t have love.
I can almost hear a chorus of the dying people I’ve met. I can feel them grab my collar and pull me close. “Listen,” they say in a gravelly, whispering voice. “I’m telling you, if you don’t have love, none of it matters. It’s all trash.”
Do you hear me? If you don’t have love, all your efforts to be your best, gain the most, and own it all are garbage. Your arguments are futile. Your life counts for rubbish. Your wisdom is nonsense. Your words are just a pile of stinking manure if you don’t have love.
Love is persistent and persevering. It doesn’t advertise itself or race to be first in line. It takes no pleasure in the misfortune of others, but sees the real fortune in honest truths.
In the end, the building I occupy will crumble into dust and ashes. But for now, I must focus on these three things in Paul’s last verse – “Trust steadily in God, hope unswervingly, love extravagantly. And the best of the three is love.” (Message Translation)