On a long-ago Christmas Eve, I made my last visit to a patient as her hospice chaplain.
I was honoring a promise made weeks before.
While a December storm spit rain, and clouds played hide-and-seek with the stars, I held the hand of a dying woman. In the surrounding neighborhood, holiday lights flickered, inflatable Santas and snowmen waved greetings, and outdoor ornaments sparkled as the gusting wind teased them.
In the patient’s room, it was quiet.
In the patient’s room, she now mostly slept.
I’d already started working as a congregation’s new minister. It had been a tough decision to leave hospice—an intimate ministry—for a church with hundreds of members and endless obligations. So many decisions are a combination of guesses, selfish and selfless reasons, and trying to do the right thing at the right time of life. I didn’t know then (and don’t know now all these years later) if it was the best choice, but it was my faithful risk to say “yes” to a church.
Some of the “endless obligations” during the first days of my new position were the Christmas worship plans. There I would preach. There I’d read the ancient stories of Jesus’ birth. There I’d seek to connect an old, familiar tale to the daily hurts and hopes of modern folks. There I’d help a congregation light candles and celebrate the beginnings of the “word made flesh.”
Hope! Love! Joy! Peace!
But I’d also made that promise to my patient.
I told her that I’d stop by for one last visit. She would soon be assigned a new chaplain, but her old chaplain would come over for a few moments. There were several hours between an early Christmas Eve worship and the midnight candlelight service, so I headed to her home.
Of the many patients that I encountered during my stint as a chaplain, she was among the quietest. She didn’t complain about pain or her illness; she didn’t have melancholy regrets or lingering guilt. She hadn’t been involved in formal religion for years, but sensed God’s presence, sensed there was something more than one final breath. She’d raised three girls and was proud of their accomplishments. One of them, a daughter as quiet as her mother, had come to live with—and care for—her seventy-something parent.
As I neared the end of my hospice work, I’d visited this patient and she wondered if I could stop by at Christmas.
Of course I could.
She was surprised that she’d made it this far. Back in August, her doctor had recommended hospice and apparently mentioned weeks rather than months for her remaining time. But autumn passed and the closing days of December had suddenly arrived.
I was dressed in a suit. Fancy tie. I wore my seasonal socks with reindeer on them. I’d already preached a sermon and would soon be preaching another one.
I sat beside her.
We held hands.
We prayed. Unlike my tie, my words weren’t fancy. Instead, I shared a simple prayer: for her, for her daughters, for this day, for a life of memories and the gift of each new morning.
Nothing stunning or unsettling happened. I didn’t express anything that transformed her life. Neither she nor her daughter confessed shameful family secrets (there probably weren’t any) or gushed about how I’d been a wonderful chaplain. But we did have a good chaplain-patient relationship and we wanted to be together for one more time.
To this day, I know that it was a privilege to sit with her. While getting out of bed had become a difficult task for her, we could still enjoy some gentle, supportive moments. Isn’t that all we have anyway? Time with another? Time to say thanks? Time to give and receive a hug?
Soon after the visit, I would be standing near a pulpit. In Christian tradition, sermons are known as “proclaiming the Good News.” And in particular, at Christmas, it’s the good and bold news of hope in the most peculiar of places: a manger. It’s the good and radical news, with a brash announcement that a gurgling baby born in an obscure town will challenge an empire. It’s the good and unexpected news, because the Christmas tale highlights a gathering of nobodies and ne’er-do-wells on a “silent night, holy night.”
On the edge of my patient’s bed, I cradled her hand and gave thanks for her life. Soon, like you and me, she would die. But right then, honoring a promise, I was choosing to spend time among the living. Among those who understood that every day, and every breath, is a blessing.
Later around midnight, I would help a congregation light candles and brighten a sanctuary.
But in that quiet room in her quiet house on a long-ago Christmas Eve, she was my candle.