Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Life Lived Full

Nationaal Archief,
Collectie Eerste Wereldoorlog.
This morning I give thanks for the Rev. Patricia J. Raube from Union Presbyterian Church in Endicott, NY. She saw on Facebook that my son and I spent Friday night in the emergency room, and on Saturday morning she emailed a sermon on this week's lectionary passage with permission to preach any part of it. Others had offered to send a sermon (some half joking), but in my pride I had imagined I could pull it all together by Sunday, no matter the crisis.

By Sunday morning it was clear that my pride had overextended me and that the sermon could not possibly be finished by 8:30am. I opened the document Rev. Raube had sent and found the first half of my sermon already finished, a perfect lead in to the story I had written to finish the sermon.

The scripture passage from Mark focuses on giving up one's life to follow Christ to the cross. Rev. Raube's meditation suggests that we are not called to suffer that which can be healed. Rather, the cross we bear is a choice to take on suffering so that we might lessen the suffering of others (as Christ did). This choice is made willfully, with the joy and satisfaction that we are walking alongside others as they walk with us.

Here then is the story of Mr. J, which took up the second half of the sermon I preached at Lawrence Road Presbyterian Church this morning. Thanks to the Rev. Nina Reeder for lending her pulpit.


Sermon, Sunday March 4, 2012
by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Reading: Mark 8:31-38 and Psalm 22

Several years ago I worked on a prison floor in a hospital. It was a grim sort of place, and to get inside to visit with the prisoners I had to go through several locked gates. Once inside the gates the inmates were able to walk about freely (if they were physically able), but any time they left the floor they were shackled to a gurney. Periodically the warden would come through to inspect the rooms for contraband. The prisoners never knew when they would be returned to the regular prison, and it was difficult to arrange for family visitors while they were in the hospital. It seemed to me, as I went about my daily rounds, that the prisoners were afraid of the guards and the guards were afraid of the prisoners; I was afraid of all of them.

It took a different kind of doctor and nurse to work that floor, and I met some extraordinarily kind souls. The doctor was a superhero figure in my mind, flying into patient rooms like a swooping bird, firing off questions, and then swooping out. He was a busy man with an unusual population of patients. But he genuinely cared about his patients, and he hated what the prison system did to people. 

One day I walked onto the unit just as an inmate was attempting suicide, trying to hang himself with a sheet. It was not a place filled with hope; joy was hard to find. Most of the guys on that floor had hopes and dreams and little confidence that they would fulfill them. They had been in and out of this system or another. They were mostly poor men of color; they mostly had gotten a raw deal in life. There were plenty of folks on that floor who had indeed committed crimes, but the entire system was rife with racism and classism. 

Some of the guys just kept getting thrown back into the prison system because it was a place you could get your medical needs taken care of, and food and shelter was taken care of. One guy I met lived on the street, but when he needed a break would jump the turnstiles on the subway and sleep in a car until the transit authority arrested him.

One day I met a man on that floor who was different than most: he was smiling. He was off to dialysis, which he received three times a week. His various illnesses were causing his mind and body to deteriorate little by little. During the ten weeks I was there he struggled to keep ahead of all that was wrong with his body, and he nearly died during surgery. His daily routine consisted of a lot of boredom and a lot of poking and prodding by nurses and the doctor. His mother made it by to visit weekly, so he was lucky in that. He had no children, but several nieces and nephews whom he hadn’t seen in a year or two. He had a lover, but lost her sometime after he landed in prison. He didn’t blame her, he said, but he was sad.

Mr. J called me over the first time I met him. I was new on the floor, and Mr. J liked to meet the fresh faces. He asked me what I was doing on the floor, and when he found out I was the chaplain he smiled bigger and said, “We’re going to be good friends, you know.” I was not sure what to make of this, because I had never considered being friends with prisoners. I came back to visit him again later in the week and spent more time. As I was getting ready to leave, Mr. J handed me his book of psalms and said, “Pick out one of these for me, would you?” So I read to him Psalm 6:
O Lord, do not rebuke me in your anger,
or discipline me in your wrath. 
Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing;
 O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror. 
My soul also is struck with terror, while you, O Lord—how long?


Turn, O Lord, save my life; deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love. 
For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?


I am weary with my moaning;
 every night I flood my bed with tears; I drench my couch with my weeping. 
My eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak because of all my foes.


Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the Lord has heard the sound of my weeping. 
The Lord has heard my supplication;
the Lord accepts my prayer. 
All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror; 
they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.
He closed his eyes as I read, and when I finished he said, “Oh, that’s a good one, Chaplain.” I left somewhat perplexed by the visit. I was perplexed by his good cheer in the midst of terrible misfortune.

The next week I returned. I had picked out a scripture to read in case he asked again. There’s plenty in the psalms that talks about misfortune, illness, fear and shame. But as I got to the end of our time together he said, “Chaplain, wait. I picked out the psalm this time. This one is for you.” And he read to me from psalm 22:
But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people. 
All who see me mock at me;
 they make mouths at me, they shake their heads; 
‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’

...I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint;
 my heart is like wax;
 it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
 and my tongue sticks to my jaws; 
you lay me in the dust of death.
He talked about what it was like to be in prison, and about how the prison guards treated him and others. For my own perspective it was a turning point—we throw away people in prison, assuming that they are less than human. Few of us ever question the treatment of prisoners, as most of us assume that A) they committed their crime if convicted and B) that having committed a crime they are no longer entitled to basic human dignities. For the first time, sitting with Mr. J, I could see prisoners as humans—not just the ones I knew personally--I had known people who went to jail, but all of the men on that floor--strangers who I had never met before and probably wouldn't again.. And I could see for the first time how the prison system dehumanized both the prisoners and the guards.

And then Mr. J pointed to the lines further down. “Poured out like water, bones out of joint. Chaplain, my heart is like wax—I wake up several times a night and it feels like my body is dying; I am thirsty and there isn’t water. This is my life this person wrote—isn’t that amazing?”

I spent time with Mr. J during that chaplaincy internship whenever I could—not because he needed me so much, but because he taught me so much. I asked him one day why he was so cheerful and kind all the time. Like everyone else in that place he had good reason to be angry and fearful. He had plenty of reason to lash out and rage. He told me, “I’ve been in prison before. And I decided this time that I would smile and be cheerful no matter what—to everybody. Every person I meet, every guard that insults me or shoves me around, every prisoner who causes me trouble—to every one of them I would give a smile and some kind words—even if it killed me, I wouldn’t get nasty. I would see what happened, if it changed my experience. And you know what? It changed me.”

“I would give a smile and some kind words—even if it killed me.” Those words have stayed with me in the years since that internship. I have been deeply moved by the way in which Mr. J’s witness to the humanity in the guards, his fellow prisoners, and himself changed the environment around him. At the risk of appearing stupid, weak, na├»ve, or manipulative, Mr. J decided he would break the cycle of fear and anger around him, and it worked. His good cheer did not get him out of prison or fix his illnesses; his context and circumstances remained the same. But he brought a smile to the face of most of the other people around him on a daily basis, and when he nearly died on the operating table, the nurses prayed for him. Later the guards came by and expressed joy that he had made it through. "We nearly lost you, Mr. J!"

Most of all I was amazed at how Mr. J’s witness to my own humanity changed me and how I regarded every other person on that floor. Even if it killed him, he said, he would be kind and cheerful to others.

I share this story with you because I promised him I would not forget him, and that I would share his story with others. And I share this story with you because I think we often say to ourselves, “What do I have to offer in my circumstances? How can I give up more? Give up my life? Why would Jesus ask that of me?” I think the answer is that Jesus doesn’t ask it of us, not exactly. He simply says that in trying to save ourselves, trying to save our own lives, refusing to be vulnerable and open to pain or even death—by doing all that we will find that we have lost the very life we tried to save. And then what has been gained by all that? Nothing. But if we are willing to follow Christ, even if it kills us, then something has been gained, and our life will be saved from meaninglessness. This is a call to give of ourselves for the sake of others, no matter what context we find ourselves in. 

It may be that like Mr. J you have nothing left to give except honoring the humanity of others. But I tell you, that small gift that cost him almost everything made all the difference in this world.

3 comments:

  1. Thank you very much for this. I'm dealing with evangelistic Christians now that I have moved home from San Francisco several years ago. This helps me to understand their intended motives better, even if their behavior is bewildering to me. (I became formally Buddhist several years ago now, and this has caused tension in the family.) Thanks again!

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    1. We are sometimes an incredibly misguided lot. I know of more than one Buddhist Presbyterian (Presbyterian Buddhist?) who winces at the zealousness of the Christian piece of their faith. Mostly I think we forget that taking up a cross to ease the suffering of others doesn't mean saddling other people with a cross too.

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  2. Katie what a beautiful story. I'm so glad the two worked together. Continued prayers for the little one!

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