In early September last year my mom, Roberta Mansfield, was in the hospital. She’d gone to the hospital for her chemotherapy (my father practically had to carry her in), and once the staff saw how sick she was—the cancer was bad, the therapy had been brutal, and her body was just shutting down—and once the hospital staff saw how bad she was, they skipped the treatment and just admitted her.
My mom’s cancer doctors and nurses were always very positive. I guess they feel like they have to be because you never know for sure what someone’s outcome is going to be. And who wants to give someone bad news? They told my mom she would be in for just a few days until they got this and that sorted out and then she’d have her treatment and go home. Nothing to worry about, they told her and my dad.
If I was a doctor or a nurse, I think I’d have a hard time telling people that there was nothing to worry about—just a few days. Because I’d always want to tell people the truth. This is a problem I have.
When my time is up, I want to know. I want a doctor who’ll look me right in the eyes and say, “Mr. Mansfield, of course I don’t know for sure, but I think this is probably the end of line. There’s nothing left that we can do. I’d guess you’ve got a couple weeks left at most before you die. I’m so sorry.” I can think of no greater kindness to give someone at the end of their life than that. I would be eternally grateful for that honest message and for the courage it took to deliver it.
By the time I got up to Rhode Island to visit my mom she had already been in the hospital for a week with no release in sight. I’ll never forget that night I spent talking to Mom in the hospital—how tired she was, the discomfort she was felling, how she would just look me right in the eye without saying a word for a minute or more. I had never seen her do that before—just look at me like that. At some point I realized: this is what fear looks like when the person feeling it is too tired to move.
I’ll never forget how Mom eventually told me that she thought she’d be better off at home, released from the hospital, and in hospice. I’ll never forget the courage it must have taken to tell her little boy that she couldn’t go on and that she “wanted” to die.
Of course, part of me wanted to yell, “But you can’t die! You’re my Mom! I need you.” I don’t know. Maybe it was because of Peter that I knew I couldn’t say that. Instead, I said, “Mom, when your doctor comes in tomorrow, you look him right in the eye and you tell him, ‘Doctor, I think this is probably the end of line for me. I don’t want any more treatments. I’d like to go home and be put on hospice. Is there any reason that you can see that we shouldn’t do that today?’” The next morning that’s what Mom did, and she was back home that night.
I have a lot of reasons to be proud of my mom, but right there at the end she made me so proud again. She took control of her death. She wasn’t happy about it. She wasn’t unafraid. But she knew it was inevitable, that there was nothing anyone could do. She knew she was going die and she told us so. She told me and the rest of the family. She told her doctor. She told hospice. And we all supported her in her courageous final days. She died at home 12 days after being released from the hospital.
In 1921, Karle Wilson Baker published a poem called Courage that would be the stuff of motivational posters’ dreams for generations to come. The brilliant closing lines of the poem are these: “Courage is Fear / That has said its prayers.” I always thought that was a great line. But then I saw my mom actually make that line come to life. And I realized because of my mom how true it is that you can’t really be brave without being afraid. Courage is the transfiguration of fear, not the absence of it, not the banishment of it.
One thing I have in common with doctors and nurses is that I think a lot of people want to be comforted by healthcare professionals—we call it a good bedside manner. And, of course, people want their pastor to be a source of comfort to them as well. And I think when we think of comfort, we think of saying things like, “You know my cousin’s wife had cancer and she took the chemotherapy, and she was fine.” We think of the doctor smiling and the nurse patting our hand and saying, “Just a few days—nothing to worry about.”
Maybe that’s all that Peter was trying to do—to say to Jesus, “Don’t say that! You don’t know for sure what’s going to happen! My auntie got detained in Jerusalem once for giving a legionary a sour look, but nobody crucified her, did they?” Maybe he was just trying to be positive—I’m sure it will all work out!
But I’ve realized that there’s another kind of comfort as well. The comfort that looks you right in the eye and tells you the truth with kindness and love. My mom’s most experienced hospice nurses demonstrated this to us. They came into the house like it was a house where someone was dying. They looked at you like they were looking at someone who was about to see his mom die. They spoke to Mom like you speak to someone who’s dying. Not with pity. Not with false hope. But with respect and honesty—and with an awareness that they’re in a sacred space. It’s like they know that they’ll have forgotten your face within a few weeks of the death, but they also know that you’ll remember them forever.
When we seemed like we were thinking a little too optimistically, they helped gently steer us back to making decisions more aligned with Mom’s reality. When we worried about giving Mom more morphine than she needed, they told us the truth, “You have nothing to worry about.” It was comforting to be told the truth.
Just like my mom told the truth, just like the hospice nurses told the truth, maybe that’s all Jesus was trying to do. Maybe he was trying to prepare the disciples for what was coming. He didn’t want them taken by surprise. He owed them that respect. He knew he couldn’t enact the Kingdom of God on earth forever without the powers of the Kingdoms and Empires of this world killing him for it. He just wanted to tell them the truth. It must have been hard to do.
One of our themes this Lent is Lent of Liberation: Confronting the Legacy of American Slavery. I’m reading a Lenten devotional by that name and you all are invited to join with me in reading and discussing the text this Lent. Our first discussion is this evening at 7:30, there’s an announcement in your bulletin with the details. Last week I told you that if we’re going to hear another person’s truth, especially if their perspective is different than ours, it requires us to cultivate humility—to bow low before God and to admit that we don’t know everything; to bow low before our neighbors, low enough to consider their truth, their perspective.
It does take humility to have a difficult conversation. It takes humility to see things from a different perspective. And it takes courage to tell the truth to someone you know would probably really rather not hear such uncomfortable truths. And it takes courage to accept a truth that maybe makes you angry, or makes you feel guilty, or annoyed, or maybe breaks your heart.
In these types of situations, we see the limitations of comfort. Comfort can’t fix a broken thing. Sometimes the truth can’t either, of course. But at least the truth looks you in the eye. At least the truth knows it’s standing on sacred ground. At least the truth is willing to pick up its cross and carry it as far as it can. And there is comfort in that. I doubt a comforting lie ever empowered anyone to take up their cross. I think only the comforting truth can do that. “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.”
Why did Jesus have to die? I don’t really know. Why did my mom have to die? I don’t know. But when she told me the truth, I believed her.
Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations