It was one of those days at the Hospital. Summer was upon us and most of our spiritual care staff were out of the office for vacation or conferences or consultations. We were short staffed, so I wasn’t exactly surprised when in mid-afternoon I was paged to call on a patient in the cancer ward. The office staff told me the patient’s name and added: “he wants to speak to a rabbi.” “But I’m not a rabbi!” I replied. “In not even Jewish!”
“I know, I know,” our admin said. “But we are plumb out of rabbis and you’re the best we have so good luck.” So I went. I mean. It is not like I had a choice. In the absence of a real rabbi, I would go and listen and – if it was a big issue – make sure a rabbi saw the patient when he returned to the Hosptial.
When I arrived at his room, the nurse gave me a quick, worried smile and said: “I am so glad you are here.” In case you are wondering, it is never a good sign when the first thing the nurse says is “I am so glad you are here.”
Then she said, “he really needs to talk to someone.” Which was the second consecutive discouraging omen. “And, he has been asking to talk to a rabbi ever since he got here.” With another forced smile she opened the door and nudged me into the room. I was more than a little…apprehensive. After all, I still wasn’t a rabbi.
So I walk in the room and come face to face with this old little man with the most amazing eyes. There, in the cancer ward, vitality and energy shone forth through his eyes. He was one of those people who seemed to be a force of nature, as unrelenting as a mountain stream in spring after a hard rain.
“Good afternoon, I’m from the Spiritual Care Department. I’m afraid we’re all out of rabbis today so they sent me – an Episcopalian – instead. If you want I can be sure a rabbi meets you at your next visit…” It’s fine, You’ll do fine,” he interrupted.
“You see,” he continued, “it’s the cancer. Hitler couldn’t kill me in the camps, but cancer is killing me.” He held up his arm so I could see the identification number tattooed there by the Nazi death machine during the Second World War.
“The cancer is going to do what Hitler couldn’t do?” I asked. “Yeah, that‘s about it. I don’t mind so much. I’ve had a great life, I have a great family.” And we talked for a bit about his life, his work, his family. And we talked about how tough chemotherapy is on the human body, how badly it made him feel physically, emotionally, and spiritually. “When I am on the chemo, I can’t enjoy anything or anyone,” he added.
“You see,” he said finally, “right now I am feeling really good. The cancer is in remission – I know it won’t last – but right now it is in remission. At home, I am surrounded by my family: my children and my grandchildren. And I feel well enough to enjoy them, I feel like I am wrapped up in their love. These last couple of weeks have been some of my happiest days.”
“And the problem is?” I asked.
“This is why I asked to see a rabbi. I know the remission won’t last. I’ve tried all of the chemo that is available. So even though I feel great I know I am going to die soon. But they’ve found a clinical trial of a new chemo medicine and I have to decide; I have to decide if I want to go through the hell of chemo again when my life is so good right now.”
“That’s a tough question. I can’t answer it for you,” I said.
“I’m not asking you to,” he replied. “I just want to know if you think it is OK with God if I don’t go for the clinical trial. I really hated being on chemo, it was awful. But I want to be sure forgoing a last chance is acceptable.”
“Not being a rabbi, I can’t tell you what the Torah says,” I replied. “And I won’t tell you what to do. The God I think I know wouldn’t think less of you for not going taking every chance to stay alive a little longer.”
“I think we think we know the same God,” he replied. “But I am still not sure what to do.”
“So let me see if I understand your dilemma: on the one hand you could join in a clinical trial which might extend your life but would be hell to endure. On the other hand, you could spend what time you have left feeling wrapped in the arms of your family’s love. Do I have it right?”
“You’re not helping!” he said with a smile and a gesture which showed he didn’t mean that at all.
“So what do you want from me? I told you I wasn’t’ a rabbi.”
He laughed and said, “We’re good.”
“I’ll be sure a rabbi is here for your next visit,” I promised.
“Fine, fine,” he said. And we took our leave.
For the next two weeks, I dutifully followed up with our rabbi. Then she asked why I was so invested in this patient being seen. So I told her the story and ended by saying “that day, he really wanted to see a rabbi.”
“Well, maybe he did,” she replied.
And I think that rabbi was right, for God is not confined by the lines we draw in the dust to differentiate between Jew and Gentile or Muslim or Buddhist. God moves as God wills, and any one of us can be a minister of God’s healing grace.
Which brings us to the central question behind this story: was the patient healed?
There are people who say they are Christians and proclaim their belief in miraculous cures that fall upon deserving people. Yet just the other day a video was posted on the Eagle Mountain International Church’s Facebook page featuring their pastor’s wife telling people that there is no such thing as flu season. Members of her megachurch, she said, don’t need to get a flu shot because “Jesus himself gave us the flu shot.” Her husband, Televangelist Kenneth Copeland, is a member of the current president’s faith advisory council.
Certainly, my patient wasn’t healed in that sense of a miracle cure coming from God through the priest’s hands to free this man from cancer. And I am OK with that: our God is not a carnival act. And we are not alone in this belief: Pope Francis recently wanted his followers that God is not a magician. And I always pay attention to Pope Francis when he agrees with me.
So am I saying there wasn’t any healing going on in that hospital room?
I am saying that what went on in that Hosptial room was healing, and it may have even been a miracle, for in our time together that patient experienced a spiritual healing that left him free to make a most important decision. As a hospital chaplain and parish priest, I can tell you this kind of spiritual healing is the kind of miracle I see occurring in people’s lives.
This is the kind of healing Jesus brought to people: healing which opens our eyes and ears and hearts, enabling us to move forward. We all need spiritual healing, we all seek grace. So many of our hurts come from spiritual wounds – whether coping with crippling loneliness or the frantic demands of work – we cannot heal ourselves without the miracle of human touch and contact in community. Our work as Christians is to heal – not judge or condemn or convert – the world one interaction at a time. May we together help heal the world.
Let us pray, Everlasting God, you give strength to the weak and power to the powerless; you raise up the sick and cast out demons. Make us agents of healing and wholeness, that your good news may be made known to the ends of your creation. May the people say Amen.