In the summer of 2002 I worked as a hospital chaplain. It was not by choice, but a required internship as part of my seminary training and preparation to become a Presbyterian minister. In fact, I had put off the internship from the summer before, deciding instead to take an intensive Greek course. Greek. As in, ‘it’s all Greek to me.’ That’s how excited I was to do the chaplain thing.
It’s not that I don’t have compassion for sick people, and not that I have a fear of hospitals in general. It was the death part that terrified me. Not even the dying part, so much as the dead part. I had heard stories of chaplains having to go to the morgue, to be with the family as they confirmed that their loved one was, in fact, the deceased. It terrified me.
Okay, it was the dying part too. I had never, at that point in my life, been with anyone as they died. I had no idea what to do. How to act. What to say. I had a friend who’s father had died a few years prior, and I vividly remember being with the family in the hospital as they awaited the inevitable. Their pastor was not available for some reason, so a rookie, stand-in pastor came to the hospital to console the family. All I remembered was how incredibly awkward and how, well, how inadequate he seemed to the task.
It was the fear of being that guy that I brought with me to Mission Hospital in the summer of 2002. But what I hadn’t counted on was that it would be life, more than death, that would end up disturbing me to my very core.
The story I’m about to read you, of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, is a disturbing one–perhaps one of the most troubling stories told about Jesus in the Bible. It’s not typically a go-to story if you’re on PR for team Jesus.
From there Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet he could not escape notice, but a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
I warned you–it’s kind of a random story, isn’t it? Sure, there’s the whole demon possession thing–that’s gonna have to be the subject for another Not Church. Or not.
So, this woman comes to Jesus, pleading on behalf not of herself, but of her daughter, who is in need of healing. Scholars who study the Bible suggest that there must not have been a father in the picture, or else he would have been the one to come and talk to Jesus–it was a man’s role, not a woman’s. So the woman comes to Jesus, alone, to plead for the welfare of her child.
And when she found Jesus, he too was alone. He had retreated to the region of Tyre–which is Gentile, not Jewish country–and, it appears, was hoping to avoid notice. The way Mark tells it, Jesus had been on the go–immediately this and then immediately that–so it would make sense that he’d need a bit of a breather. Can you blame the guy if he just needed a little siesta on that afternoon?
And then in barges this woman–(how did she get in? whose house was he in? why was he alone? how did this woman know where to find him? how did no one else know? ).
Not only a woman, but a Gentile woman. Not only a Gentile woman, but a Gentile woman whose daughter, being demon possessed, made her, by association, unclean. Not exactly the kind of person that an up and coming rabbi needed to be hanging out with, alone in the house. What would the neighbors think?
She begs Jesus to heal her daughter. Jesus, the great physician. Jesus, the wise teacher who lived a life that we are often told to emulate. Jesus, who, in what can easily be described as rudeness, compared the woman to a dog. And we’re not talking Tigger or Chulito here…. Wait a second. That doesn’t seem like how the story is supposed to go.
On that particular summer day in my role as a chaplain I was actually obeying my assignment to visit two particular areas of the hospital, knocking on doors, announcing myself as the chaplain, and asking if the patient wanted to talk.
I hated it. Cold calling people for God? Not only that, but cold calling when they had nowhere to go, no way to hide or pretend they weren’t home when I came knocking on their door? What was worse was that some folks, when they heard that the chaplain was at the door, freaked out, assuming that it meant their imminent demise.
But on that day I knocked, announced myself, and was invited into the room. An older African American woman was lying in the bed. This was noteworthy as Mission Hospital is in Mission Viejo, south Orange County, not exactly the most ethnically diverse spot on the map.
She invited me in and asked me to pray for her. I did, praying some sort of bland prayer generally about healing and well being, and asking God to be with her–I didn’t want to get her hopes up, after all, since she was, as it were, in the hospital. I chatted with her for a few more minutes and then left to continue on my rounds.
“Why give the dogs what is meant for the children,” Jesus says to the woman, with an attitude that seems to say, now would you let me continue on with my day–I’m trying to get away here, have a bit of peace, before the crowds show up again.
But her response is as sharp as it is quick–even the dogs get to eat the children’s crumbs from under the table.
And with that Jesus tells her that, for her words, her daughter has been healed. She went home and found the girl, lying in bed, healed.
The thing is, the book of Mark is full of Jesus talking in these sort of stories, these parables–I was joking not long ago with Ron that I had posted something on facebook about dealing with a lot of rocky ground.
There is a story in the bible where Jesus talks about a seed falling on different types of ground, including rocky. All of my pastor-type friends commented about the rocky ground, assuming that I was using it as a metaphor. I had to clarify that no, I was, in fact, really talking about rocky ground–it had made my carrots grow all bent as they searched for a way through.
But the point being, in the book of Mark, Jesus is all about these parables. He rarely says anything plainly, obviously. It is almost always with a sort of play on words. And the disciples–not Peter Paul and Mary, but Peter, James, John and the other nine, the disciples don’t get it.
They are always asking Jesus, um, what did you mean when you were talking about rocky ground…? The disciples should have gotten it. They were hanging out with Jesus all the time. They were Jewish, like him. They were men, like him. They were the right kind of people. Not like this woman. A foreigner.
Even the dogs get to eat the children’s crumbs from under the table.
She got it. She spoke his language. In all of the stories of the parables, in the stories of the gospels, she is the only one not just to get it, but then to speak back to Jesus, using a parable herself.
She spoke up and the unbelievable happened– her daughter was healed.
As I went on my hospital rounds the following day, knocking on doors, cold calling on innocent and trapped patients, I heard a familiar voice say come in. I hadn’t really paid attention enough to realize that I was back at the woman’s room, the woman who had asked me to pray for her the day before.
I’m healed, she said.
You’re what? I sputtered. Great job, chaplain.
I’m healed. You prayed for me, and God healed me. The doctors told me this morning. Thank you so much.
She was healed.
It was only mid afternoon, still hours from the 5pm dismissal time, but I told my supervisor that I had to leave. As I sat out in my car in the parking garage I was overwhelmed. I was in seminary studying to be a pastor, working as a chaplain–one would think that an answered prayer would not be so faith shaking.
The thing is, I had prepared myself, or had at least tried to, for the death element of the hospital work. But what I hadn’t prepared myself for was the life.
A few months ago I was at a birthday party for Becky, the daughter of the pastor of the church in the colonia. The party was at her parents’ house, at the church, and many of her Mexican and American friends were there.
It was that night when I first met Dr. Sarah, who many of you know as well. She happened to mention a local man, Jimmy, who had a serious heart condition. As she spoke I realized that it was, in fact, the same person who Audi, last spring, had told many of us about and for whom we had raised some money to help pay for the tests he had to undergo. Many of us know from his work at La Fonda, or as one of Don Lucio’s son’s, brother of Betto on the baseball team.
Sarah explained to me that his condition was very serious and that it looked as if there was really no hope, short of a miracle. The severity of the problem, it seemed, was beyond the capacity of the resources at the General Hospital in Tijuana.
As we chatted, it occurred to me that the CEO of Hoag Memorial Hospital, Presbyterian, in Newport Beach, just so happens to be a member of the church where I grew up, where many of you came to my ordination service. “I don’t know him, but I have friends who do–I can at least ask,” I said to Sarah.
To be honest, I don’t think neither Sarah nor I thought there was much likelihood of anything coming of it. But, just in case, she got me his chart info, which I mailed to another doctor in Newport Beach, also a church member, who promised to get it to the right people to review it. That was back in October.
I found myself thinking, there’s no way this prestigious, wealthy hospital in Newport Beach, of all places, is going to take on the case of a Mexican guy–the son of a farmer, one of something like fifteen kids–from La Mision–a case that not only requires getting an emergency visa for him to even enter the US, but is also quite risky, extremely expensive, and with no guarantees that he will even live through the surgery itself.
This week we got the news.
Hoag has agreed to perform the surgery. Hoag, a state of the art facility with rooms that maximize the view of Newport Harbor–has agreed to incur all of the expense for a potentially life-saving, but also life-threatening surgery for Jimmy, son of Don Lucio, who lives along the river road in La Mision.
As Sarah told me the good news, she gave me a hug, as tears came to my eyes.
Who knows how long it took that Syrophoenician woman to get home that day. I wonder what she was thinking as she must have hurried back to her daughter. But I’m guessing, as she entered the house, and found her daughter well, that with tears in her eyes she picked her up, embracing her with love.
Love. We often, especially this time of year, express it with a heart. The word heart has many meanings, many interpretations. This close to Valentine’s Day we are of course reminded of its association with romance, with candies, and cards.
But the word heart can also mean at the center, the core, the very nature of something–the heart of the matter, for instance.
It seem to me that the heart of the matter is this:
That force which pulses thru the very heart, beating love, bringing life, knows no boundaries–in spite of a reluctant chaplain, a tired Jesus, or an unlikely surgery.
And the bread, it seems, is for all.
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