By Liz Stolfi
August 26, 2007
Mark 2: 1-12
(mp3, 6.8Mb) ]
little over 3 months ago, Chuck and Julie asked me if I might like to speak to the congregation after completing my first unit as a chaplain at Overlook Hospital. At the time, I was one week shy from beginning my program. I remember thinking, “I hope I have something to talk about… ” Little did I know then, that this would become the most profound spiritual experience I ever had.
I continue, I think it might be helpful to understand why I chose to enroll in
a chaplaincy program in the first place.
took early retirement in the summer of 2006.
had worked a total of 32 years as a teacher, 29 of them at Nutley High School
in Essex County. I loved what I did, but as any teacher might understand, I wanted
to leave before I grew totally disillusioned with the system, a
disillusionment, I must admit, that was growing year after year. I also retired
from my career as an LCSW, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and having been
ordained in 1998, I decided that aside from the occasional wedding at which I
might be asked to officiate, I was also going to forego all things clerical.
fell into my retirement with joy.
wildly anticipated what it would feel like to sleep past 6:00 am on a Monday
morning. For the first time in my life, I felt like a real grown up when
referring to January 1st as the start of the new year, not the Wednesday after
Labor Day… and I was relieved to know,
that forever after, I could sit in a chair without having to examine it first
for gum, a tack, or various and sundry other stuff that kids torture teachers
day was a snow day.
as I said, that was in June of 2006. By October, my friends sensed a growing
restlessness in me and urged me to take up a hobby. I attempted to learn
Italian but my books gathered dust. By January, I was becoming much too
familiar with the courtrooms of Judges Judy, Brown, and Hatchett. By March, I
had alphabetized my canned goods, and by April, having quoted the Science
Channel one too many times, the same friends who had urged me to get a hobby
were now urging me angrily and without compassion, to get a job.
I thought. “Some part-time work, perhaps… some little thing to occupy me… Ah,…… but what to do?
not work in a hospital? (I
thought to myself…) Why not work as a chaplain in a hospital? Hadn't
I already the ministerial and clinical skills
I needed to visit sick people?
decision on my part, my friends, was comparable to Mickey Rooney excitedly
proclaiming to Judy Garland, “Let's put on a show! Maybe Dad will give us the
barn!” This decision had no more forethought; it did not come from a profound
place; it didn't feel like a calling; and I had absolutely no idea about what I
was getting myself into.
order to become a certified chaplain, one must enroll in an accredited
chaplaincy program offered at various universities, colleges, nursing homes,
mental health facilities and general hospitals. Upon acceptance to any given
program, a candidate must complete four units, translated loosely into 4
semesters of direct pastoral and spiritual care of individuals and their
families. In my case, having been accepted to Overlook's program, I and my five
other classmates, were to work with acutely, critically or terminally ill patients.
the third day of our orientation, on a Friday, 20 minutes before we were to
break for the weekend, our assistant supervisor, Eileen Cox, said, “Okay
chaplains, here are your assigned floors, here is a list of your patients'
names, go and visit one patient and return.”
classmates and I looked at one another. In these last three days we had bonded
out of growing fear and anxiety. Even though our ensemble included a pastor, an
Episcopal sister, a minister and 3 seminarians, none of us had any kind of
formal training in visiting the acutely or terminally ill. We sat frozen. The
youngest of us, Paul, a second year seminarian asked Eileen if she might be
joking. When the look in her eye told him she was not, he said, what all of us
were thinking… “What do we say? What do we do?”
shooed us out and we dispersed to our separate floors. When we reassembled to
share the stories of our first visits it turns out that one of us had
misidentified a patient, another could not think of a thing to say, another did
not hear a word the patient said, one of us, when asked to pray, mangled the
Lord's Prayer, and yours truly bumped into the patient's food tray repeatedly.
And yet, we came back excited, too. Perhaps it was just relief. Or, perhaps, we
recognized, on some level, even though marginally, that we were in some way,
bungling as we were, about to learn something about healing or
our own spirituality, or compassion, or God's love, or, as it turned out, all
the weeks unfolded and we became more comfortable in visiting patients we
brought all different kinds of stories back to our table. It was clear to all
of us, early on, that the medical community, by and large, more or less, more
often than not, is interested in curing patients. Chaplains, of course, love to
hear of cures. In fact, we often pray for them. But chaplains, not being
of the medical community and being of the spiritual one, by and large, more or
less, and more often than not, are interested in witnessing or facilitating healing
Gary Smith writes, “To be cured is one thing, to be healed is quite another.”
believe retired doctor and missionary David Hilton
distinguishes these two terms quite eloquently when he asserts that, “Healing
is not the same as curing. Although they may happen together, one often occurs
without the other. Curing is the restoration of a person to his or her state of
health before an illness occurred. This is the goal of most medical
interventions. Healing is the personal transformation that takes place through
an illness or adversity.”
of Soul, Healing of Body, Rabbi Simkha Weintraub uses
the Hebrew word, “t'shuvah” to express the same idea. The Rabbi maintains that
we may fmd in illness, an opportunity to turn our lives in a direction that is
more clearly aligned with our true selves whether we are cured or not.
minister, Gordon McKeeman insists that, “Healing
has to do with a more inclusive view of the human being, its relationship with
the whole of life, not merely the health of an individual. The achievement of a
whole relationship with all of life, healing is truly the province of the
spirit. He goes on to say that four possible outcomes may arise from our
efforts at healing and curing. We may be cured and healed, neither cured nor
healed, healed but not cured, cured but not healed.”
this may be the right time to talk with you about two very different patients I
encountered during my first unit at Overlook. The first, I'll call him Rick, is
a patient who, through medical intervention was cured handily, but who was not ready
and, I fear, may never be ready to be healed.
can I describe Rick? He is one of those fellows you wouldn't want to meet in a
dark alley. He is a big man, brawny in fact. Some might describe him as a “good
ole boy.” He had entered Overlook with a bowel obstruction and after successful
surgery was pronounced “cured” by his doctors.
a few minutes of our first visit he told me that he was a guy who liked to have
things his way. “My way or the highway,” he told me proudly. I liked Rick in
spite of his huffy temper and his need to control everything and everyone
around him. And I was not very surprised when in subsequent visits he told me
that he was estranged from his two adult children and his siblings.
Additionally, he described his marriage as unhappy. He spoke of his depression.
I believe Rick felt very much alone and isolated from the world. His vulnerability was palpable right beneath
the blustering exterior. I offered him what I could. I suggested ever so
gently, ways he might approach his children and his siblings to renew or mend a
relationship with them. His refrain to
me, with each visit including our last one, was “I ain't gonna change.”
second patient, Todd, is a man with little hope for a cure, but certainly one
who has been healed.
had been walking my assigned floor on a late Wednesday afternoon. I wanted to
take what my supervisor, Rev. Cathy Bickerton, was to label a “pastoral pass.” It had been a long day. I was tired. I had
just left the room of a cranky and cured patient who spent 10 minutes lamenting
that her appendectomy scar would ruin her bikini line. From the hallway I saw
Todd sitting up in a chair. He smiled as I knocked on his door. He had a healthy
glow about him. He was young. How sick could he be, I thought, as I entered his
room and introduced myself.
it turns out, has pancreatic cancer. Pancreatic cancer, as I'm sure you know,
is not the easiest cancer to beat. Todd knows that. He knows, in fact, that he,
most likely, will not live for more than a year.
the time I encountered Todd, you may be assured to know, I had learned that
first and foremost, and above anything a chaplain may say or do, a chaplain
serves as a vessel for God's love, which, in turn, may facilitate a patient's
healing. “Generous listening”, a term coined by Dr. Rachel Remen, I discovered,
was the primary skill I needed in order to participate in Todd's healing. I
listened to Todd speak through many visits.
spoke about how his illness had transformed him. He had been working too hard.
He had not paid attention to his two small sons the way he felt he should have.
He had stopped performing the little romantic gestures that had been so much a
part of his marriage to his childhood sweetheart. After his diagnosis, Todd “tried
on” his religion of origin again and found that it was a better fit than it was
when he was in his twenties. He took his boys camping. He and is wife are
planning a trip to Ireland. He prays and while he admits that he still wants a
cure, he doesn't concentrate on praying for one. Instead, he told me, he prays
for the continued healing of his spirit. He prays for a continued healing of
his relationships and he prays for his renewed connection with God. He is
unafraid to die. Todd is the best example, I think, of what Paul means when he
says in 2nd Corinthians that “human nature is falling into decay, but the inner
nature is renewed everyday.”
met many patients like Todd. Patients I will never forget. Patients who will
never be cured, but who, as their very bodies give way on them, are made whole.
Who, in their pain, suffering and their transformations, help to heal us.
this leads me to today's scripture passage.
are several instances of Christ's curative powers in the New Testament. Most of
us are familiar with them. But, in the context that we mean it today, today's
passage suggests Christ's healing power took precedence over his curative
powers. In fact, in this gospel story, Christ forgives the paralytic his sins
before he cures him of his paralysis. As the Rev. Samuel Lloyd notes, by
this forgiveness of sins, “Christ begins by healing what is broken in the man's
spirit, his distance from God. It is only after the healing of his soul occurs
that Jesus says, “…stand up, take your bed and go home.” And it is only the
physical cure which amazes the scribes, not the healing of the paralytic's soul…
much like we are astounded by medical cures, but not as wowed by the amazing
inner transformations many people make when life has knocked them off their
may wonder what all of this may have to do with you. I'm a little afraid that
you may feel that my experiences are somehow unique or privy only to us who may
have the time or the opportunity or the educational backgrounds to become chaplains.
It’s just not true.
Corinthians, Paul clearly suggests that we all have different talents and
skills to offer the Lord… to offer one another. My personal belief is that we
are all capable of offering to others what it is that a chaplain does… And,
like Anne Ledbetter, may I
suggest to you that all of you are chaplains. When you exercise generous
listening to your children, you are performing the skills of a chaplain. When
you are willing to be present… simply
to be present… to
someone else’s pain and someone else’s “figuring out” of the havoc that he or
she may be experiencing during an illness, you are doing the stuff of
chaplaincy. You act as an agent of healing when you write a check for tsunami
victims, when you wrap a gift for Bridges, when you volunteer, when you voice
your concerns during each Sunday service, when you pray, when you hold a hand
of a loved one.
friends, I invite you to claim your healing powers… exercise them, and
celebrate them. By doing so, I believe we connect to one another in the most
profound of ways. We participate in the healing of a brother or a sister, and
we, in turn, are healed, thereby reinforcing our connection to the here and now
and to the there and then.
closing, I ask all of you to keep me in your prayers as I enter my 2nd unit in
mid-September… and I ask all of you to
keep in mind the words of the Rev. Dr. Anne Ledbetter:
all possess gifts of healing? Yes, whether you are old or young, rich or poor,
medically trained or a liberal arts major, whether you have a theological
degree or you are Biblically illiterate. You possess a gift for healing even if
you yourself are struggling with your own personal health… Friends, each of us
possesses the gift of healing because God, the Source of all Love, dwells
my brothers and sisters.
 Words of
David Hilton, quoted in a sermon by Pastor Lanny Peters of Oakhurst Baptist Church, Decatur GA, July 15, 2007, entitled “Curing and Healing”
of Soul, Healing of Body, Rabbi Simkha Weintraub, p. 42
 Words of
Gordon McKeeman, quoted in a sermon by Gary E Smith of the First Parish
Unitarian Universalist Church in Concord MA entitled “Shalem, Shalom: A Sermon
Mystery of Healing”, Rev. S. T. Lloyd III, Washington National Cathedral, Feb
 “Do all
Possess the Gift of Healing?”, Anne R Ledbetter, Westminster Presbyterian
Church, Sept 4, 2005.
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