Her Mixed Marriage, Hell, Olsen’s Sign of the Cross, and a Statue
When I pray with Janet, and with Olsen, too, I worry about betraying all that is good in me from the Reformation.
On the first day I approached Janet’s door, it felt dicey. She had signed up for hospice care but had declined chaplain services. That day, though, the company computer had generated Janet’s name and that of her care facility into my visit list. I’ve known patients like her who say, “I’ve already told you: NO!” One guy had bared his teeth at me.
Janet, though, surprised me with a generous welcome. Asking her permission, I sat on a chair, next to her stuffed toy cat. Janet was curled in bed, facing me. She said she’d been cold all day; she was clutching a blanket to her chin with skeletal hands. The contours of the blanket gave evidence of a tiny frame. Her head never left the pillow as she spoke: Just her mouth moving, and her eyes blinking. She was lucid; her words were simple. She immediately asked if I was Catholic. “Well,” I said, “I visit people from all faith backgrounds, and people with no faith backgrounds. I myself, though, am not Catholic. Is that OK with you?”
Eyes blinking. “Oh sure. I became Catholic when I married Chester, but my parents were Lutheran, and that’s how I grew up.”
Trying to form a connection, I told her about a fellow chaplain, a Catholic, who had taught me how to do the sign of the cross. I had never known how to do it correctly.
My mind flicked also to Olsen, a Catholic patient I had visited just the week before. Olsen has Parkinson’s; among other brutal symptoms, he suffers a six-second delay between when he is asked a question and when he can form a one-word response. Olsen showed me a little blue prayer book with gold-embossed lettering which was on his bedstand. I asked if it was permissible for a Protestant to read a prayer from that book: One, two, three, four, five, six… “Yes.” I asked Olsen if it was acceptable, in his mind, for a Protestant to make the sign of the cross. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick, tick… “Yes.” I asked if he would like me to read one of the prayers with him. He nodded yes. The prayer was to the Virgin Mary, for light and guidance. When I finished reading, after a long pause, ever so slowly, with trembling hands, Olsen made the sign of the cross, and then carefully pressed his palms together in front of his chest, bowing his head slightly. I joined him in this. Ever since, it is our parting ritual. It is always a holy moment.
Yet, I feel an internal splitting. I have attended R.C. Sproul conferences, am seminary trained, and, in past days, signed a document affirming the Heidelberg Catechism and the “condemnable idolatries” of the Roman Catholic Church. When I am with Olsen, sometimes I think, “I am Reformed by blood and training, and just offered a prayer to the Virgin Mary.” There is a chorus clamoring within me, chastising, admonishing, “Fool! Preach to him of Jesus, and Jesus alone; then he will be saved, and have peace.”
Meanwhile, Janet was telling me about Chester. The first time she laid eyes on him, she loved him. She saw him across a crowded room, which was in this case a funeral parlor. Chester was the owner. Janet attended a funeral, and discovered Chester. As Janet was telling this, I noticed behind her a picture of the two of them, taken when they were in their sixties. Chester’s been gone now for about three years; after he died, Janet wound up here.
Janet said when she and Chester married, everybody was mad. Chester’s family was angry that he was marrying a non-Catholic and Janet’s Lutheran family was also furious. Her parents said horrible things, did not attend the wedding, and did not set foot in Janet and Chester’s house for three years.
As I listened, I drew the conclusion that neither of their families ever did thaw. Janet and Chester, who never had children, made their own way. Chester landed a job with a company that did business in Europe. He sold the funeral home and began corporate travel. Janet quit her job and went with him.
By day, Chester went to meetings, but together in the evenings they toured great cities. While Chester was working, Janet meandered, enjoying coffee in cafes, or perusing historic libraries. Often she just sat on a park bench and talked to people—lots of people, from all over the world. Although Janet’s face remained neutral as she told me about those park bench conversations, her voice was smiling.
She became quiet, and then said, “I think of all those people, and I wonder why there are so many religions.” Another long pause. “You’d think, if God is Catholic, then all people would be Catholic. You’d think everybody would be the same.”
“If God is Catholic.” I wondered: What if every religious person thought that way? Fill in the blank with any denomination or church: “God is _______ .” What happens when people believe they think exactly like God, and God thinks exactly like them?
After a few moments Janet said, “Sometimes I wonder if God will send me to hell.” I had to absorb that for a moment, and then asked her why. In a soft voice with no facial expression she said, “Because Chester and I got married.” As I took it, she blamed herself for the breakage in their families. Had she lived her whole married life believing that God judged her for loving Chester?
As a chaplain to dying people, it startles me how many religious people, including from my own tradition, are still afraid of hell. All those Sundays in church, all those sermons—yet still, these souls feel so divinely doomed.
I wonder sometimes about people who sat under my own preaching. Did they ever feel true and lasting peace as they lived, and as they died? I will confess: I talk a lot about God’s peace and love, but rarely feel it. Guilt is my go-to spiritual disposition.
Here, with Janet, my heart was smitten. I waited, pondered, and finally offered a few quiet words about the God of whom Jesus spoke. I also wondered out loud if it was possible that God was happy just knowing that she and Chester were happy. She nodded her head, and said, “Thank you.”
I noticed how sparse Janet’s room was: A few souvenirs on the windowsill from all those trips with Chester, including a picture of a snowy mountain, with the two of them kneeling next to a St. Bernard.
In her closet, I could see a long shelf of photo albums; there were several more stacked at the base of a nightstand next to her bed. The book on top of the stack was devoted to Germany, which she said was her favorite country.
With no self-pity in her voice, Janet said looking at these photo albums helps get her through—she has nothing else to do all day. She has no children, and her friends have all preceded her in death. There is no-one to visit her. She can’t get out of bed. She gets bored with TV. So occasionally, she asks facility staff to place one of her albums in her hands. As she pages through, it cheers her up.
Janet said that one day, she was “walking around this city in Germany” and saw this big statue. “It was the man who started the Lutheran religion,” she said, “but I just can’t remember his name…”
I couldn’t resist: “It wasn’t by any chance Martin, was it?”
“Ah! Yeah, that’s it!”
It was just so sweet. I had to swallow a bubble of laughter, because Janet was still serious. “There was a sign on the statue. It said that the man had started out Catholic. It said that he had some trouble with some things in the church, so he started a new religion. But, you know, before that, he was Catholic, just like Chester.”
There was a firmness, then, in Janet’s voice. I wonder if, when she read the words on the statue, it was like a lightning strike. I wonder if it became her answer to her bitter family, and to Chester’s. If it was her bulwark against the fear of hell. If it told her it was possible for God to be both Catholic and Lutheran at the same time, and in this one statue-man, to reconcile the two. If it demonstrated that it was possible for God to be the God of two ordinary people who loved each other, and in their oneness, to make peace. If it gave her hope that it was possible for God to also be the God of those people she met at cafes, and on park benches – that God was big enough to do that. I think Janet found some peace of mind in front of the statue of the mysterious man. (I only wish I had remembered to tell her that the statue-man had not only left his old religion to form a new one but had also married a nun. There’s a wedding that might have made people mad.)
By reminding me of Martin Luther, Janet helped my own troubled soul. I’m not the only one to leave a religion and join a new one. I believed, and still do, that the white evangelical church in North America, given over to Religious Trumpism, has forsaken both the root and fruit of the Gospel. I said so publicly; I continue to speak and write about those things. My decisions have hurt, angered, and confused people I have loved. I have felt, at times, internal torment and guilt.
As Janet spoke, though, it came to me again that religion mangles the Gospel sometimes. It had, for example, taught both Janet’s and Chester’s parents a harsh script, and they had acted it out; it was Janet who bore the spiritual pain of that bad teaching. It struck home to me that it’s OK for ordinary pastors like me, or for any ordinary church believer and church member, to protest, and even to leave a religion without fear, apology, or shame if the script turns sour. I am, after all, a product of the Reformation, and this is about Jesus and the Good Gospel of God. In that realization, I felt a rush of relief, and a weight lifted from me.
Janet was still speaking. She wanted to take me on a tour through her albums, but it was time to leave. I shared with Janet that when I visit people, some of them want me to say a prayer, and others not. I told her I had visited a man, and had, with his permission, taken a picture of the Virgin Mary prayer from his gold-embossed book. I asked Janet if she would like me to read it.
As I awaited her response, I was again aware of the clamoring chorus, telling me I was going backwards and undoing Martin Luther’s work. Yet when I am with Olsen, or Janet, all we have is decaying skin, failing organs, urine bags, diapers, drool, and divine mercy. There is nothing between us but the compassions of Christ. If the chorus accuses me of betraying God, I say it is nothing worse than the idolatry and delusion which broadly enflames much of the church today. Besides, for Janet, Olsen, and most of the people on my visit list, neither pastor nor priest comes to administer their doctrine correctly. If I am failing those doctrines, so be it. I have decided to stand upon both the finished work and the unfailing presence of Christ. If I am sinning, I have decided to sin boldly. This is where I find my peace, and where I encounter God.
Janet nodded her head and said “yes” to my offer to read the prayer. After I said, “Amen,” I made the sign of the cross, pressed my palms together in front of my chest, and bowed my head a little.
Her eyes stayed closed for a few moments, and then she said, “Thank you. That was beautiful.”
Then the woman who had never wanted a chaplain visit in the first place asked me to visit again.