- Psalm 27, v. 1, vv 7 – 11, v. 13
- Mark 4, vv 35-41
CHAOS, FEAR & FAITH
Richard Trench was the Archbishop of Dublin at the end of the 19th Century. In the last two years of his life he fought with great courage a progressive illness that left him increasingly paralysed.
As a guest of honour at the Lord Mayor’s banquet in London, he was seen to be growing increasingly disquieted until someone asked if he felt well enough to continue. ‘It has come at last’ he sighed, ‘complete paralysis of my lower left-hand side. I have been pinching my leg and cannot feel a thing. And yet with Christ as my companion, I shall endure it with courage’
At this point, the lady sitting next to him leaned across and said ‘Your Grace, would it help you to know that it has been my leg you have been pinching for the last quarter of an hour?’
Many people have been helped by the prayer of serenity:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference
But many people who find themselves in hospital are less philosophical.
For many, illness is a corrosive wretched traumatic time of inner turmoil and confusion.
On a summer’s day sometime in the past, I fist came across Jenny, though that’s not her real name. In the Crichton Royal Hospital in Dumfries there are beautifully kept grounds – lawns and flowerbeds with shrubs, plants, and flowers which are a delight to the eye.
Standing in the veranda of a particular ward I was talking to someone who had come to visit a relative who had been admitted there. He mentioned the grounds and how attractive they were, and I responded by saying something along the lines of how the planners had designed them to be therapeutic. They are calm and tranquil, and were created to have a beneficial effect upon patients.
Behind me there was a mocking voice – Jenny’s. Jenny who I learned later was far from home, her child taken from her, her family only occasional visitors. She was a troubled, confused, anxious, frustrated and unhappy young woman.
‘What the **** would you know about it?’, she shouted. ‘What’s the point of peaceful lawns, when you’re feel like this, when you’re not peaceful inside.’
And with that, got up and went back into the ward, slamming the door to the veranda.
So many people are not, to use her words, ‘peaceful inside’
It doesn’t have to be those who are in the mental health care sector.
‘I’ve just had bad news’ the elderly man in the striped pyjamas in the medical ward told me one morning. He wouldn’t articulate what the bad news was, and even as subtly as I could I could get him to talk in specifics. He was probably too frightened even to mention the words ‘tumour’ or ‘carcinoma’, though I guessed that was what we were talking, or rather trying desperately hard not to talk about.
And he was frightened, worried, anxious and more than a bit confused. He was thinking not just of himself, but also of his frail wife – how would she take it, how would she cope? He looked after her, he was the breadwinner – what a mess. What a terrible and terrifying situation.
Let me take you to one of the surgical wards in Dumfries & Galloway Royal Infirmary. Here is a middle-aged patient, a woman, lying in bed the late afternoon before her operation. She was admitted at ten in the morning, has had umpteen tests, has been talked to – perhaps talked AT would be more appropriate – by nursing staff and clinicians, and has basically had a whole day to get even more anxious and worked up about her surgery.
‘How are you feeling?’ I ask. ‘Terrible’ ‘In what way?, ‘I don’t know – just terrible’
We talked through it – we talked about her fear which was a reflection of her need, her powerlessness, her very identity.
This was a lady suffering not just physically, but emotionally, and spiritually. Hers was a spiritual pain.
And lastly, come with me to the Alexandra Unit in the infirmary where I work. This is our palliative care ward. And here is Joe who up until a few weeks before had a good job and a wide circle of friends. Joe was very much the social animal. He was popular and carefree – although there had been some kind of fall-out with one of his grown-up sons a year or so ago.
Here is Joe who has now apparently lost everything and has abandoned hope. All the old signposts have gone. He is disorientated and directionless. His feeling of wholeness, of personhood has been fractured. He has become isolated from his known worlds – from his past which he will never regain; from his present (he has little or no control over his bodily functions; he has lost his power and control, his security, his dignity, his identity, his purpose). His yet-to be-created future lies threateningly before him. On top of all this – probably because of all this, he starts thinking about his estrangement from his son. And it pains him. It pains him even more because he feels nobody cares. It pains him because his perception is that nobody will really take the time to listen.
Patients are, if you will, captives. Prisoners of their illness, prisoners of their fears and anxieties.
Someone once said that being ill is like being in a state of chaos. In a maelstrom of emotions.
The Gospel story from Mark which we listened to earlier tells of a storm at sea. It’s perhaps interesting to note that the author or editor has placed this story of an actual literal storm immediately before three other events which involve people in chaos and confusion: the stories of a demon-possessed man, a young girl who is terminally ill, and a confused and despairing woman who has been haemorrhaging for some twelve years without relief.
In the boat the disciples were panic stricken, confused, frightened men who were at the mercy of elements beyond their control. They were being tossed hither and thither on a turbulent sea, facing an uncertain future. And no one seemed to care. Christ was even asleep in the stern of the boat.
Yet Jesus was with them in the storm – he was with them in the same boat, as the strong winds buffeted the sail and the waves were crashing over the side. And he is with us in the storms of life. He never abandons us. He cares about us and our situation whatever that may be.
He enters into the chaos. He is present with us in the chaos. He journeys with us through the maelstrom.
As should the spiritual caregiver. He or she involves himself, herself in the patient’s predicament, accepting them for what they are, with all their resentments, anxieties, anger, self-pity, unspoken needs. Our aim is to instil faith for fear and hope for despair, demonstrating in the process God’s love and interest in his children, and responding always to the fundamental human need to be heard and understood.
We think of doubt and unbelief keeping people from faith. Perhaps, more often than we realise, it is fear.
The fear of the disciples in the storm was an unbelieving fear – Jesus didn’t care about us, they thought
When St. Paul was being taken prisoner to Rome, he was caught in a violent storm which was so bad that Luke recorded ‘We finally gave up all hope of being saved’ (Acts 27, v. 20b)
Then one bleak morning Paul came out and said, “Take heart! Not one of you will lose your life; only the ship will be lost. For last night an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship came to me and said ‘Do not be afraid, Paul! You must stand before the Emperor. And God in his goodness to you has spared the lives of all those who are sailing with you’ So take heart, men! For I trust in God that it will be just as I was told” (vv. 22-25)
Paul was trusting in ‘the God to whom I belong and whom I worship’ All of us can take heart – all of us will be safe.
But we too have to have the courage of our convictions.
A family was on holiday in a remote cottage. There was no electricity and no running water. The only gas was from a camping stove.
At bedtime, the young daughter was extremely brave about going upstairs with her mother by the light of a candle.
But a puff of wind blew the candle out, leaving them in total darkness. The little girl was afraid.
“I’ll go back downstairs to get the matches” said her Mum, “but don’t be afraid, Jesus is here with you” “But Mum” replied the daughter, “Can’t you stay here and we’ll send Jesus for the matches?”
It doesn’t quite work like that!
We are called to live by faith and not by fear. Living by faith means that, while we may not know the details of life, we can be sure of the outcome.
We can live by faith – for we know that God has promised to be with us. His grace is going to be sufficient for us. His Word will guide us. His Spirit will be within us with enabling power.
‘The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear. The Lord is the strength of my life; of whom shall I be afraid…..Wait on the Lord; be of good courage, and he shall strengthen your heart; wait, I say, on the Lord’