The harsh and dreadful face of Love

In my last post, I reflected on the paradoxical truth that wholeness and healing always come through experiencing, admitting and accepting our brokenness. This past week I was present at the death of a man named Mike, whose last several weeks of life embodied this paradoxical truth in all of its messy glory.

Up until two weeks ago, Mike was a man utterly alone in this world. Through years of active alcohol and drug addiction and his refusal to stay on medication to treat his bipolar disorder, Mike had driven away everyone who ever cared about him. His behavior towards his parents, wife, and children was abusive, bordering on the violent. In self-defense, years ago his loved ones decided that they could no longer have any contact with Mike. Most of them concluded that they would never see Mike again and did their best to cope with their unresolved grief about the complete breakdown of relationship.

As a direct result of his alcohol and drug abuse, Mike ended up penniless and alone, dying of advanced and painful liver disease in an inner-city nursing home. When we admitted him, Mike told the hospice staff a little about his family but said that he expected to have no contact with them before he died. Clearly, Mike was not at peace. As with many cases, we had to conclude that we would do as much as possible for Mike to make his final days comfortable; we were not, however, miracle workers. The old hospice adage, “people usually die as they have lived,” seemed particularly apt in this case.

Through what I can only conclude was an act of providential synchronicity, county social services placed Mike in a nursing facility room directly across the hall from the room of a relative of his by marriage – this, in a metro area with thousands of nursing home beds! A little over two weeks ago, Mike’s mother, Eileen, happened to come visit the relative across from Mike. During her visit, Eileen learned about Mike’s presence in the same facility and determined that she would try to avoid him if possible.

Just as Mike was wheeling himself out of his room, he spotted his mother making a hasty exit down the corridor. Mike called out to her, not really expecting a response. Eileen later told me that at that moment “something snapped” inside of her well-defended heart, and she turned to face her dying son. What she saw shocked and appalled her. After years of massive self-destruction, her once handsome and strapping son had turned into a jaundiced, emaciated, sagging sack of skin and bones. “I would not have recognized him had he not called my name,” Eileen said. Eileen could only bring herself to spend a few minutes with Mike before leaving the facility feeling overwhelmed and confused.

Just two nights later, it appeared that Mike was beginning actively to die. Word reached Eileen through the family member in the facility. Astonishingly, Mike’s long-alienated loved ones, including his four adult children, sister, and parents, began to arrive to keep vigil. As the on-call chaplain that evening, I was summoned by the hospice nurse who reported a scene of chaos, conflict, and angst unfolding at Mike’s bedside.

By the time I got there, things had calmed to a low simmer, but I could have cut the tension in the air with a knife. Standing beside Mike’s bed, I invited the family members to vent some of their emotions and thoughts. A bit to my surprise, they poured out stories of unimaginable abuse, addiction, meanness, and rejection. The feelings were so powerful and painful that no one could recall a single positive memory of Mike.

Any grandiose idea I had about bringing some kind of deathbed reconciliation to this family dissolved with great speed. Suddenly, I began to feel paralyzed in terms of my ability to provide spiritual care in this wretched situation. Facing people, who for decades had endured their hearts being broken by evil, I stood there empty-handed and speechless. The only image that entered my mind was that of Jesus turning to the thief on the cross, dying a bloody death next to him. “Today, you will be with me in paradise,” said Jesus in response to the thief’s desperate expression of trust in Jesus as the Anointed One of God.

I found myself blurting out the suggestion (which I must conclude came from a Power greater than myself) that each family member spend some time alone with Mike in order to say what they needed to say to him. This was well received, and for the next hour Mike’s loved ones took turns going into his room to speak whatever truth was on their hearts to this man.

Mike’s sister and mother then surprised me by asking me to collect everyone around Mike’s bed in order to conduct a blessing service. I actually expected that family members would have said their goodbyes and then left quickly. Instead, they wanted to circle around Mike’s heaving body to commend him to God’s everlasting mercy and care.

Eileen made it clear in a somewhat apologetic way that no one in the family was “really religious.” I assured her that I didn’t think that God was very “religious” either and that the courage they were demonstrating by their very presence revealed an openness to God that would put many self-professing church members to shame. To a symphony of muffled sobs, flowing tears, and stone-faced silence, I conducted the blessing service, more aware than ever that grace is neither cheap nor easy.

As it turned out, Mike survived another two weeks, during which time he was able to utter the words, “I am sorry” to a number of his loved ones. It’s not like all of the decades of unresolved pain and unspoken anguish just melted away; everyone involved had been trapped inside walls of hellish resentment and wounded memory for too many years for that to happen.

And yet when I arrived the other night to gather Mike’s family around his forever stilled body, the rage and fear of a few weeks ago were gone. This time, Mike’s family stepped close to his bed to touch his cooling skin as I prayed those haunting words of the traditional Christian deathbed liturgy: “Accept, we humbly beseech you, o God, our brother, Mike. A sheep of your own fold, a beloved one of your own flock, a lamb of your own redeeming. Receive Mike into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, into the glorious company of all the saints in light.”

Tears fell like gentle rain onto the stiff, institutional sheets covering Mike’s emaciated frame. No one spoke for a long time after the conclusion of the prayer, until Mike’s mother, Eileen, lifted her eyes from the floor and said, “Mike finally got his peace. Maybe it is our turn now too.”

Writes Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamozov,

Never be frightened at your own faint-heartedness in attaining love…Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams. Love in dreams is greedy for immediate action, rapidly performed and in the sight of all. Men will even give their lives if only the ordeal does not last long but is soon over, with all looking on and applauding as though on the stage. But active love is labour and fortitude… just when you see with horror that in spite of all your efforts you are getting farther from your goal instead of nearer to it- at that very moment I predict that you will reach it and behold clearly the miraculous power of the Lord who has been all the time loving and mysteriously guiding you.”

I rest in gratitude this evening, knowing that Mike and Eileen and their sorrowful clan gave me another luminous encounter with the Jesus Way, complete with its harsh and dreadful Love and its path of healing through brokenness. I lay down my head this night with a new understanding that I am the offender Mike, as well as the well-defended Eileen. I am Mike’s wounded family, and I am the desperate, dying thief on the cross.

Yes, I am – we all are – these and many more. But more fundamentally we are these and always these: sheep of Jesus’ own fold, beloved ones of Christ’s own flock, lambs of God’s own redeeming.

The wholeness of a broken heart

There is nothing so whole as a broken heart,”

wrote the Kotzker Rebbe, a great master of Hasidic Judaism. While I love that saying, I also struggle with it.

In my own life, I often reacted to the reality or threat of having my heart broken by shutting down in defensiveness and fear. I used my words and intellect in ways that hindered my mind from connecting with my heart. I hid my pain, sadness, and vulnerability behind efforts to look good, be “right,” and make others approve of me. Most of the time, I denied that my heart was broken at all. I believed that if I just kept moving fast enough on the outside, I would never have to feel or face the gaping wounds which were sucking me dry on the inside.

The soul-sickness inevitably caught up with me when the devastation of my outer life finally began to match the bankruptcy of my inner life. The destruction was so sudden, shocking, and complete that I began to experience being broken as a kind of relief. The game was over. As Springsteen sings, there was “nowhere to run, babe, no place to hide.” There is freedom in having one’s choices narrowed to life or death.

“Die before you die,” says the Sufi mystic, Rumi. It felt as if I were dying a thousand deaths those sweltering nights of late South Carolina summer when my “old” life evaporated into the mists of the Blue Ridge foothills. For some days, I didn’t know if I had it in me to awaken with the morn. As grace would have it (and this is a story for another day), out of the ashes of despair were born the seeds of surrender, healing, and peace.

Accepting my brokenness as a gift has transformed my understanding of what it means to be a pilgrim on the Jesus Way. Remaining in touch with my broken heart has opened for me a path of living the Christ life with the wholeness of my being. God loves me, changes me, and uses me to touch others through ALL of who I am: my passions, relationships, failures, gifts, weakness. sexuality, spirituality, intellect, body, thoughts, finances, politics, work, emotions, dreams, etc. In other words, in my brokenness, I have discovered what it means to be a whole, beloved child of God on the Way of Jesus.

This is all a long way of introducing my next post which will be about one of my patients, Mike, who died earlier today. What happened during Mike’s dying over the past few weeks is one of the most remarkable examples I have ever encountered of God’s love for us at the “end of our rope.”

On one level, Mike’s story is one of unimaginable pain, alienation, and destruction. Through the eyes of grace, however, the saga of Mike’s last days in the valley of the shadow of death is one of healing, wholeness, and hope and one which defies the power of words to describe. But try, I shall. Stay tuned.

Thanks and Yes – Words from a Life Deeply-Lived

“I’ve had a good life,” is her mantra. During my visits with Ellen, a striking 85 year-old woman dying of cancer, she repeats those words throughout the hour. “I am grateful to God and to Jesus for everything that has come my way,” Ellen tells me, her piercing blue eyes focused on mine.

The first time I met Ellen about six months ago, in my arrogance, I mistook her expressions of gratitude for evidence that she had lived a “charmed” life. After all, here she was in a beautiful assisted living in one of the tonier suburbs of the Twin Cities. Surely her existence was a bed of roses compared to some of my other patients (who often spend their final years in warehouse-like places not necessarily fit for human habitation), right?

Wrong. As Ellen began to share her life with me, she revealed story after story of tragedy: her mother dying when she was two; being raised by an emotionally broken (and likely alcoholic) father and older sister; enduring emotional devastation when that sister had to leave the home when Ellen was 14 in order to work in another state; experiencing the birth of a child with disabilities and then the death of that beloved child from cancer thirty years later.

There were other tales of suffering and loss. Whenever Ellen told me of them, though, she unfailingly got around to saying that she knows that God was somehow with her every step of the way. “I didn’t always feel Jesus, and I wanted the pain to end. But I knew that it’s not God’s way to throw us to the wolves,” Ellen said.

Once more I had been quick to put someone in a little box and then compelled to eat humble pie when grace- in all of its grandeur, outrageousness, and ability to surprise – collided with my pinched, fearful, judging mind. Ellen’s long life has been punctured by traumas and trials. And yet she sits in her little room, a picture of serenity and acceptance about which many us can only dream of experiencing.

When I began praying with Ellen this afternoon, one of my favorite quotes danced from my lips:

The night is drawing nigh. For all that has been, Thanks. For all that shall be, Yes.”

Dag Hammarsjkold, the United Nations General Secretary who was killed on a 1961 peace-keeping mission in the Congo, composed that prayer in his spiritual journal shortly before his death in a suspicious plane crash. To me, those few words express beautifully the spirit of open-hearted gratitude with which Ellen has lived her life and is now approaching her death.

Tonight as I walked into the chilled but crisp November evening, I began to cry because I know that my time with Ellen is coming to an end. Her body grows increasingly frail and her voice more distant as the disease takes its toll. I realized just how much this woman inspires me, how many things she has taught me, and how greatly I will miss her. Sensing my sadness, Ellen grasped both of my hands in hers and said, “I have had a good life. God is here, and Jesus will take care of the rest.”

May I be able to begin and end my days with even a mite of the spirit of gratitude demonstrated by Ellen- yet another of my teachers on this pilgrim Way of Jesus. The night IS most certainly drawing nigh. For all that has been, let us be thankful. For all that shall be, let us say, Yes.


I have been wanting to write for a long time. While I don’t fancy myself a “writer,” many people over the years have encouraged me to take the time to share through the written word some of my ideas, reflections, and experiences.

I have entitled the blog, “In Face of Mystery” because those words describe perfectly the approach I try to bring to my encounters with those I meet on my path (I stole the name from the title of the theological magnum opus of Gordon Kaufman, Jr., one of my divinity school teachers). For many years, I was a man on the move in search of answers. There was little room in my world for mystery, ambiguity, or what the Zen masters call the “don’t know mind.”

I devoured books, shredded ideas, and inhaled systems and ideologies as if there were no end to my appetite for “truth.” For me, however, my crusade to be “right” and “know” everything ended in spiritual exhaustion, moral bankruptcy, emotional burn-out, and near ruin.I learned the hard way that many of the things I clung on to – whether theological concepts, political causes, substances, activities, or spiritual practices – had more to do with my ego-driven projections than the mystery of the Love in which we live, move, and have our being.

After two decades of restless searching – and causing tremendous pain to the ones I love the most – I am reaching a place in my journey where the focus of my life has become connecting with the Divine Mystery, one joyous breath at a time.

The world looks very different to me today, and I have many teachers, friends, and loved ones to thank for helping give me a new set of eyes with which to see the world in all of its comedy, tragedy, complexity, beauty, and grace.┬áSo this blog is my own little “experiment in truth” – albeit a very different kind of truth than I used to pursue in ideas, ideologies, and systems. The truth I experience now is one of God made flesh and dwelling among us as the weakest, most vulnerable, and marginalized members of our human family. In my writing I hope to share with you some of my musings as one who is trying to live as a follower of the Jesus Way. I feel rusty as I begin this venture. Bear with me. Pray for me. Struggle with me. Thanks for being here.