Monday, January 24, 2005

The Book of James

The RN said on the phone that the family was ready to see me. They’d said at first that James is Holiness minister and that he had plenty of spiritual support and did not want or need a chaplain.
When I arrived I found a vibrant, active home in dire need of paint and furnished with – whatever - including homemade shelves nailed into rickety boxes. Painted with what was handy, the shelving system in this well worn home was stuffed with everything from kitchen things to linens. It was a mish-mash home that seemed to have one rule: damn the decorating, full speed ahead. I was escorted into the very back bedroom where James was enthroned in an older model electric chair with a joystick on one arm. He was one of the darkest men I’ve ever seen with a craggy face and hands that felt like leather gloves. He offered me his left hand because the right was disabled in a stroke about 30 years ago. His daughter told me with considerable pride that daddy never would concede to the stroke but set out at once to lick it and invented ways to go on with his manual labor. I admired him as soon as soon as our skin made contact. That thick slab of a hand grasp mine and I looked into the very face of honesty and integrity. Behind James was a faded photograph of a handsome minister in the robe and sash of a holiness preacher and the walls were lined with a picture gallery made up of children, grandchildren and great -grands. James’ deceased wife had the honor of several portraits all frayed and boxed in five and dime frames. I made the rounds asking about each picture until I got to a clipping of Karlov the wrestler and I said, “And this must be a picture of you.” I peeked a look around to see if he was laughing and saw a grin sneaking around his weathered cheeks. The next item was one of those mechanical Santa Clauses with a saxophone. I suspected that back in the day he had gyrated to Jingle Bell Rock or something. I think maybe his batteries had weakened a week or so after Christmas several years ago and he had an honored place in this room because some grandchild had given the gift. James was still grinning when I pointed at Santa and said. “And that’s me.” He laughed out of his belly and the one eye that was not weeping and cloudy brightened from the deep joy the joke brought to the surface.

My first goal, as with any patient was to convey the sincere respect for life experience and the Spirit of Christ that lives within. I made a special effort with this man because he was marginalized by many more factors than his status as a dying man. First, he needed to know in his heart that I respected his faith practice. The holiness tradition is often regarded many as “low church” and the faith of the unwashed poor; not a well thought of belief system among the well-bricked main line denominations. It was also important in my mind to let him know in as gentle a way as possible that I respected his experience as a man of color. I figured that genuine respect was not something he would have often received from white men in his time. But mostly, my theology as a Quaker demands that I respect him as a bearer of the Light of Christ. We don’t demand that one receive some ritual baptism or say words of acceptance so common in the protestant church. We believe that Christ dwells in the heart of every person.

My second goal was to hear the story that I’d hoped he’d know that I treasured. A man with as many scars on his hands and arms as James has many more on his heart and I wanted to hear about them. They speak of grizzled humanity and a life full of living. I tire quickly of whining rich people whose compulsive achievements gild only their financial portfolios and who suffer in only the trendiest ways. Their accounts grow full on the backs of men like James and their eyes avert away if they must look upon his suffering. But the Kingdom belongs to this dark-skinned man according to the teaching on the Mount.


At Wednesday, 26 January, 2005 , Blogger Larry said...

I enjoyed that post, Ken.
Re Holiness: they are another of the many offshoots of the Methodists. Wesley was pretty big into holiness. You're probably right that it's concentrated among the social bottom, but so were all of us once. Maybe they had the sense to stay that way.

I knew a Holiness preacher once who caught chickens for a living, best job he could get. He told me that he had tried all his life to outgive the Lord, but of course never succeeded.

At Monday, 31 January, 2005 , Blogger isaiah said...

"My second goal was to hear the story that I’d hoped he’d know that I treasured. A man with as many scars on his hands and arms as James has many more on his heart and I wanted to hear about them."


To listen attentively to the story of another is one of the greatest gifts one can give. I'm sure you have heard the story of many people and that you treasure them all equally.

I enjoy reading here at your site and wanted you to know this. I sometimes hear a voice telling me to be a presence in the lives of those who are going through transition. I believe that so much needs to be clarified for those who fear dying... but more importantly...I believe that we all want to tell our story to someone before we leave this plane.

As a society we have made transition a moment to be feared. I would like, one day, to be a humble agent of God's grace by assisting others through this journey and into the next.

Thank you for your posts.

At Wednesday, 11 May, 2005 , Blogger David said...

Ken, thank you for your message and your comments. I have left some comments next to yours on my blog.

I continue to read through your postings and am comforted to "sit" with you sometimes in the room of someone you describe or whose visit you narrate. I am invariably touched by the world you enter with each of these visits -- a world like my mother's the three years between my father's death and hers. It is a world apart, isn't it? A world increasingly disconnected from the schedules and timetables of ordinary working life... and so a world where an individual's being forgotten feels a destiny almost impossible to avoid. Your willingness to step repeatedly into that world and to be yourself there is consoling to watch.

Ken, I wanted to say something about the number of readers who get to our blogs. As someone relatively new to maintaining a blog, I'll admit I am not immune to the lure of hits and comments, but I also think there are individuals who are brought together without ever knowing it. I am glad to have this explicit communication with you these past couple of days, but I wonder if blogging will not prove sometimes to be something we do simply because we can be present to our life that way , no matter who will ever read what we write or comment.

Many thanks...


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