Friday, October 24, 2008


A minister who chose to die, maybe.

The mountains of North Georgia are slowly being infiltrated with retirees from the greater Atlanta area. You hear complaints from the old timers in these mountain towns, that foreigners are invading them. One such foreigner was a retired former pastor of a large First Baptist Church in a suburb of Atlanta. His congregation and friends called him "Doctor Bill". His doctor's degree was in pastoral psychology and family counseling. He was not only a former pastor; he was also a former counselor who had a counseling practice.

Brother Bill, as I called him, was sixty-three years old. He came into hospice with two brain tumors and the usual "six-months- to-live-if-the-disease-followed-its-normal progression." He planned to defeat the normal progression of his illness by being positive in his treatment.

Like most of the other ministers that hospice had as patients, he did not have any use for the hospice chaplain when he first entered the hospice program. He had a dark past of personal problems that had followed him into his dark valley of the shadows and didn't want another minister of any kind meddling in his affairs.

His second wife, Judy, was twenty-five years younger than he was. He liked to brag to the hospice staff about his robbing the cradle. He told the intake nurse that he had been married to Judy for fifteen wonderful years and that his marriage to her was the best thing that ever happened to him. The rest of his family consisted of two children, a son and daughter by his first wife. He also commented to the nurse that they had started to visit him and had forgiven him about the divorce since he was diagnosed with the tumors. "Something good has come from this mess," he said.

Bill was an individual with a strange sense of humor that often caught our nurses off guard. For instance when the nurse went out for her first visit after the paper work was complete, she returned to the office angry and upset. Bill met her at the door with a 22 pistol in his hand, and said to her in a rather loud voice, "You're just in time. I was going to shoot myself. You saved my life." He then smiled and invited her in with a blessing. "God bless you, my sister." The nurse told the hospice team that she almost turned around and headed home. Then more seriously she said, "We had better watch this guy."

Bill told me later when we finally got acquainted that he had been out in the back of his house shooting at crows that were destroying his garden when the nurse rang the front door. So, he thought to himself, here is a chance to have some fun.

As I mentioned earlier, he did not want a chaplain to visit him. He asked the nurse to complete his spiritual assessment if one had to be done. The nurse told him, "It's not in my job description but, perhaps the hospice social worker would be able to do the assessment for the chaplain."

Bill agreed to that, saying, "If I have to see one of them I prefer the social worker. She is a woman isn't she?" He allowed the social worker to visit once a month. Three months passed by and I only knew about him from what the other team members shared at the team meetings.

When I learned from the social worker that Bill was a former pastoral counselor, I suggested she tell him that I might need some counseling help, and maybe that would get me into his house so I could get acquainted with him. He had begun to trust the hospice staff, so when it was suggested that I might be able to get some help from him, he told them, "Tell the chaplain to stop by some time."

On that first visit I made with Bill we hit it off. We found out that we had many things in common.We also shared the same opinions about our mutual non-satisfaction with our denomination. It was an added plus when his ugly little dog jumped up into my lap and gave me a wet kiss right on my lips.

After we got acquainted, Bill and I shared many wonderful hours in his study, talking about church politics, working with counselees and generally agreeing as to why our country was going to hell. He shared his counseling techniques with me and we spent time discussing problems we both faced as pastors. One wonderful sunny Georgia afternoon he took me for a ride in his pontoon boat that was docked at the marina in his sub-division.

Bill was a minister of faith who had set up for himself a prayer chain across the country. He had many minister friends, former counselees, and extended families that agreed to pray for his healing at a certain time on Monday,Wednesday and Friday. He also was well informed about the latest diets, herbs, and vitamins that would reduce his tumor and defeat the cancer.

As time went on it appeared the prayer chain was working and he began to get much better. The doctors said his tumors were shrinking. One of the tumors finally disappeared completely. He told me that he was going to revoke himself out of the hospice program as an act of faith that God had answered his prayers for healing.

I went by to see him just before he asked to be taken off the hospice roll. We laughed and cried and praised God together. He shared his plans to write a book about some of his experiences since leaving the ministry and about his miraculous healing. Then he told me a wonderful April Fools' joke he pulled when he was a pastor in the First Baptist Church and a member of the local civic service club.

He began by tell me he was the only member that was ever black balled and kicked out of the club.We both agreed that when a minister belongs to civic groups and clubs, the membership sometimes treats us with benign contempt. It is most noticeable when they are telling off-colored stories. "Excuse me, Reverend," they say and then they continue with their smudgy little story or joke. Someone in a group will say a cuss word or two, and then look at the preacher and say, "Oh, excuse me, preacher."

Bill had been elected as the club historian. At every meeting he would be asked if he had anything to report. He usually passed. One year there was a certain club president named Victor that he just couldn't stand. He was local lawyer who irritated him to the max with his off-color jokes and his sarcastic comments. This guy was a jerk who was always making wise remarks about him. Than he would laugh aloud as though he was kidding.

Bill prepared the stage for his revenge. The next meeting was scheduled for April first. He went down to his church basement and found a large ceramic flower vase, left over from some funeral. It was about two and half feet tall. He wrapped it in plain brown paper and took it with him to the monthly club meeting. When the various committees were asked if they had a report to give, Bill stood. "I have one today," he said as he walked up to the podium. He took with him the vase wrapped in plain brown paper. Then he began his report:

"You all know that last year my church sent me and my wife to the Holy Land for our anniversary." Some of the heads in the audience began to nod in agreement. Bill continued, "We had a wonderful time. I always wanted to visit the holy sites and other sacred places. Then when we were on our way back, we took a side trip to Egypt to see the pyramids. One evening while we were looking in one of those little tourist shops I met this fellow who told me he had an antique vase that he found in one of the smaller unpopular graves or pyramids. I looked at it. It seemed old, but I had my doubts. This guy kept insisting that it was authentic. So I broke down and paid him a hundred American dollars. I know it was crazy, but somehow I was able to smuggle it back into the States. I told the custom's inspector that it was a souvenir for my church."

Then pointing to Victor, the president of the club, he said, "Victor, come on up here a minute and give me a hand."Victor looked around, a little uncomfortable being on stage with the preacher, but came and stood next to him. Bill went on with his story. "When I got home I found a collector of artifacts in New York who said he could get the vase authenticated for me. So I let him take it, to see if it had any value at all. It seemed to take forever. I had almost forgotten about it, but just last week I got it back from him with a letter of authentication."

He then held up a letter with a fancy letterhead. "The tests turned out great. The letter I got from the curator said it is an authentic Egyptian artifact dating back to the year 750 BC. It's worth about $250,000 dollars. I thought that since I'm the club historian I would share this moment with all of you and open it up today, with our president's assistance." Then turning to Victor he asked, "Will you give me a hand and help me with the unveiling?" Victor was beaming a pompous grin as he took his place on the other side of the podium across from Bill.

Bill continued telling me his story. "I had it tied in such a way that at the right moment when Victor was untying his side, I gave it a little tug, and wham-o! Right out of the president's hands and smashing onto the marble floor the vase broke into a million little pieces. The whole club grew deathly silent. A sense of deep despair filled the whole room. Then I leaned into the microphone and with a big pastoral grin I said, 'Aprils fools!' No one laughed. Victor turned red with anger and embarrassment and walked out in a huff. A month later, I received an official letter from the Club's National Headquarter suggesting that I was no longer a member in good standing because I had missed too many meetings in the past year.

I laughed until my sides hurt. Bill was laughing as he told me his story. Tears were running down from our eyes. That was our last story. Bill revoked out of hospice the next day. The hospice team celebrated his cure along with his fami ly.

I didn't see Bill until six months later. One Sunday afternoon my wife and I went house hunting in his community. We stopped by Bill's place to say hello to him and see how he was doing. His family was there as well. He was sitting in his old recliner, smiling and proud as could be as he introduced me to his children and grandchildren. He had a welcome smile, yet I felt something was going on. It just seemed that something was wrong.

The rest of the family and my wife went out back to look at his garden. Bill stopped me, as I was about to go out with them. "Wait a minute, Don." I stopped by his chair. "It's back." A tear ran down his cheek. "The tumor has come back." He wiped his tears. "I really thought I beat this damn thing, now my family and I have to go though the whole mess again. I don't mind but, I hate to put my wife and kids through this."

"Does that mean you're going to be coming back to hospice, and I can get paid for visiting you again?" I jokingly asked. That was stupid, there's nothing funny going on here.

"Maybe," he said, with a half smile.

His wife and family returned from the garden. We shared a lot of small talk, joking and kidding about the grandchildren. I told him I would see him soon. My wife and I said goodbye and went on home.

The next morning, around ten o'clock, Bill's wife called me. "Don, Bill died this morning. I thought you would want toknow. He was sitting in his chair when I went to work and I thought he was still sleeping. When the housekeeper came in she found him."

Do I have questions about Bill's death? Sure I do. He was the type of person who didn't want his family to go through the dark shadows again. I thought to myself when I heard the news, I bet he took his own life and was saying goodbye to me yesterday. I'll never know, neither will his wife. He would never lay that kind of trip on her or his family. Well, all I remember is that he was very contrite on Sunday. With his family he put on a front of being happy. When he talked to me, I could see another message in his eyes. He seemed angry and sad that he was about to travel into the valley for the second time. Was he right or wrong? No one can be certain what really happened. He may have made the choice to start his new beginning.

My learning experience with ministers and pastors who are hospice patients is that they are no different from other dying patients. They feel the dark shadows around them, they trust their faith and religious values and cultural values, and they pray for a miracle.

Sometimes the community of believers lets dying patients down by not being closely attentive to their spiritual and other cultural needs. Religious culture and spiritual values are only two of the elements that make up the human community and the culture that we all live in. Family values, heritage, economics and one's location on this Planet Earth must also be taken into consideration when there is a discussion on cultural aspects of the dying.

I'm sure there are other aspects to the religious culture and neglect of dying church members by pastors and church members. I am not in any way making a scientifically proven statement. My information, thus my opinion, comes from my experience with patients I knew in the hospices' where I worked.

Part of the spiritual assessment that I had to do when admitting a patient to hospice was to ask the patient or caregiver if they wanted me to contact their minister or clergy, priest, rabbi or whoever was their spiritual leader. Very few allowed me to do so. Most patients, caregiver and other family members would say their pastor knew their situation. They often went on to add, "He knows where we live."

Before my next story, I want my readers to understand that many in the community of faith have an outstanding ministry visiting the sick. Pastors and members of several country churches I had experience with in hospice came to visit their sick members weekly. Visiting dying members they would bring a prayer group
and choirs right to the home to conduct a worship service. They had the country culture tradition of providing religious and spiritual services for their members who couldn't come to church. So they brought the church to them.