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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.

Keith Mannes

Keith Mannes is an ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, and currently express that ordination as a hospice chaplain. Keith and his wife Alicia are members of the Holland United Church of Christ in Holland, Michigan.

24 Comments

  • Pamela Spiertz Adams says:

    Keith, I was a member of the Catholic Church but left it and became a Protestant. I was Orthodox Presbyterian then Christian Reformed. I felt twinges of guilt because I was raised with the horror of ever leaving the one true church. My parents felt this way especially my mother and did all of her life. I did overcome my guilt and am quite comfortable with being a Protestant. For me it was the reading of the Bible that made me switch. I do know there are Catholics who do read the Bible but that was not the practice in my church and Catholic school.

  • Magnificent writing. Thank you for this wonderful story of such grace.

  • JAN ZUIDEMA says:

    You just spoke the great truth about the love of Christ: it is for people. Ordinary people in everyday lives, living and dying; your seeing Christ in them, regardless of theology. Especially love “If I am sinning, I have decided to sin boldly”. Thank you for a luminous testimony to life lived in the loving grace of God.

  • Jodi says:

    This was absolutely beautiful. You’ve helped me this morning and I thank God for you and for your work.

  • Cheri Scherr says:

    This was a wonderful and sensitive writing. I decided at age 12 that I was no longer Catholic due to a number of reasons one of which was that I couldn’t be an alter girl. My dad , while understanding made me wait until I was 18. I started off as Presbyterian but when I moved to Iowa became Reformed. I think that since people are not the same, why should religion be the same.

  • Ann S says:

    Beautiful. Grace abounds.

  • Vern Swieringa says:

    Thanks Keith!

    You see people through the eyes of faith and not though the eyes of religion. Your writing flows from your heart and speaks to our hearts!

  • Dale Hulst says:

    Thanks Keith for writing.
    Keep it up: “And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.

  • Rodger R Rice says:

    Oh my! Thank you, Keith. God bless you. And keep writing. We need to hear your stories. They speak truth.
    Rodg

  • Cathy MacLeod says:

    Thank you for sharing your heart so beautifully, Keith, both in this post and in the work that you do. When we follow God’s call we don’t know exactly where he’ll take us, or why. We’re just called to be faithful to the One who does. I think you are. The peace of Christ be with you and Alicia.

  • Ken Kuipers says:

    Oh… that we all might have have such caring visits as we approach death! The army taught me years ago that the chaplain was there to serve us all no matter what our background. Keith is modeling this beautifully.

    This story also reminds me of the current trend in theology and that is that we should be more contextual in our doing theology. It seems to me that Keith Mannes is showing us a wonderful way and place to start our work..

    Ken Kuipers
    Holland, MI

  • Dale Wyngarden says:

    Keith….You write well. Very well. And think well too. Thank you for sharing your gifts.

  • Anita Cirulis says:

    What a wonderful, thought-provoking essay! Thank you for sharing your experience and reflections, Keith!

  • Evelyn O’Rourke says:

    What a beautiful piece of writing. And a wonderful story. Thank you so much. And thanks to Brian McClaren for tweeting the link.

  • Gary Staffors says:

    Wow Keith, what an amazing and well written story. You really touched my heart with this loving account of how two people of different faith backgrounds come together through the grace of the Holy Spirit. As a Catholic deacon and fellow chaplain, you touched my heart deeply. I promise the next time we are together I give you another lesson on how to make the Sign of the Cross!

  • Ron Mulder says:

    I am often a stiff guy, but your article brings tears to my eyes. Thank you for this message. May I sin boldly, as you suggest, as I resist both the apostasy of a white nationalist church and the dilemma of young people struggling with the sexual identity that God gave them at birth.

  • Henry Baron says:

    Ah Keith, the writing teacher in me responded to the A-quality of your essay with deep appreciation for its lucid and graceful force, to your writing that flows from the heart and a spirit that has wrestled with the demons of delusions and hateful judgments and rejection. You were a vital blessing to Janet, and she to you as she communicated her longing to have you visit again.
    You’re in the right ministry.

  • Bill Samuel says:

    This is beautiful. God’s love is so much more accepting and loving than we humans can be when we get wrapped up in our particular theologies. I hear seeking to always act with love with those you visit. That is Christ’s way.

  • Joyce Looman Kiel says:

    Powerful!! Thank you for sharing about your experience with Janet and Oslo. I wished I would have been as sensitive as you at my mom’s bedside as she was dying in Hospice.
    She was Lutheran and therefore initially so was I. She had a very hard life and was still very angry and unforgiving of my dad after their divorce. She only had an 8th grade education but she lovingly provided for me and my sister after he left. On one of her last nights I was sitting alone with her: At her bedside was a Lutheran prayer book. I started to read it to her but it was so depressing I said to her”I can’t read this mom. I don’t believe what it is saying. I believe you are loved and forgiven by God. I don’t hear that in these words.” And I closed the book. What I didn’t take into consideration was that prayer book was in some way a comfort to her.
    Thankfully, one night a month or so after she died, I heard her voice call my name and I knew she was finally at peace with God.
    I pray if I am ever given the honor of sitting at someone’s bedside I will let God lead. Thank you for a great example Keith.

  • Henry Hess says:

    Thank you. That was beautiful! I’m going to share it and save it to read again.
    My life journey has taken me through several denominations, and I have found God in each of them.

  • Duane Kelderman says:

    Thank you, Keith. We can use words like “embodied” and “incarnational” to explain to folks the nature of authentic Christian ministry, or we can just direct people to read your essay! The latter is far more effective and enjoyable! I’m so thankful to see you “in the groove,” doing what God created you to do! Keep writing too!

  • Lena says:

    Janet sounds like a nice lady,, but I feel sorry for her. She doesn’t appear to have had the interest nor put in effort to find out more about both the Lutheran faith and the Catholic faith. Her knowledge of her parents’ faith apparently came from a paragraph on a statue. If she had explored the differences between the two faiths, she might have gained insight into why the families of both herself and her husband were not in favor of this union, and also her fsith might then have become a meaningful part of her life.This is sad, not “just so sweet” as Keith descr9bes it.

    • Galen says:

      Hospice Care?
      Criminal on Cross: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
      Jesus: “I feel sad for you. If only you had put more effort into learning about your faith. Did you learn from Andrew or Peter? Perhaps, if you had explored the differences in what they said, faith may have become a meaningful part of your life.”
      Hmmm.

      • Lena says:

        Sorry, I didn’t intend for my comment to be applied to a “thief on the Cross” moment. But if Keith’s assuring comments comforted Janet and gave her some closure which then transformed into the kind of understanding that the thief on the cross had about who Jesus (as God’s son) is, then great. That would be a blessing for Janet. I can see why Keith loves his job so much; to be present with dying people who want to reconcile their faith beliefs would be rewarding.
        I was trying to point out that people can reconcile a protestant background with a Catholic one. Her parents were worried about the “bad root and fruit” (in their minds) of the Catholic faith and vice -versa with his parents. It was not common for people to marry outside of their faith 100 years ago. I have known many Catholic women who attend Catholic services with their husband on Sunday due to family obligations, then attend Bible Study with a conservative Protestant church for the teaching and spiritual application. If Janet searched for this kind of opportunity, she could have reassured her parents that she hadn’t abandoned all the teachings of the faith reforms that started with Martin Luther. (The teachings of Andrew and peter would have been the same, but the teachings of the Catholic and Protestant churches are quite different in what each emphasizes) I pray that Keith can have this kind of reconciliation, too.