What a book can do

(Christian Courier column, April 2016)

I can’t recall the title, but I clearly remember the first book that awakened me to suffering beyond a bloody nose or schoolyard snub. It was a small blue hard-covered book about the 16th century Spanish siege of Leiden. I sobbed to my mother: “Those poor Dutch people were trapped! They were starving! They ate dogs, cats and rats!” I was just a kid, but I’d discovered empathy.

Books continue to be a God-given opportunity for me to meet, understand and love my neighbour.

kinew_reason_you_walk_cvr[1]The Reason You Walk by Canadian journalist Wab Kinew is the unsentimental account of a father and son relationship inhabited by colonial subjugation. Kinew’s father, Tobasonakwut, endured a litany of horrors at St. Mary’s Indian Residential School. He was given a new name, Peter Kelly. Every aspect of his native culture was demeaned — his appearance, his language, his religion, his traditions. He was strapped for offenses he didn’t understand. He was sexually abused by both men and women, vilified by a nun even as she raped him. He witnessed the beating of his closest friend by white men and ran, in vain, to get help. The nuns insisted later that the boy had died of tuberculosis.

Tobasonakwut’s suffering remained private for much of his life. But the childhood nightmare dogged his marriage, his parenting and his emotional health. Gradually, determined to retrieve his dignity and his cultural heritage, Tobasonakwut achieved a remarkable transformation, becoming a national leader and advocate for his people. In 2009 he travelled to Rome to meet Pope Benedict XVI, offering him a feather as a symbol of reconciliation. Kinew sums up his father’s legacy: “He had grappled with his pain, with his anger, and with his grief. Now, we had seen him conquer those things with love, a love he extended to his fellow human beings, including some who had hurt him.”

51fb-u69ShL[1]Katherine Boo’s book, behind the beautiful forevers, is an expose of life in the seething “undercity” of Mumbai, a sprawling slum beside its elegant airport. Abdul, a Muslim trash picker, one of ten children, is supporting the family because, as he says, his father is a man who is “too sick to sort much garbage, not sick enough to stay off his wife.” Abdul’s beleaguered future is thrown into even greater jeopardy when he is wrongfully accused of murder. We also meet Asha, slumlord by virtue of her body and her political savvy. Her ruthless scamming has but one goal — a college education for her talented daughter. Ironically, her “most-everything girl” ends up despising her, still trapped in Annawadi because of her mother’s fraudulent schemes.



Behind the beautiful forevers is a galling read. Boo demonstrates how brutish economic conditions give birth to morally unconscionable realities: “The poor blame one another for the choices of governments and markets and we who are not poor are ready to blame the poor just as harshly.”

25622897._UY1217_SS1217_[1]The Illegal is Lawrence Hill’s latest work. Olympic-hopeful Keita Ali, a black marathon runner, grows up in dangerous Zantoroland. His journalist father is murdered for documenting political corruption. With the help of an unscrupulous sports agent, Keita escapes to Freedom State.

As a person with illegal status, Keita becomes enmeshed in complexities. Worse, his sister Charity has been kidnapped in Zantoroland and is being held for ransom. Keita takes huge risks, competing in public races to win the money he needs to free his sister. His terror is compounded as various individuals all want a piece of him — politicians, criminals, reporters and athletic promoters.

The fictional, futuristic setting of The Illegal allows Hill free rein to explore current issues without pinpointing particular countries. But to my mind — perhaps because I read it immediately after the impeccably researched beyond the beautiful forevers – the novel lacks the rigorous believability the subject matter demands. Nonetheless, it’s a gripping story that highlights the difficulties refugees face as they flee oppression.

Each of these books fostered my empathy for those who are different from me. My neighbourhood is expanding; so is yours. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “Nothing that we despise in the other man is entirely absent from ourselves. We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or don’t do, and more in light of what they suffer.” I have a choice to make. Will I avert my eyes from the suffering of others or will I choose to be a good Samaritan? Educating myself is a step in the right direction.


Confronting a colossus

(Christian Courier column, March 28, 2016)

1240612_10156666105560001_2419333760593377494_n[1]The Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery in Sarnia, Ont., recently hosted a high-profile exhibition. The biggest draw, and I do mean BIG, was Salvador Dali’s gargantuan “Santiago El Grande” (1957). More than four metres high, the painting had to be hoisted to the second floor by means of a specially-constructed lift.

I was familiar with Dali, pioneer of Surrealism with its melting clocks and other incongruities. I could picture his stylized mustache. I vaguely recalled some offensive publicity stunts.

So imagine my surprise at the explicitly Christian theme of this titanic showstopper. St. James, patron saint of Spain, is front and centre, astride a rearing white stallion. An atomic cloud explodes from the animal’s muscular loins before morphing into jasmine petals, a haunting juxtaposition of war and peace. A smooth white pillar, like reinforcing ballast behind the lunging steed, alludes to a legendary visitation by the Virgin Mary. St. James’s sword is a crucifix, but the Jesus hanging from this cross radiates victory, his head held high without a crown of thorns, haloed by spears of light. A rhythmic pattern of shells, emblematic of the famous Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, creates coherence. Soaring geometric beams lend cathedral-like structure to the expansive vista — the universe as basilica!

My mind was racing with questions (this is Dali?) while my eyes were working overtime to take in all the details. James’s outstretched foot is meticulous in its lumpy veins and grimy toes. His horse is life-sized, realistic right to its protruding bared teeth, but there’s an angel embedded in its sinewy neck. Step back from the work and countless gold striations in the sky rearrange themselves into tiered phalanxes of a massive angelic host – a spectacular holograph.

12540766_10156666104540001_4917711980589449950_n[1]Encouraged by the docent, my friends and I lay on the floor to absorb the work’s celebrated 3-D perspective. We laughed at ourselves, but our prostration did highlight the painting’s emotional overtones of dominance and ascension.

Apparently Dali had had a middle-aged return, of sorts, to his Catholic roots. The “Santiago El Grande” had been designed as an altarpiece. Perhaps not surprisingly, given Dali’s previous ridicule of the Christian faith and his contradictory assertions that he was Catholic and agnostic, his masterpiece did not find a home within the church.

What to make of this painting? Or Dali himself, for that matter?

Humanities professor Arnold Weinstein upholds the value of the arts in his New York Times essay, “Don’t Turn Away from the Art of Life” (Feb. 23, 2016). He contends: “Art and literature are tried on. Reading a book, seeing a painting or a play or a film: Such encounters are fueled by affect as well as intelligence. Much ‘fleshing out’ happens here: We invest the art with our own feelings, but the art comes to live inside us, adding to our own repertoire. Art obliges us to ‘first-personalize’ the world. Our commerce with art makes us fellow travelers: to other cultures, other values, other selves.”

Weinstein’s validation of the arts resonates with me. But should a Christian “try on” what could prove false, tempting or manipulative? William S. Taylor, theologian and artist, addresses this dilemma in his book, Seeing the Mystery. Artists paint possibilities, he explains, possibilities that invite us to fill in our own perceptions. Even in their particularized portrayals of Jesus, for example, what artists actually do is help us see what we think of the Christ: “For that reason, we need have no hesitation in looking at great pictures to see what may be there, in a special and unique way, for ourselves. Even when we don’t see what the artist saw, even when we don’t necessarily like what we see, the picture may help us to think about our faith more clearly, and to understand it more sympathetically.” Taylor’s approach brings both blessing and absolution to the “first-personalization” Weinstein talks about. The Christian nurtures a sanctified imagination, a grateful orientation that boldly adds God himself to the list of “other selves” we may meet in art.

My faith was both humbled and exalted by the magnificence of the “Santiago El Grande,” a provisional shrine, a place to encounter the sublimity of Jesus Christ, the first mover and pre-eminent artist: “… the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible… He is before all things, and in him all things hold together” (Col. 1: 15-17).

“Participating in resurrection”

DSCN0097(Christian Courier column, Feb. 22, 2016)

I worship at Bradenton CRC when wintering in Florida. By my standards, it’s a megachurch. Let me tell you how they do Christmas. The huge stage showcases six tastefully-decorated Christmas trees. A gorgeous tablescape displays a massive Advent candelabra and dozens of white poinsettias. Sumptuous wreaths hang on either side of a screen scrolling through a tapestry of seasonal images — like an animated scene with evening snow falling gently on a rustic stable and palm trees. Perhaps not meteorologically faithful to Bethlehem (or Florida), but lovely.

The visually lush interior invites wonder. Now add in musical gifts of professional depth and skill every week. As twinkling lights dapple her instrument, a violinist plays a heavenly version of “What Child is This?” The choir presents a layered and nuanced hymn, “Christ Has Come.” A soloist sings a simple and unaffected “The Lord’s Prayer.” Best of all, on the organ, the “Hallelujah Chorus” as a postlude. I can’t leave the sanctuary. I sit until the last note dies away, transfixed by the organist’s virtuosity.

The music director introduces various parts of the liturgy in synchronized flow with the pastor. No pauses … the service just rolls. The pastor is preaching through John 17, a series about why Christ came to earth. He’s comfortable, adept at using the remote control to seamlessly add or subtract slides in conjunction with his sermon. I like what I’m learning. He says, for example, that the invitation for the disciples to call God “Father” is a new and radical addition to traditional Jewish prayer; in the Old Testament, God was addressed as Father of the nation, but never as an individual’s personal Father. It’s a detail I’ve not heard before.

He’s already preached the same sermon at the 8:30 AM service. Services are arranged this way to accommodate us — the snowbirds. Bradenton CRC deserves praise for its hospitality. The influx of winter visitors could be viewed as an annoying disruption to normal church routines. Instead, we are warmly welcomed by way of friendly greeters, name tags and volunteers who direct traffic flow. The bulletin is clearly designed to assist newcomers. Brochures introduce ways in which snowbirds can become involved in church activities.

Sacrifice of praise

This past year, though, I was home for Christmas, worshipping in my own church. Although the scale of pageantry is not as grand as that of Bradenton CRC, there was plenty to appreciate. Vibrant and celebratory Advent banners, lovingly stitched by one of our own. A luxe Advent candle set, a gift from church members. Evocative powerpoint images carefully selected by a volunteer. Special music provided by those with musical talent. A candlelight service organized by the youth group. The exuberance of Sunday School kids ringing their jingle bells on Christmas morning.

There’s really nothing like worshipping at home. When you have insider knowledge of all that goes on behind-the-scenes to create meaningful worship, you begin to understand that rather odd phrase, a “sacrifice of praise.” The sound guy has managed to wedge in a Thursday evening rehearsal with the praise team while juggling holiday overtime shifts. I’m still having Sunday morning breakfast when some anonymous farmer in his John Deere tractor is clearing the parking lot of snow. The flautist is already there too, warming up, while the custodian is hurriedly throwing salt on the sidewalks.

In an essay entitled “Ambition: Lilies that Fester” author and pastor Eugene Peterson credits another author, Wendell Berry, for schooling him in the priceless value of the homegrown: “… the more local life is, the more intense, more colourful, more rich because it has limits. These limits, instead of being interpreted as limitations to be broken through, are treasured as boundaries to respect.” However small the farm, insists Berry, or however humble the parish, Peterson concurs, it’s a place of inestimable worth.

As I worship in my familiar pew, closer to the front than the back, on the west side of the sanctuary, I tuck Peterson’s conclusion, inspired by Berry, close to my heart, a ringing endorsement, not only of my Wyoming church and Bradenton CRC, but of every faithful Christian fellowship: “The congregation is topsoil – seething with energy and organisms that have incredible capacities for assimilating death and participating in resurrection. The only biblical stance is awe, fear of the Lord. When I see what is before me, really before me, I take off my shoes before the burning bush of congregationalism.”



Meadowview Talk – August 31, 2014

Our Scripture reading this morning is from the Gospel of John. The story of the Samaritan Woman … John 4: 1-42.

This morning I’d like to delve into the story of the woman at the well and explore what it meant for Jesus to announce himself as the Living Water and Messiah to a Samaritan woman and what that might mean for us today.

It’s a radical, unbelievable act when Jesus asks the Samaritan woman for water. In the context of Jewish tradition, he should not have even asked a Samaritan man for water. Speaking to a Samaritan woman was even worse! Moreover, he initiates this conversation with a Samaritan woman who has a sexually compromised past. The note in my NIV Bible says that Jews held that a woman might be divorced twice, or, at the most, three times. To the Jews, this woman, having had five husbands, was “exceedingly immoral.” And apparently she had not even bothered to marry her current and sixth “husband.”

John writes that the disciples were surprised, flabbergasted, when they discover Jesus talking to a Samaritan woman. John himself seems astonished when he adds this editorial comment — not one of them asked “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?” Obviously there was something about this interaction that permitted no interference or interruption from the disciples.

There is a comical side to this dialogue that escaped me until I was much older. This is one brassy lady. There is nothing submissive in her demeanor. For some reason, I was always given to understand that she was shy, a guilty outcast. I suppose this idea was based on the fact that she was alone and that the noon hour was not the usual time for community women to draw water from the well.

That may be true. It’s likely she was shunned by the women of her village, but I hear no shyness or hesitation in her words. When Jesus asks her for water, her answer is simple and direct. “You are a Jew, I am a Samaritan woman.”  As if to say, “Are you kidding me?” When Jesus responds that if she knew who he was, she would ask him for living water, her retort has a definite sarcastic ring. “Uh, you don’t have a pail, mister. Who do you think you are, anyway? Jacob?”

Jesus persists and claims that the water he gives will well up to eternal life. The Samaritan woman, no slouch, instantly sees a chance here to reduce her workload. “Great! Give me some of that, so that I don’t have to keep coming here every day. I’ve got better things to do.” When Jesus invites her to get her husband, she’s forthright: “I have no husband.”

What follows next is astounding. When Jesus proves that he knows all about her life, the woman drops the sarcasm, and jumps into a serious theological discussion with him about worship! She points out how the Samaritan tradition names Mount Gerizim as the proper place for worship and how the Jews have chosen Jerusalem as the holy place. Jesus tells her that salvation (the Messiah) comes from the Jews, and he points out that the Samaritan religion lacks substance, having only the first five books of the Bible as a guide for their knowledge about God. He predicts, though, that the time is coming when “true worshipers will worship in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.” 

In response, the Samaritan woman makes a surprising statement. “I know that the Messiah is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.” The NIV footnote says that she might have been trying to end the dialogue, hinting that she and this stranger should part ways. But that is not how the text reads to me. It sounds like a confession of faith to me. It sounds like hope. And I think my interpretation of her words is supported by what happens next. Jesus affirms her faith and hope. He reveals himself to her. He announces for the very FIRST time that he is, in fact, the Messiah. He makes this proclamation to an immoral Samaritan woman. That’s a triple! Then he knocks it right out of the ballpark by inviting her to be the first evangelist. She accepts and goes to her town and tells people about Jesus, a whole group of villagers, not just her husband, and many “believed in him because of the woman’s testimony.” Her testimony is heard and believed. In a patriarchal first century culture where women were not permitted to be witnesses in court because they were not considered reliable. Her “going and telling” receives the Lord’s blessing. Moreover, Jesus remains in that town for two more days, ministering to the Samaritans, reinforcing her efforts.

An intriguing component to this story is the parallel conversation Jesus has with his disciples. Jesus talks about living water with the woman, and then, while still at the well, brings up the identical issue with his disciples, substituting the metaphor of water with that of food. He says, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.” The disciples take him literally, they misunderstand, much like the Samaritan woman also did, and they talk amongst themselves wondering what they’ve missed. “Could someone have brought him food?”

In an impassioned plea that carries a note of rebuke, Jesus says, “I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the reaper draws his wages, even now he harvests the crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus the saying, ‘One sows and another reaps,’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.”

Who is the reaper harvesting the crop for eternal life?  The usual interpretation says the disciples are the reapers. Jesus is addressing them, so that makes sense. But, wait a minute. Could the reaper not also refer to the Samaritan woman? Yes, maybe. The reaper is referred to as “he”, the wages are “his”, so the reference becomes generalized, and the direct line between the reaper and the Samaritan woman is blurred. But, in the very next verse, as soon as Jesus has completed his parallel speech to the disciples about food, the focus immediately returns to the many Samaritans, clearly part of the “harvest,” who have come to believe in Jesus because of the  witness and labor of the Samaritan woman.

There is no competition here. The Samaritan woman and the disciples are planted side by side. Jesus focuses a bright light on their commonality. Their task is the same: to bring the Living Water and the Bread of Life to sinful, broken, thirsty and hungry people. And, finally, to reap the harvest and rejoice and “be glad together.”

Every Sunday, church services like the one we are having right here and now validate the prophecy of Jesus. God the Father has been seeking worshipers, worshipers who will worship in spirit and truth. Worshipers whose praise is not confined to Mount Gerizim or Jerusalem. They’ve been found, and their voices heard. Their skin is white or black, their hair is sparse and grey, or thick and blond, they live in North America or Uganda.

Now a personal worship story that I hope will tie back to the Samaritan woman … bear with me.

When I was in Florida last winter, I made a habit of attending vespers at our park. On a Sunday night, the main hall is set up for a church service with attendance about 100. You walk in and you’re greeted by nicely-dressed seniors with name tags. You put your donation in a basket. You pick up a hymnbook and sit down. On stage is a plain wooden cross.

One Sunday night I was slumped under a weight of sadness. Back home, here in Ontario, my brother-in-law had been rushed to the hospital. His cancer was spreading. I felt guilty, so far away from my family. Despite my mood, I wanted to go to church. I found a seat, but, preoccupied, I didn’t speak to the lady next to me on the right. On my other side were two empty chairs.

Minutes before the service started, a very old, very shaky, very stooped man tried to sit in one of the seats beside me. He moved precariously. No cane or walker. I worried about the possibility of a hard fall on the tile floor. Behind me arms reached out to steady the two chairs and voices were encouraging him, “You’re almost there. You can do it.” It wasn’t clear which of the two empty seats he wanted. He hovered for what seemed like an eternity. Then, ever so slowly, he folded his frame into the chair beside me. I smiled at him and the service began.

The guest pastor was from a church in Michigan. “Please stand for the opening hymn,” he boomed. Not his first time preaching at a 55+ park, I guess. He knew how to speak up! I was hoping the gentleman beside me would stay seated, but no. Shakily, using the chair in front of him as a support, he rose. I held my breath. At last he was up. It took all his concentration to stand. I shared my hymnbook, leaning in so he could read the words.

He sang beautifully. He knew all the words by heart. This old, old man, for whom every movement required supreme effort, was singing ardently about God’s goodness and grace. And suddenly, though I had expected to be too sad to sing at all — suddenly, I was singing with deep joy and peace. I was holding the hymnbook, but he was holding me up.

The sermon was about Sarah’s laughter at the announcement that she was going to have a child in her old age and God’s emphatic rebuke of her laughter: The Lord can do anything. The Lord is powerful. He has a plan and he will accomplish it. Age doesn’t matter. After the message, a ladies’ choir sang a few numbers. Then the  pastor invited us to sing again. My neighbor rose creakily to his feet, his frame pitched so forward that his nose almost touched the page. “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name” we sang.

After the service, I told him that it was fun to sing with him. I asked if he needed any assistance as he prepared to leave. He pointed at one of the choir ladies and said, “That’s my wife. She’ll come and get me.”

I walked home uplifted. This elderly gentleman had ministered to me without his even knowing it. And how does this relate to the Samaritan woman? It’s about the Messiah coming “to us, to all of us.” Age doesn’t matter. Whether you are a woman or a man doesn’t matter. Whether you are Jewish or Samaritan or Canadian doesn’t matter. Paul says in Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” What matters is Christ Jesus, the Messiah, the Living Water, the Bread of Life. What matters is the power in the Name of Jesus to redeem us all.

I encourage you to just keep believing and showing you believe. By coming here to church, by reading your Bible, by giving your offerings, by maintaining a cheerful and patient outlook in your daily routines. You might be uplifting someone without even knowing it.

Happy New Year to me and you

(Christian Courier column, Jan. 25, 2016)

500_F_89774017_UxRlaLQr8qEu0rYjbK589CZsHT2xJW1e[1]It’s January 2nd. I’ve been reading year-end columns. James Bratt of The Twelve offered an intriguing sweep of major historical events that occurred on January 1, 2, and 3. Examples include the pivotal 1492 surrender of the Moorish Grenada to Christian victors and the 1905 Russian surrender of Port Arthur to Japan, a catalyst in the fall of the Czarist empire. He ends his survey provocatively with a wry “And with those echoes, gentle reader, a very happy 2016!”

Analyst Gwynne Dyer took the opposite approach, assessing our current global state. No wars in Asia or the Americas, and Ukraine the only trouble spot in Europe. Forty of 50 African nations relatively stable. The Middle East is a powder keg, he conceded, but the majority of earth’s peoples are living in areas without armed conflict. He proclaimed 2015 a good year.

Author Leslie Leyland Fields reflected on the story of Jesus walking on water. She’d always admired Peter’s extraordinary faith as he jumped overboard to join Jesus. But then she realizes that Peter’s action actually stems from doubt: “If it is you, tell me to come to you on the water.” When he sinks, Jesus rebukes his lack of faith.

When ferocious storms attack, Leyland Fields advises us to stay in the boat – the Word, the Body — recognizing that the Lord is always coming to us: “It is I. Do not be afraid.” In that awareness, she says, we can keep shouting out encouragement to one another, we can find the strength to keep rowing together. She quotes G.K. Chesterton: “We are all in the same boat, in a stormy sea, and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.”

My gambit was to review my journals. What occupied my attention in past Januaries? In 1996 my dad was dying. My first entry: “Not a lot of time to write. I have to mark French tests and Sounder tests. Just a note about Dad. He has been more and more fatigued. Mom says he needs to take more morphine each night just to get through the evening without falling asleep. They are going to play with the amount a little to see if he can take it earlier and so be able to stay awake for the evening.”

In 1997 I was struggling with an intractable student: “I have a lot of mixed feelings about going back to school tomorrow and dealing with Jennifer (not her real name). I want to stay positive; I don’t want my kids to think working is a mere burden. Lord, I pray for all my students, but especially for Jennifer and me. Help me be whatever she needs me to be. For tomorrow I plan on remembering the song from (singing duo) Siep and Marg: ‘He’s not far; he sees you where you are.’ Also this: ‘The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and he knows them that trust in him’ (Nahum 1:7). Hopefully, that will get me through the day.”

Some entries, like those from 1999 to 2003 are too sad to share. Those were the years when our family imploded with difficult situations that are still painful to remember.

On New Year’s Eve, as is traditional, our congregation sang, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” With its spotlight on time, “like an ever-rolling stream,” it’s fitting. But the hymn’s bald depiction of our fleeting lives is somber indeed.

Surfing the net, I happened upon British artist Andy Goldsworthy, creator of ephemeral art. His raw materials include only natural elements like twigs, mud, ice and rain. The artworks are intended to decompose or disappear, their beauty and significance intimately shaped by time. Goldsworthy explains, “It’s not about art. It’s just about life and the need to understand that a lot of things in life do not last.”

Inspired by Goldsworthy, I’m envisioning my earthly life as an ephemeral work of art designed by God. It’s not going to last, but while it does, it’s a one-of-a-kind piece, lovingly sculpted by his hand. He’s invested a great deal in me – surrendered his own flesh and blood, monumentally, on the cross — a physical act rippling through infinity, the very antithesis of ephemeral.

Despite my cowering spirit, I survived all those Januaries. With the help of family, friends and church, I stayed in the boat. And Jesus was right there in those storms. He saw me even when I couldn’t see him, my vision blurred by whipping wind and waves. Every year brings new challenges, but until I reach my eternal home, God promises to be my shelter from the stormy blast.

He promises the same to you.







Hospital morality plays

(Christian Courier column, Dec. 28, 2015)

In November I had an overnight hospital stay (I’m fine, nothing serious, thanks for asking.) By evening visiting hours, my light was already dimmed for the night, my curtain partially drawn. After a very early surgery that morning, I was ready for sleep. But instead, inescapably, I was front row centre to a discomfiting succession of spectacles. And an applause-worthy finale!

The patient in the bed across from me was a little old lady with curly grey hair. She’d had a stroke. Intermittent phlegmy coughing wracked her petite frame.

I couldn’t quite see the patient in the other bed. I gathered she’d had a hip replacement. She dropped her phone on the floor. Groaning and muttering, she rang the bell. She interrogated the nurse irritably about her medications. Could the drugs have caused tremors in her hands, she wondered? Her hands didn’t feel quite right. In a grating tone, she registered a list of other complaints.

Two women and a girl came to visit the little old lady. One, her daughter, also frail and elderly, sat quietly holding her hand. Because of the room’s cramped layout, the other two, her daughter-in-law and granddaughter, had to sit quite close to me. They didn’t glance in my direction. The daughter-in-law began to describe her day’s activities. Loudly. She was some distance away from her mother-in-law, after all (grin). She followed up with a rundown on the problems she was having with her legs and how doctors couldn’t seem do much for her. The granddaughter tossed a stuffed toy listlessly, responding to her mom occasionally in monosyllables.

They departed just as the other woman’s family arrived. Two daughters and a grandson stood by her bed. I could see them clearly, their backs to the little old lady. Crabby patient abraded them about her frustrations. Then followed a rambling, rancorous discussion about who was going to care for her when she was discharged. Names and schedules were proposed and rejected. The grandson jerked his head sideways every few seconds to clear his long bangs from his eyes.

In the midst of this, a pastoral visitor arrived for the little old lady. Here nestles the leitmotif. The other visitors never lowered their voices, moved aside or drew a curtain. Not even the slightest nod acknowledging that someone else had entered the ward.

The pastoral visitor had shoulder-length blond hair. She sat close to the little old lady, patting her arm, speaking distinctly and warmly. I didn’t catch it all, snatches of sympathy and assurances. Having prayed so often for others, her church was, in turn, praying for her. Then the visitor pulled out a Bible and read Psalm 91. Without a trace of annoyance about the commotion on the other side of her friend’s bed.

Yes, let me remind you that not two feet away, four raucous individuals are still wrangling. Well, three, actually, since the grandson wasn’t contributing much. The pastoral visitor’s tone was lilting, mesmerizing. She summarized the psalm briefly, applying the verses about God’s brooding love and protective feathers to her listener. When the little old lady needed to cough, the pastoral visitor waited patiently. Then she sang all four verses of “Amazing Grace.” Twice.

By this point I’m spellbound by her unwavering poise. Like a gentle angel, she bowed her head over the little old lady and said a prayer.  The light above the bed illumined their blond and grey crowns.

As she was leaving, the pastoral visitor caught my eye. She smiled. I smiled back. “Preach it, sister,” I said, saluting her. She halted at the foot of my bed and asked if I wanted her to read Psalm 91 over me. “No, thanks,” I said. “I heard most of it.”

There’s a treasure trove of lessons here, some entertaining, some just sad. But this woman’s single-minded devotion to her task stands out. She would not return rudeness for rudeness. She would not be sidetracked from dispensing the love she came to share. Her resolution was nothing less than the sweet aroma of Christ, immortal, invisible, refreshing that hospital room, dispelling principalities and powers.

It’s still lifting me up, teaching me. In how many situations wouldn’t it be more judicious to ignore the offensive, the acrimonious, the cynical, and instead simply and faithfully commit to whatever good and loving task my Lord puts before me? Increase my wisdom, Lord. Increase my resolve.