Occasionally, patients will ask if they should address me as "pastor." I tell them I'd be honored to be considered their pastor, and that they can consider the hospital room their temporary church.
Despite the fact that chaplaincy can be a bit like pastoring a parade, the analogy often encourages patients to pause long enough to discuss their spiritual issues with me. At least, that's the way it worked with Mr. Penny.
I call him "mister" because that's how he introduced himself when I first entered his room at Houston Northwest Medical Center in 1992. Perhaps he meant the "mister" title to formalize the relationship between young and old, but my guess was that he meant to distance himself from his stereotypical idea of the "preacher."
Penny had inoperable brain cancer, but he didn't want to talk about that. The balding, bony man steered most of our conversations to things like his opinion of the Houston Oilers and my lunchtime basketball games with local clergy.
Over the next several months, Penny was admitted a half dozen more times, but on his last hospitalization, his nurse summoned me from lunch. "Mr. Penny" had a favor he wanted to ask.
Thinking his request sounded like the call to a deathbed confession, I made a quick exit from the cafeteria and hurried to ICU. I walked into the room to find Mrs. Penny stroking her husband's fevered head.
"Oh, good," she said. "I'm glad you're here, but I thought Tuesday was your basketball day."
"Knee problems," I said, patting my left knee.
She exhaled in relief. "He wants to ask you something."
I looked at the figure on the bed, twisted and ghostly. His raspy breathing suggested he wouldn't have much strength for this conversation, so I leaned over the bed and called to him as if announcing my presence through a dense fog.
"Mr. Penny, it's Chaplain Norris," I said. "Is there something you want to ask me?"
"Teach me," he said, his voice trailing off. He took a fuller breath and added, "Teach me to pray."
I searched his wife's face for context. She chewed at her thumbnail as she explained that her husband was embarrassed to ask for God's help at such a late hour.
"He's afraid he's being hypocritical," she added.
I often hear this reasoning from patients, and it always reminds me of the two revolutionaries who died on the crosses beside Jesus.
The first man spent his last hours mocking Jesus and goading him to use his magical powers to save everyone.
The other guy was quite the opposite. He felt shame for his past life, so he asked Jesus, "Remember me when you enter your kingdom."
Instead of disqualifying the man for being hypocritically late, Jesus assured him that he would see his new spiritual home that very day.
"Mr. Penny," I said. "I think you'll find that God cares very little about your past. He mostly cares what you'll do with the next minute of your life."
"Prayer is just talking to God. It's not theologically complicated," I added. "Just talk from your heart."
Penny closed his eyes and began moving his lips. I couldn't hear what he was saying, but when he opened his eyes his expression told me that he'd heard God's voice.
I know this because the "mister" who had originally sought to distance himself from spiritual matters managed to say one last thing to me.
"Thank you, pastor. Thank you."
Norris Burkes is a syndicated columnist, national speaker and author of "No Small Miracles." He is an Air National Guard chaplain. You may leave recorded comments at 843-608-9715, or email them to firstname.lastname@example.org, or send comments to P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Visit thechaplain.net.
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