My career as a health care chaplain often leaves me feeling like I’m pastoring a parade. That’s because, by definition, my chaplain relationship with patients is a temporary one.
I suppose that’s why I am relieved when a patient asks if they can call me “Pastor” instead of “Chaplain.” I hear their request as an invitation to assume the more personal role of their family pastor.
However, that’s not quite how it started with a patient I first knew as “Mr. Penny.” I call him “mister” because that’s how he introduced himself when I entered his room at Houston Northwest Medical Center in 1992.
I reciprocated his formality by introducing myself as “Chaplain Burkes.”
At first I thought he was using titles in recognition of our age difference. But, eventually I decided he wanted to distance himself from the three-piece-suited chaplain who matched his stereotypical idea of the “preacher.”
Penny had been advised that he had inoperable brain cancer, but he didn’t want to talk about that. The balding, bony man just wanted to chat.
During his next several hospitalizations we talked sports, either the Houston Oilers or my lunchtime basketball games with local clergy. For Penny, the greater the emotional distance we could maintain from reality, the better.
Finally though, on his last hospitalization, his nurse summoned me from lunch to tell me Penny had a favor to ask. Thinking this sounded like the call to a deathbed confession, I made a quick exit from the cafeteria toward the ICU.
I walked into his room to find his wife stroking his fevered head.
“Oh good,” she said. “I’m glad you’re here today and not playing basketball.”
“Knee problems,” I said, patting my left knee.
“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 Burkes,” I said. “Is there something you want to ask me?”
He nodded. “Teach me …” he said, his voice trailing.
He took a fuller breath and added, “Teach me to pray.”
Confused by his sudden approach to an intimate moment, I searched his wife’s face for context.
She was chewing on her thumbnail. “He’s embarrassed.”
“Embarrassed?” I asked.
“He’s afraid he’s being hypocritical to wait until his death to talk to God,” she added.
I nodded. It’s a common reasoning I hear from patients.
Jesus summarily dismissed this poor logic in his conversation with two revolutionaries occupying crosses on either side of his.
The first man spent his last hours mocking Jesus and goading him to use his power to save everyone.
But 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.”
Jesus swiftly responded. “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
Instead of disqualifying the dying man for being hypocritically tardy, Jesus assured him that he would be rewarded in the promptest fashion.
“Mr. Penny,” I said. “I think you’ll find that God cares very little about your past.
He mostly cares about what you’ll do with the next minute of your life.”
“Prayer is just talking to God,” I added. “It’s not theologically complicated. 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 been so dependent on titles to gain distance from spiritual matters shifted his heart to say one last thing to me.
“Thank you, Pastor. Thank you.”