Thursday, April 13, 2017

Cookies and Communion

I am a chaplain for a hospital cancer care program that includes a large infusion center for chemotherapy. We have hundreds of patients move through our system, visiting weekly, or monthly or some other sequence. There are some 150 kinds of malignancies. Chemo is an infusion, oral, or injection to stop growth of cancer cells. Sometimes it is curative or just palliative to reduce symptoms. It may harm healthy cells as well, bringing side effects like hair loss, fatigue, vomiting and pain. Some patients complain of “brain fog,” an overwhelming body, mind and spirit affect that numbs or makes concentration and clarity difficult. I have had the privilege of visiting these patients and their families and friends for the past four years. This essay is meant to share some of the responses and stories from patients. One thing is that there are some similarities but all unique.

I want to say in a broader sense and optimistically that the vast majority of patients have found ways to deal positively to what is a major change of life and vision in a journey of great uncertainty. We have a multidisciplinary staff of medical and radiation oncologists, nurses, therapists and technicians to help deal with diagnosis and treatment of body and mind. We also have chaplains to journey with patients from an emotional and spiritual perspective. It is a privilege to enter into lives in change and challenge. I come by invitation as I introduce myself in conversation. My role as a Board Certified healthcare chaplain is not primarily religious, but one of comforting and encouraging. My role is to help process thoughts and feelings that vary with every patient and may ask many difficult questions. These questions deal from why to how to cope with a 1000 variables in between. I have only found several patients in my 17 years of chaplaincy unwilling to receive prayer. I have perhaps understandably found some who want nothing to do with a chaplain. I keep a list of these patients, as I don’t want to infringe or negatively influence their already difficult pilgrimage. Perhaps surprisingly, I have found that religious issues are perhaps the least discussed. That does not mean that spiritual imponderables don’t surface.

It is in the context of being an ordained clergyman and board certified chaplain that folks ask me most frequently, “What denomination are you?” I have always found this question fascinating, perhaps a way to break the ice or find commonality. There are incidentally some 3000 protestant denominations. Jesus Christ said, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Ephesians 4:4-6). In the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds, written in the first or second century BCE, the “holy catholic church” is referenced. This means, as Jesus meant, that there would be one universal church or body of Christ of which all believers are members. He never meant for the proliferation of denominations. We should all trust in Him and His word the Bible. But man has free will and has perhaps independently or selfishly created personal models.  Some would argue, and that is why I come as an encourager and a “Christ follower.” This response has been useful, allowing more open communications of the soul.

Our hospital’s patient population is about 62% Roman Catholic (U.S. 23%), followed by Lutherans, then by smatterings of hundreds of others. Interestingly, so far I have counseled with just one Orthodox Jewish couple and a no Muslims in Cancer care. There is a small quota of agnostics and Atheists, as I believe the later to be a religion of people who worship themselves. So, you might think with such high Roman Catholicism represented that sacraments would play a large role. Actually, amongst the general inpatient population, many Roman Catholics request Holy Communion and anointing of the sick as a frequent request for the very ill. I often provide these sacraments, as sadly there are not enough priests available. We do have Deacons and communion ministers who help, but Deacons are not allowed to provide anointing, as it requires confession and absolution of sins that only Roman Catholic Priests can provide according to the Vatican. Scripture is very clear in James 5 that when someone is sick to call upon the elders of the church to lay hands on them, pray and anoint them that they may be healed. I mention these details to introduce a story from a recent infusion patient visited during Easter Season.

When I entered her cubicle, she was sitting in the infusion chair with her mother beside her. The patient, call her Trudy, was eating a sugar cookie to help deal with the toxic chemicals surging through her veins. I told her that there were fresh baked chocolate chip cookies in the lobby, to which Trudy replied, “Can you give me communion?” This was my first such request in the cancer center, to which I immediately acquiesced. We enjoyed the Remembrance of Jesus’ death and resurrection together in His body and blood, given and shed for the forgiveness of our sins. It was very simple as I carry a little packet with a wafer and grape juice. I repeat the “words of institution or consecration” as part of the brief service and then we partake. A blessing of thanksgiving is then given, sometimes with the “Lord’s Prayer.” That day I found this simple request and service very meaningful for us both. Jesus is always present for believers and wants us to call upon Him and remember His sacrifice and promises of life continuously. How appropriate for us to remember and worship together the One who heals and gives eternal life. This holy meal was made more real by the sugar cookie and clinical setting. It reminds me that we must seek the Lord always while He is near that He be found.

For some in the infusion center who turn down a visit, I am saddened. I do not take it personally, but realize that some emotion or experience might be causing them to reject life-giving help. Perhaps it is anger or fear or overwhelm from the toxic chemicals. I don’t pretend to know the motivations of someone’s heart.


I also chat regularly with an Orthodox Jewish couple. The wife, in chemo, is pleasant but not talkative. The husband, who paces the floors for miles daily, has been a delight to talk with as we walk together. We speak of the concepts of eternal life and good and evil. Recently we pondered if God’s arm is long enough to deal with the cancers and evils in the world. The now famous Rabbi Kushner once wrote on this subject in, Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?  He contemplated in grief the death of his young son from cancer, saying that God’s hand just was not long enough. In other words, God is not omnipotent or good to let this happen. He found that many other Rabbis and Christians empathized but told him that he was clearly wrong. Yes, bad things do happen to good and bad people. Sin and sickness happens because the world is broken and not the paradise that God ordained originally. Mankind has ruined it and God has allowed it. He gives us free will. He does not cause disease and it is not God’s punishment for sin. It may be a consequence for behavior that causes disease, like smoking and chemical ingestion or smog. Overeating seems to be in a race for first place with cardiac issues for deaths. Accidents of course will happen. In it all, God is watching and saddened by wars and murders, along with a myriad of other troubles. God does intervene in many instances with miraculous healings to bring glory to Him. I have had this occur twice in my life on which I have written extensively. He will bring an end to tyrants and criminals in His timing and ways. His wrath will come. But in the meantime, let us enjoy “Cookies and Communion.” He is Risen, He is Risen indeed!

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