I write this blog entry on the evening of a weekend day I spent as the on call chaplain at St. Mark’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. My job as a hospital chaplain requires me to be available as needed on some occasions when I am not scheduled to work. Usually I have one weekend a month and one overnight per week when I am the on-call chaplain. Being on call gives me a degree of anxiety. I have to be ready for those things which cannot be expected. I cannot travel more than a 30-minute drive from the hospital and I cannot do anything that might interfere with my being available to get to St. Mark’s fairly quickly.
On this day, I was awakened at about 4 in the morning with a call from the hospital. When I spoke with the nurse in the progressive care unit, she told me one of her patients was declining rapidly and his wife was in need of a pastoral person. I shook the sleep from my eyes, grabbed a quick shower, and headed to St. Mark’s. When I arrived, I exited the elevator and noticed an elderly woman who flagged me down.
“Are you a chaplain?” she asked me. I wear my clerical collar every day, so it is not unusual for people to ask me if I’m a chaplain. However, I knew this woman must have been the woman I had been called to visit. She seemed to have been expecting me.
I asked her, “Is your husband the patient in room 26?”
She said, “Yes, his name is Blain. I’m Tina. He passed away a few moments ago.”
I spent about an hour with her, listening to stories of Blain’s life. Her faith as a member of the Greek Orthodox Church. His faith which was unknown to her, but from my perspective certainly must have been known to God alone. Their 39 years spent as husband and wife. She was rattled. She broke into tears on multiple occasions. She acted as if her mind was made of scrambled eggs. I comforted her and reassured her, these are all signs of healthy grieving. I advised her that from my experience, she could expect to wax and wane in and out of these emotional states for quite some time. When our conversation ended, Tina headed home.
After I finished up my paperwork, I also headed home. I went back to sleep for a few hours, waiting for my next call. After getting a few hours of sleep, I continued my day of waiting for calls by heading outside to do some gardening. The warm spring weather has been good for my desire to spend time outdoors. It has also been good for the weeds in my garden; weeds I do not appreciate being there.
As I pulled the weeds and the old plants from last growing season, and as I tilled the soil, I thought of Blain. I didn’t ever get to meet him during his lifetime. His wife had told me he had no religious faith. Yet I thought of him. As I scooped the soil up with my pitch fork and sifted it to retrieve the roots of the unwanted weeds, I noticed the dirt falling to the ground. I remembered the words from Genesis 3:19, which we all heard when we began our Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
I continued to dig and pull the weeds, shaking the soil off the roots of the weeds, and I thought of my own mortality. One day, I will return to dust. Will I end up in someone’s garden? Is this dust I sift made up of those who went before me? Certainly, it contains organic matter. I know because I composted it myself.
I also thought of the scripture passages which refer to gardening. Jesus gave us several explanations about how gardening is like living a good life. I find gardening to be a very spiritual practice. Perhaps a part of that is that when we garden, we have no choice but to be in communion with God’s creation. We are down on our hands and knees, getting down and dirty with the land.
When we garden, we strive for the best. We hope to accomplish something good. We do this by planting the plants we want. Hopefully, they will yield much good fruit. We also try to avoid the plants we do not want, knowing full well they will grow back. Perhaps the harvest is a metaphor for a life well-lived. We try to do our best. And perhaps the weeds are a metaphor for sin. We know we will return to sin. It is important, nonetheless, to strive for unattainable perfection.Tina told me Blain’s wishes were for cremation. He certainly will return to dust within this very week. Perhaps now that Blain has entered the Eternal Kingdom, he has some answers that I don’t have. Maybe he now knows what I can do to avoid sinfulness. And maybe he now knows what I can do to avoid the weeds which seemingly overrun my garden. I am only sorry he is unable to pass those secrets along to me in this lifetime. God knows, I would save myself a lot of frustration.