Not Just Crackers & Kool Aid: The Suggestive Power of Communion

I first met Ryan, a psychiatric patient, as he was coming in from a walk outside and I was trying to buy a coke from a vending machine in the lobby of the hospital. He saw me looking closely at the buttons and offered to help me. That was the beginning of a fruitful pastoral relationship. Though I am rarely in need of assistance, I am never offended if someone offers to help me out, especially if that someone is a patient.

Everyone knows me as “The blind Chaplain,” although I can peek out of one eye and see blurred forms. If I hold a book close enough I can even make out letters. As the blind chaplain, I use my blindness as an opportunity to empower patients, even if it makes me look more helpless than I am. So, I asked Ryan to select a Coke for me. And… “Kerplunk!” It rattled down the chute to the open bin. I feel strongly that patients, especially at psychiatric hospitals, feel so controlled and helpless, that to provide even the smallest opportunity to make them feel needed and respected can lift their spirits. When Ryan helped me buy a can of coke, it started a pastoral relationship that began with me trusting him, and later developed as he learned to trust me.

After our first meeting Ryan would always say hello to me. Occasionally he would ask for a prayer or tell me about some of the negative thoughts he was having that day. After several months, Ryan actually opened up and began to tell me about some of his more troubling thoughts and experiences.

One day he took me aside to a private area saying he wanted to talk about some things. I agreed, and when we had some privacy, I asked him what he wanted to talk about. Ryan seemed very nervous and finally he began to gush questions. He wanted to know what I thought of homosexuality. “Was it a sin?” “Did it mean that a person would go to hell?” “What about regular fucking (fornication) between a man and a woman? Was that just as bad?” “Did I think that a person could change if they were a homosexual?” “Wasn’t sex just love, and if so, why would love be a sin?” “What if it is rape?” And, “Is it a sin if someone has sex with you and you don’t want them to?” Ryan was clearly agitated about something.

That was a lot of questions! Many more than I had expected. And sex is always a “touchy” subject (pun intended). The rapid fire questions caught me off guard! I knew I couldn’t answer all of his questions then and there, but how to respond?

Several potential responses started running through my head. My natural instinct was, of course, to provide Ryan with simple yes or no answers based on my own faith traditions. Yet as a trained chaplain, I knew that simple answers would be unhelpful at best. Clearly his questions were part of a deeper inquiry that Ryan had been struggling with for a long time. He had probably heard all the simple answers before and he deserved a more complex response.

 

Furthermore, as I understand the role of a chaplain, it is not appropriate to just respond with answers from one’s own faith traditions. The proper response is to help each patient find their own answers within the patient’s faith traditions. This should be the philosophy of any one who claims the title of “Chaplain.” A Chaplain’s role is to offer pastoral care for all of his or her patients despite their beliefs, creed, or cultural context. It is important not to proselytize.

Of course I do have my own deeply held beliefs on topics of religion and morality, but foremost among these is my belief that all answers will be revealed in truth to the honest seeker. Jesus himself said, “Seek and you shall find,” and I believe Ryan was an honest seeker who would find God’s truth for himself with proper pastoral care and assistance. In fact I practice my Christian faith as a chaplain by assisting others in their search for understanding. My ministerial approach is not to convert people to a certain set of beliefs or doctrines, but to help them learn to seek out truth through reason, critical analysis, spiritual exercise, and heart felt intuition, with the hope and faith that an honest search will lead them to certain universal truths.

As Ryan asked me all of those questions, I began to fall back on my Chaplaincy training. I restated his questions in ways that challenged him to reflect on his own thoughts and feelings. “Why do you want to know about all of this?” “What do you think?” “Would God condemn someone to hell for being a homosexual?” “What is the difference between love and lust?” “How does forced heterosexual sex, i.e. rape compare to consensual homosexual sex?” And, of course, I asked him how all of this related to his own life.

Ryan responded with great sincerity. He explained that he believed himself to be both male and female. He said that his large breasts proved that he was a hermaphrodite. Ryan was a rather large, heavy, man, and to my dismay he lifted up his shirt and exposed his breasts! They were indeed ample!

Ryan went on to tell me that he had many sexual partners, both women and men. “But that’s ok,” he said, “because I am a hermaphrodite with different sexual urges.” Because he had breasts, it followed that he had a womb, so it was ok that he liked guys and girls, especially guys. “But, I’m not gay,” he insisted.

Then Ryan went even further into his story and told me that he was currently pregnant. He believed he was carrying the baby of a man who had forced him to have sex. Continuing, Ryan believed that being pregnant, also made him a mother. As a mother, it followed in his mind that he was in a family relationship with the man who had sex with him. Ryan concluded that because he was pregnant, “his child” could only have been conceived in love and not out of the violence of rape…therefor, he, Ryan, was not horribly abused, but rather respected and loved.

I conducted more research into Ryan’s status by looking over his chart, talking with his psychiatric team, and continuing our conversations. Like many of my patients the more I learned about his situation the more tragic and convoluted it became. I can never know the truth about his sexual history, but given the circumstances, it is likely that he had sex with various partners, both willingly and unwillingly.  I agreed with his doctors that Ryan’s sexual identity was bound up with his schizophrenia.

It should be noted here that homosexuality was considered a mental illness by many psychologists until at least the 1970s. Homosexuality was officially declassified as a mental illness in the 1987 addition of the DSM-III(R). Since then, however, the classification of many “sexually deviant,” behaviors and orientations has been controversial. The current version of the DSM-V still classifies some forms of sexual orientation and identity as mental illness under the title of “Gender Dysphoria.” Though this condition seems to refer to the debilitating stress and anxiety caused by one’s confusion over his or her identity rather than one’s preferred orientation.

Ryan had been in psychiatric hospitals several times before. Though he appeared gentle to me, he was picked up at a homeless shelter on this occasion, saying that he wanted to, “break people’s necks and eat their souls.” This seemed incredibly violent for the mild mannered Ryan that I knew. In his defense the report did say that despite his verbal threats Ryan came peaceably and did not have any history of physical violence towards others just verbal threats.

Ryan told me that he was raised as a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and at the same time he was sexually abused by members of his family. He believed he was going to hell because he had “unlawful sex,” and the fact that he may have been forced made little difference.  He also seemed to conflate these experiences with his sexual behavior as a teenager and as an adult. Sometimes he thought he was a rapist, sometimes he thought he was a victim, and other times he felt like, “a whore,” He was ashamed and confused and most of all scared. He had basically been abandoned by his family, and they had told him he was going to hell. During this stressful time in his life he would feel that he was being attacked by demons, or that he himself was a demon. He was a soul tormented by the forces of good and evil, and torn to shreds by the abuse of his family, faith, and himself.

Clearly the clinical diagnosis of acute schizophrenia was accurate, including his delusion of being pregnant and his confusion over his sexual identity. Like many individuals suffering with schizophrenia, Ryan’s delusions were far ranging and often reinforced his resistance to treatment. His delusional pregnancy not only reinforced his belief that he was a hermaphrodite, but it also gave him worth and value as a loving mother and part of a (non-existent) family. His supposed pregnancy was also a very convenient way of avoiding management of his mental illness.

He used his pregnancy to explain his sometimes erratic behavior, and as an excuse not to take medication prescribed by the psychiatrists. Ryan believed that because he was pregnant it was very dangerous for him, “and his baby,” to be on strong psychological medication. In addition, he was convinced that some of the medication that he was being forced to take was making him appear more manly than he actually was, or wanted to be. Overarching all of the clinical issues was Ryan’s terrifying belief that he was going to hell because of his “abominable” love for men and past sexual sins.

For many chaplains working with a schizophrenic patient can be complex, especially if the sexual identity issues are a primary component. When it comes to sexual issues, theology, traditionally, takes a very narrow and limited view with strong condemnation for any behavior other than the traditional monogamous male/female relationship. Typically there is a very negative view of homosexuality or any other sexual variation such as cross gender, bi-sexual, trans-gender, etc. Such ideas are often viewed as sinful and so it is traditionally the religious leader’s duty to help his parishioners avoid this sinful thinking and behavior by telling them to, “turn from sin through the help of Christ, “ or in more modern parlance “Pray away the gay.”

However a Chaplain’s job, being non-dogmatic by definition, is not to judge or enforce his or her denomination’s position or personal code of morality on such matters, but to help patients find their own path. This is especially true when working with schizophrenic patients as simply denying their delusions or suggesting their behavior is sinful is not at all helpful.

In an extreme situation like Ryan’s, where a patient is struggling so much with his sexual identity that it is consuming him with guilt, anger, and hatred, I believe the duty of a Chaplain is clear. The greater risk confronting the patient lies in being driven away from God by these negative emotions, and it is the chaplain’s duty to help the patient come to a peaceful understanding of his or her sexual orientation so that he or she can connect with God. Helping patients feel loved and accepted by God should be a chaplain’s top priority, even if the chaplain believes that homosexuality is a sin.

On a personal level I am not disturbed by questions of sexual identity. I believe it is neither abnormal nor sinful to be LGBTQ. I tried to counter act some of the more negative religious perspectives he had been told by telling him that, “It was ok to be gay.” Working with his beliefs I tried to impress upon him the notion that God loved and accepted him no matter what his sins might be. We had many conversations about the differences between love, lust, sex, and rape. Ryan gradually came to believe that, “Rape was an evil that did not contaminate the victim with sin.” After a few months of ongoing talk and prayers he came to the conclusion that homosexuality was not wrong, but that “it is wrong for me.” I saw this as great progress.

I worked hard to convince him that he was not hell bound and alienated from God. But it wasn’t until Holy Thursday when we were doing a workshop in the gym on different aspects of Holy Week and the passion story that, with the help of God, I was able to bust through Ryan’s self-hate, incrimination, and spiritual alienation.

On Holy Thursday, I was assigned to a station where I would provide communion bread and wine to anyone that wanted to partake. (Actually we had to use juice by law.) For many “Communion,” or ”The Eucharist,” or “The Last Supper,” is a baffling and mysterious ritual, and for some it is ridiculous. The meaning can be lost in theological interpretations, and on the face of it Communion can appear as an un-filling snack of Kool-Aid and crackers. But it is my belief that the transformative power of this ritual can be experienced by anyone and does not necessarily depend upon miracles and supernatural forces.

I had convinced Ryan to attend the Holy Thursday activities, though he was skeptical. When he arrived at my station, he was very unsure about taking communion as he still considered himself an unredeemable sinner. When I gave him the cup I was very intentional about my words. I said, “Drink this and know that you are accepted by Christ.”

Ryan hesitated for a long moment then bowed his head and drank the communion cup. I thought I felt the presence of God, but I wasn’t quite sure if it was real or just wishful thinking. Then Ryan smiled, thanked me, and went to the next station.

After this experience Ryan began to rapidly improve. A few months later on the eve of his discharge we were talking and Ryan said, “You know Pastor Paul, you might not remember this, but around Easter you were giving out communion.” I smiled and nodded knowingly. He said, “Do you remember what you said?” I did, but I said “I’m not sure, tell me about it?”

Then Ryan spoke: “’You said: drink this and know that you are accepted by Christ.’ I really had to think about that! But when I took that cup and drank it, I felt the Spirit of Love! For the first time in my life I knew that God really loved me and that I was ok!”

In conclusion, we could spend hours discussing the theology of communion and the legitimacy of using Kool-Aid and crackers as an earthly manifestation of God’s love. Theologians have written volumes about how and when God is present in the communion ritual. Irrespective of such weighty issues, in that moment with Ryan a simple cup of Juice and a cracker had been transformed into love and forgiveness that offered a taste of salvation for a tormented soul. Even though empirically nothing spectacular took place, I truly believe Ryan felt the presence and acceptance of God’s love in that Holy Snack and that sense of acceptance gave him what he needed to begin recovery.

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The Unheard story of Maggie and the Murder

 

I liked Maggie from the moment I met her. She was a middle aged mother, heavy set with long dark hair. From the way she talked and walked you could tell she was in a lot of physical and emotional pain. She told me that she had a bad back from a car accident and that she was suffering from bi-polar for a variety of reasons. She had a long history of trauma starting from childhood and she had even been hospitalized at my hospital several times. Yet, despite these troubles, she wasn’t in despair.

She was not overwhelmed, merely battered by life. When she spoke to me I could see the determination in her eyes and the confidence in her face. She was well aware of her difficulties and she was trying her best to overcome them. After a short conversation I knew that she was a fighter, in the good sense of the word. She had eliminated many of her bad habits and associations. She was successfully raising a wonderful daughter who she loved very much.

Maggie had even created a supportive community around her with friends and family. Unfortunately, her medication had been mixed up recently, and then delayed. She went into a relapsed psychosis. Because of her previous history of mental illness, Maggie was rushed through the regular hospital system and sent to the state’s psychiatric hospital.

Out of all of the things that troubled Maggie, the most distressing was the fact that she was back at the hospital where she had been during her lowest moments in life. When I first met Maggie in the admissions building, she expressed this worry very clearly. “I don’t want to be here. The doctors are trying to help me, but this place has a way of dragging you down. I was doing really good on the outside, actually building a good life for me and my daughter, and I don’t want to lose my momentum. Even with the new programs here, there isn’t much to do and it’s easy to get sucked into the system.”

Maggie also said that the hospital was a place that increased her fear and anxiety. Because of her past traumas, her sensitivity was heightened and it was unnerving for her to be around so many violent and disturbed people. She even told me that she had witnessed a murder at the hospital many years ago, on a different ward. But of course, many patients claim that the hospital is trying to murder patients. Outwardly I expressed appropriate concern, but inwardly I took this story to be a delusion that was a heightened projection of Maggie’s own fears.

Maggie’s major psychiatric problems improved rapidly. She still had many ancillary issues to work out; the majority of which involved proper community placement/housing with access to regular mental health care and financial services. Resolving these social service issues involves a lot of bureaucratic paper work and can take months to resolve. I have known patients to spend years at a mental hospital, despite a psychiatrist’s dismissal, simply because the social worker was unable to find proper outside accommodations. So, despite Maggie’s mental health improvement, she was not yet released.

Over the next few months I developed a strong pastoral relationship with Maggie. We discussed how she could support her daughter from inside the hospital. We also talked about how she could turn her struggle with mental illness into an inspiring example of perseverance. We talked about how faithful prayer and participation in a church community can offer spiritual and physical support, especially when facing a crisis. Mostly we processed her current experience of hospitalization and her determination to be tolerant and positive no matter what happened.

All was going well, until one day, when I met Maggie in a very unexpected place. I was conducting regular rounds in one of the outer patient buildings. This building is mainly used to catch the overflow of long-term patients. There is a hospital policy that if a released patient stays at the hospital longer than 90 days he/she must be moved to this secondary or outer, long-term building. This policy can be particularly frustrating for those patients who are simply waiting for placement and have to move and re-orient themselves to a new building and schedule, only to be discharged from the hospital a few weeks later.

As I was doing my rounds, I turned the corner in the hall in front of the nurse’s station and almost tripped over a patient sitting on the floor crying. It was Maggie! At first I didn’t recognize her. Her body was crumpled up and she was weeping. I also didn’t expect to see Maggie in this outer building. “Wasn’t she discharged?” I thought. Maggie lifted her head and recognized me immediately. She held out a pleading hand.

“Pastor Paul,” she cried. I immediately sat down beside her and asked, “What’s wrong? How did you get here?” “O Pastor Paul!” she sobbed, “They moved me over here two days ago and it’s just terrible! I can’t stand it in here! “I don’t think I’m going to make it.” My immediate assumption was that her distress was caused by having to move to a long-term unit and that she thought this meant she would remain at the hospital for a long time.

I tried to reassure her that her change in location was not indicative of a change in status. If she continued on her previous course of behavior, she would be released shortly. “I don’t know if I can do that,” she said, “I can’t be on this floor.” “Why not?” I queried, trying to sound sympathetic. “This is where Jane was murdered!”

Maggie was obviously distraught and overcome with emotion. The professional part of me immediately assumed she was relapsing into a schizophrenic delusion. But another part of me said that there was something more to this story. After all, she had mentioned the murdered patient by name and most delusions are not particularly specific. I pushed my intuition away however, and stuck to the party line. “This is a hospital,” I said reassuringly, “I don’t think anyone was killed here.”

“It was right over there!” She cried, pointing to an adjacent room. “It was at night and no one saw her until I yelled for help! But by then it was too late, and Jane was dead!” Maggie was very upset and something in what she said rang true to me. I decided to inquire further.

“When was this and what happened?” I asked. “Oh, it was many years ago, when I was here before,” she said wiping her teary eyes, “I was in the room right next to hers when that crazy woman snuck into Jane’s room and smothered her to death! I don’t want that to happen to me! I can’t be here!”

Now, I didn’t know what to say. I was almost convinced by her detailed description, but I still couldn’t bring myself to fully believe her. Firstly the claim that the hospital is murdering or has murdered patients is extremely common among paranoid schizophrenics. So, it was hard to believe such a cliché story. Secondly, and most powerfully, I couldn’t believe that the hospital would knowingly place a patient on a ward where she had witnessed a murder.

Surely Maggie must have told them her concern before they moved her. And, if there was any truth to her story, someone would have done something. I then asked her, “Maggie have you told the doctors this?” She responded with an exasperated, “Yes, but they don’t care.” It was hard to believe. I knew she had told others about why she didn’t want to be on this ward. And it was clearly the reason I found her in a sobbing heap on the floor. Surely the staff must be aware of her fear? Surely someone cared enough to check it out?

I promised Maggie that I would immediately look into her situation. Before leaving, I gave whatever temporary support I could. Our conversation ended in reassurance and a deep prayer for strength and endurance. Then I got up off the floor and immediately walked to the nurse’s station across from where we were sitting.

The station was occupied by a stern faced, elder nurse, with short cut hair. “Excuse me,” I said in a quiet and confidential tone, “I have some serious concerns about your new transfer patient Maggie.” “Yes?” the nurse responded, with lifted eyebrows. “Well, she’s really upset about being on this ward, and she wasn’t like this over at the admissions building.” “I don’t know,” said the nurse.” “She’s been like this ever since I’ve been here.” “Well,” I said hesitantly, “She claims that she was on this ward years ago when someone was murdered and she is frightened.” And, I think she might be telling the truth.”

To my astonishment the nurse answered flatly in the affirmative. “She might be right.” “I was on duty that night. Jane was murdered by another patient in that room right over there.” The nurse then pointed to the very same room that Maggie had indicated. I was aghast! “So there was a murder here and Maggie witnessed it?” I asked, still in disbelief. “I don’t know if Maggie witnessed it or not,” the nurse responded coolly, “She might have been on the other floor, but I do remember Maggie was definitely in the hospital at that time.”

I was almost speechless. “So she’s telling the truth?” I managed to ask. “Probably, said the nurse, everyone was pretty upset.” I found my voice at last, “Don’t you think it’s a bad idea to lock someone in, on a ward where they witnessed a murder?” “That just shouldn’t be!” The nurse seemed unaffected by my outrage. In fact, she was becoming annoyed with me. “I don’t know! It’s not my job to place patients here! You’d have to ask someone else about that.” “I will,” I said defiantly, “Who do I ask?” The nurse glared and told me to consult the medical treatment team in charge of Maggie’s care.

I immediately went to the Treatment Team’s office and spoke to the available staff. I also talked to the patient advocate department on Maggie’s behalf. I was determined to spend the rest of the week, if necessary, calling and cajoling until I found someone to listen to Maggie’s story and to do something about it. So far, the response was limited.

Hopefully, I thought, most people would agree with me that it’s a bad idea to confine an emotionally unstable person in an area where she had previously seen a friend get smothered to death. Personally, I would classify such an action as abuse. It wasn’t until two days had gone by however, that I was finally able to get the Treatment Team to listen and respond to Maggie’s situation.

Many of the individuals who had heard Maggie’s original complaint, simply wrote it off as delusional thinking. Those that knew the truth of her story never took the time to consider how deeply this tragedy had affected her. (Momentary aside: This is where a Chaplain can step in as an extra sensitive eye, ear, and heart. A Chaplain can observe every patient and their situation, not as a clinician that sees a mental patient, but as a pastor who sees an individual with many stories and experiences.

The good news was that I was able to have Maggie’s situation addressed. She was re-located and they added on several sessions of psycho-therapy. Thankful, I walked up to the chapel’s alter and fell on my knees. I threw my hands in the air and thanked God with all my heart and soul. I truly did! I was happy for Maggie, and admittedly proud of myself. I felt I had played a crucial part in answering Maggie’s prayer by witnessing about Maggie’s essential humanity.

Note: My intent in this blog is not to criticize the clinical/medical diagnoses of patients. My concern is that a mental health diagnosis should never obscure the possibility that the patients are telling the truth. Even those we have labeled as mentally ill, are likely to speak truth within the context of their lives.

All of God’s people are deserving of a second, a third, and a thousandth chance to be heard and believed. To give up on them and turn a deaf ear to their voice, no matter how strange it may sound, is to deny them fellowship in our human community. This is why I believe that a chaplain is an essential position in a hospital, especially a psychiatric hospital. Chaplains are uniquely focused on not becoming desensitized to the suffering of individuals. A Chaplain’s job is to be that open heart and listening ear to every person he or she encounters.

The Power of Belief

Can a positive attitude affect a person’s physical health? The jury is still out regarding the degree to which a positive attitude can improve illness, but most agree that negative attitudes can adversely affect one’s mental and physical health and just about everything else. I witnessed this first hand after meeting Lance.

By all measures Lance was an average man in his early 50’s. He was of average height, with just the expected amount of grey hair for a man his age. He wasn’t too fat, and not too thin. He spoke with a manly voice that was not distinctively deep nor too gravelly. He seemed smart, but not overly educated. In fact, Lance appeared to be just your average guy.

Except Lance was deeply troubled. Despite conforming to all of the generally expected norms for a 50 year old white male, he was exceptionally self-conscious of his actions and very anxious about how he was perceived by other people. When I first met Lance, he wouldn’t come into my room because he was so nervous. He didn’t know if he was supposed to be in my group? And what if he didn’t like my group? And what if I didn’t like him? And maybe I’d think he was crazy? Or how did he know he could trust me? All of these questions were running around inside Lance’s head. He was a textbook case of paranoia turned inward, where everything could be a danger.

In response, I tried my best to be friendly and welcoming. After a few weeks Lance began to relax and joined my group. Eventually, he became an enthusiastic participant. Gradually, I came to know Lance as a very good hearted man who was completely baffled by his inability to control his thoughts and actions.

Lance had been overwhelmed by his mental illness and blamed himself. He’d often say to me, “I know what I’m supposed to do, but then I do something else. Why do I do these things I know I shouldn’t do? I know it’s wrong. I know I’m bad. But I don’t want to be.” He’d look at me and ask directly, “What can I do Paul? How come I keep coming back to the hospital? What did I do wrong? What’s wrong with me? Do you think I’m bad Paul?” These conversations were heart breaking.

I could feel his anxiety and anguish course through me as we talked. I could barely contain my urge to jump up and give him a huge hug. I wanted to hold this 50 year old man and tell him, “It will all be ok.” Of course such an action would have been extremely unprofessional, not to mention risky, so I ministered to him as best I could with words and appropriate actions. We processed feelings and discussed spirituality, and I kept my spirit open to anything that might bring this man a modicum of peace.

It must have been God at work, because Lance finally confided in me after a spirituality group that I had thrown together on the fly. I had just finished a memorial service that morning and I did not have a good plan for my group. I thought I would bring the communion supplies and talk about the meaning of the Eucharist, i.e. The Lord’s Supper, also commonly called Communion.

The spirituality group went smoothly, but as happens with many ad-hoc plans, our discussion was wearing thin far before our allotted time was up. Then, two of the participants decided to go to the bathroom leaving Lance and me alone in the classroom. I hurriedly began wracking my brain for some way to keep the conversation going when Lance opened his mouth and began to confess to me a horrible story of sin and sacrilege.

Just as I started to expound on the literal meaning of the word “Eucharist” i.e. thanksgiving, Lance said, “I’ve done some bad things Paul.” Immediately, I shifted gears and tried to reassure him, “well we have all done bad things Lance.” “Yes, but I’ve done some terrible things. God! I don’t even know if I want to tell you the terrible things I’ve done. You won’t want to hear it! You might never talk to me again!” Once again I reassured him that we have all made mistakes and that I was there to listen and not to judge him. After more reassurances and some hesitation on his part, Lance let his story out.

Apparently, Lance’s memory had been sparked by our discussion of the Eucharist. Near the end of the discussion we actually took communion together as a group and Lance seemed very unsure whether he was worthy to partake in the sacrament. The last time he had taken the Eucharistic host was after confessing to a priest and he didn’t feel that communion had absolved him of his sin in the slightest bit. I urged him to continue with his story. I must admit that my human curiosity was peaked. I was also hopeful that he might finally be sharing with me some of the root causes of his guilt and anxiety.

Lance then told me that when he was much younger, in his early twenties, he was addicted to drugs, and like many people who are addicted he was in need of funds. “I did some terrible things to get money, Paul,” he said, in that slow shaky way of his. “I even robbed from my own mother! It was bad!” I nodded my head, knowing that this was a common occurrence among people who were desperate for money. Then Lance continued, “But that wasn’t the worst thing. I desecrated a corpse!”

 

He proceeded to tell me that he heard about a guy who had made over fifty dollars selling an old brass urn at a pawn shop, and this inspired him to do something similar. Lance said, that one night he was walking by a grave yard when he saw that the cemetery gate was open. Near the gate, was a Mausoleum. The door to the Mausoleum also seemed to be open.

Fifty bucks was a lot of money, so he decided to check it out. Lance entered the graveyard and walked over to the Mausoleum. Indeed, the Mausoleum doors were cracked open, slightly, so Lance grabbed a door and swung it wide open. The door protested by creaking rather loudly. He froze for a moment. But, as he stood there, he saw two urns, one by each door. Temporarily overcoming his fear, he grabbed the two urns, dumped the contents on the floor, and ran out of there “like a bat outa hell!”

There was a long pause. His head was down. Then he said “You probably don’t even want to talk to me now? What I did was pretty bad, pretty unforgiveable right?” Of course, I said that I would like to continue to talk with him. As a Christian I explained that we believed everything is forgivable as long as we are sincere in our repentance. I encouraged him to finish his story.

 

Lance sighed and continued, “I didn’t even sell the things. After I…I did what I told you I did… I saw that the urns weren’t brass and so I threw them in the bushes. They wouldn’t have been worth anything. I did that terrible thing Paul, I destroyed a body and I didn’t even get anything out of it, isn’t that awful?” Lance could hardly bring himself to say what he had done. It was obvious he felt extreme guilt for his actions. (I chose to assume, for the moment, that his despair was for destroying a “body,” and not because he hadn’t got anything out of it!)

Despite the atrocious act of robbing and desecrating a grave, my heart went out to the tormented man sitting in front of me. As desperate and heartbreaking as Lance’s remembrance was, I felt some hope because it was obvious that Lance was sorry for what he had done. Now he needed forgiveness, and it just so happened that my religion specializes in forgiving people of even their worst sins.

 

First I tried to down-play the gravity of his actions. After all he left the urns in the bushes by the grave yard, and the ashes were still in the mausoleum, or its general vicinity. Besides this had all happened thirty years ago when Lance was addicted to drugs and was beginning to experience mental illness.

But my excuses for Lance were of little avail. He was worried about the pain and anguish he must have caused the families of the graves he had disturbed. Even worse was his belief that scattering the ashes of the deceased was equivalent to murdering them a second time! “I killed them didn’t I? I mean, I destroyed their body. What does that mean?”

It was only then that I began to realize the magnitude of Lance’s guilt and his grief over what he had done. He went on to compare himself to Jeffery Dahmer, the serial killer. “We’re kind of the same, right Paul? I mean, he killed people and I killed people. He was mentally ill and so am I. There must be something really wrong with people like us.”

I found his comparison distorted and extremely disturbing. I tried to lay out the facts, passionately insisting that he was not a murderer, and no more of a sinner than anyone else. “Of course you’re in need of forgiveness and God’s love, just like anyone else!” But Lance baulked at my overtures of love and forgiveness, insisting that he didn’t know if someone like him deserved forgiveness for the terrible things he had done.

Then the despairing soul of the story came out. Lance was terribly worried that he had been cursed or haunted because he had done this unspeakable thing to a person’s last remains. “Maybe,” he conjectured, “That’s why I’m mentally ill and I can’t stay out of the hospital. Maybe it’s because of what I did?”

I began to talk about God’s love, Jesus’ sacrifice, and the boundless opportunities God offers us to turn our lives around. I had half convinced Lance that he could ask God for forgiveness and be forgiven. But then I asked him if he would like to verbally ask for forgiveness with me in prayer. He declined. My heart sank. He still did not feel he deserved any forgiveness or compassion, even from God. I was utterly frustrated. Lance had been beating himself up for thirty years and I was at a loss as to how to help him.

Lamely, I said that our time was nearly up. We said a quick prayer of hope and healing and Lance left my room no better off than when he entered. Despite his confession and outpouring of regret, he remained convinced that forgiveness was out of his reach. I went on with my day, but my thoughts and prayers continuously returned to Lance, the- oh-so-average, shaky man, who was tormented by his past.

 

Schizophrenia does tend to appear in men during their early twenties, the same time that the incident with the urn happened to Lance, so his reasoning made some sense… but, it just compounded his guilt and suffering. Lance was a modern day Raskolnikov, punished through and through by his own senseless crime.

As I continued to mull his story over, it seemed that there was something significant about his situation that I was missing. I had a gut feeling that there was some way I could help him accept forgiveness and move on with his life. Then, later that day, in a flash of divine insight, I realized something. “Even in locked Mausoleums, Urns aren’t just laying around on the floor, for anyone to grab and run away with!”

The next day I saw Lance in the hall. I prayed he would come into my class room. God was truly with us, because Lance entered the room shortly thereafter and we were momentarily alone. We said our pleasant good mornings and then I told him that I wanted to talk more about what he had told me the day before. “I know, you probably hate me now.” he said in a very despondent tone as he sat down. “I want you to tell me more about what exactly happened and how you did it,” I said. Lance let out a sigh, looking for all the world like a little boy preparing for a blood test. “I Kind of told you all there is to it. I know it was wrong.”

“Well, it might not be as bad as you think,” I said. “I don’t know if what you told me is what really happened.” Lance gave me a puzzled and slightly offended look. I hurried on, “It’s not that I think you are lying, or that you were delusional at the time. I trust you Lance and believe you gave me an honest confession of what you think happened, but the more I thought about it, stuff didn’t add up. Are you sure that what you stole where urns?”

“What do you mean Paul?” he said with a curious look. “Well, when this all happened you were desperate and probably coming down from a high. I’m guessing that you weren’t really thinking straight. As a minister I have some familiarity with graveyards and the funeral trade; they don’t usually leave urns just lying around where anyone could knock them over or grab them.” “Well they were in a Mausoleum,” Lance said, still looking puzzled.

“Yeah, but were they on a pedestal, behind a railing, or bolted down?  Did you unscrew the lids to dump out the ashes? I imagine that any Urns left in a mausoleum would be tightly sealed shut wouldn’t you?” Lance paused. “I don’t know… Now that I think about it, they were just lying on the floor by the door. I don’t think they had lids. What are you saying?” Lance said haltingly.

 

“Lance,” I smiled, “I think you stole some flower pots.” “What!” he exclaimed! “Yeah Lance, if they didn’t have lids and weren’t secured, they definitely weren’t urns with human ashes. They might have been memorial vases or incense holders, but I think you just stole some flower pots. Then realizing they were worthless, you threw them in the bushes.”

It was then that the true miracle occurred. Lance actually began to laugh as he said, “You mean this whole time I never destroyed someone’s ashes? Boy that would be a real relief if it were true. You really think they were flower pots?” “Yep,” I said, “If you’re sure they didn’t have lids, they couldn’t have held someone’s ashes. And if they were on the floor next to each door, they were certainly flower pots!”

“No, I don’t remember them having any lids,” Lance said. “I guess the rain and the wind would get in right? In fact, I don’t even remember any ashes or anything else coming out of them when I turned them over! And to think all this time, I have stayed up at nights thinking about this and what I had done. But now, when you explain it like that, it makes complete sense. They wouldn’t leave Urns just laying out like that.”

“No,” I beamed, “God doesn’t even need to forgive you. There is nothing to forgive, aside from knocking over a couple of flowerpots.” I could feel the presence of God as we spoke and the joy of relief as Lance’s sins were washed away.

Our conversation continued for another fifteen minutes, but that wasn’t the last time I had to assure him. Of course Lance needed to re-run the incident with this new perspective in his head for the next few days. But by the time he left the hospital he was convinced that he had made a mistake rather than a mortal sin, and more importantly that he was forgiven.

Reflecting on this incident, it is amazing to me how powerful our beliefs can be, either negative or positive. Lance had been tormented by a ghost of his own creation for thirty years! And the guilt and shame of his supposed atrocity no doubt played a role in the development of his mental illness. The miracle is not unlike that of Apostle Paul’s on the road to Damascus. A sudden change in one’s perspective, accompanied by proper support, may have been what put Lance well on the road to recovery.

Prologue:

My final thought on this incident is one of hope. For if a person can be driven deeper into madness and despair by his own beliefs and imaginings, then it must also be true that we can emerge from such despair by reexamining and reframing what we have believed as being true. The key is opening our minds to a new perspective that conflicts with what we currently believe. This is very difficult for us to admit, and yes, it may take a dramatic situation for us to release our preconceived understandings.

Even the non-believer might admit that a belief in God can help us to reevaluate and rediscover an understanding of ourselves, which can provide us with a pathway to alter our lives to the benefit of ourselves and the world at large. Lance still has many challenges ahead. But with the grace of God, I am confident he will be able to emerge from the darkness and reawaken with a positive belief in his own worth and the power of hope!

The first time I broke bread as a Chaplain

The first sign that God was calling me to be a Chaplain was my lunch with Jesus on my first day of work! I was late in getting my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) Internship application submitted, so I had to hustle. I had found a CPE class to attend in Brooklyn, NY, but I also had to find a hospital at which I could intern. On such short notice, the only place that I could find was a VA Hospital in the Bronx, which was literally on the other side of the city.

The only thing I knew about the Chaplain with whom I was going to interview, was from what I found on google. It seems some vandals had stolen the church bell from his church! He was quoted as saying “there is a special place in hell for people like that.” Oy vey! I was especially nervous, because I am visually impaired and I didn’t know how he would react to this.

I had little hope and even less experience as I went for my job interview. I felt my only chance was to prove my physical capability to do the job, and suggest that my disability could be an advantage when ministering to disabled veterans. I figured that a Veteran’s Hospital would have its fair share of Wounded Warriors, who might benefit from my experience as a successful disabled person.

As I got off the bus to go to the interview, it was with that nervous confidence I always feel when entering a new place. I felt as “cool as a cucumber..,” that was sweltering in the summer sun with my insides turning to mush. I was trying my best to look calm and purposeful, but I could feel the sweat dripping down my cheeks!

I had directions and found the elevators without a hitch, but once I was on the second floor I was lost. Being visually impaired, I have to press my face up really close to the office doors in order to read the room numbers. I needed to read the signage, , but I was terrified that if one of my interviewers saw me doing this, their first impression of me would be of someone who had escaped the psych ward and had a door licking fetish! I didn’t quite know what to do, so I purposefully walked away from the elevators, and down a hallway as if I knew exactly where I was going. Then, when I thought no-one was around, I leaned in for a quick “glance” at one of the door numbers.

Suddenly, a gruff voice rang out. “Hey, you need any help!” I jerked my head from the door and froze. A man had walked around the corner and was slowly coming towards me! He was thin but muscular and looked to be in his late fifties.

My heart stuck in my throat, as I realized how suspicious I looked. My only hope was to be straight forward. “Is this the Chaplain’s office”, I inquired, hoping to put him off stride. “Noooo” he responded slowly, but then he offered to show me the way. I introduced myself as Paul and, he held out his hand, with a big grin and said, “Nice to meet you! You can call me Jesus!” I wasn’t immediately sure of what to make of this, but being a sensitive member of our multi-cultural society, I quickly realized he must be Hispanic.

“Oh you mean Hey-sues” I replied, phonetically pronouncing Jesus in Latino in an attempt to put him at ease and show that I was familiar with his lingo. “Nope,” he replied, “Everyone calls me Jesus.” I quickly realized that I was the one who wasn’t at ease.

I didn’t have much time to reflect on this, however, because the chaplain’s office was just around the corner. I straightened my tie, pulled my shoulders back and put on the most confident face I could manage as Jesus knocked. The door swung open at his touch and before I could say anything, my helpful companion said, “This is Paul, he got a little lost on the way here, but I found him and he says he wants to be a chaplain.”

My confidence dropped even lower than my shoulders as the Chaplain looked up from his seat while talking on the phone. Thankfully, he hadn’t paid much attention to Jesus’ introduction. The chaplain acknowledged my presence, but curtly told me he was busy and would see me in about an hour. This was curious, because he had scheduled the interview with me himself.

I didn’t know whether to be happy, sad, excited, bemused, nervous, or upset, as the door shut, leaving me once again in the hall. The only word flashing through my mind was “Disaster! Disaster! Disaster!”

Discomforted, I now had nothing to do but wait around in this strange hospital for another hour. “Doing what?” I asked myself. “Wandering the halls? licking door knobs? Sitting outside the Chaplain’s door getting more nervous by the minute?” I was flustered and I had completely forgotten about my new friend Jesus, who, unfortunately, had heard and seen everything. Jesus turned to me and said, “Well, looks like you’ve got some time on your hands. Would you like to come down to the cafeteria with me and have lunch?”

“What?” I was both stunned and relieved. “Of course!” I replied. Jesus went on to explain that he was a volunteer at the hospital and he got free lunch passes. Then he gave me a brief tour of the hospital that ended with us sitting together over a couple burgers and fries. Before we ate Jesus asked me to pray over the food. It was a short and simple blessing that thanked God for the day, the food, and my new friend.

We enjoyed our lunch and I had my first pastoral conversation as a VA Chaplain. Jesus told me about the hospital and about his work as a volunteer, but he also told me about his service in Vietnam and the suffering of his fellow veterans. He told me about the stresses of being in the military that never left, even when his service was over. He told me about the people that had helped him, and how he wanted to help others.

Nothing too dramatic happened as we shared stories of sadness and stories of joy. I can’t say that we cried together, although we did share a few laughs. By the end I had learned a lot about the kinds of people I would be ministering to over the next few months and my nervousness had completely disappeared.

I returned to the chaplain’s office with a smile on my lips and the knowledge in my heart that this was where I was supposed to be. I had just broken bread with Jesus on the first day of my career as a chaplain! How great is that?! I have never been the same since.