A new commandment

by Rachel Revelle

This Maundy Thursday I found myself in a hospital conference room participating in a goals of care conversation with the large family of a heart surgery patient, the ICU attending physician and a consulting team of palliative care providers. I will admit I was frazzled as I settled into the space. I knew it could be a long and intense meeting, it was already mid-afternoon and I was scheduled to assist with a service at church in a few hours. As is so often the case in my work as a chaplain, I was drawn into the present through the magnetism of storytelling.

He has such a big heart…
He has always been there for his siblings and his kids…
His dream was to go back to Durango, Mexico; for his son to take over our land…

These were the reflections of the children/siblings/mother of a man in his fifties with a failed heart surgery now complicated by a stroke. These were signs of life so much more vivid than the rhythm of life support machines down the hall, yet now they seemed so fleeting. “Just yesterday…,” especially, seemed fleeting.

As is often mysteriously the case, yesterday had been a good day. He was telling stories, laughing, in a good mood. At some point he described to his daughter how he was seeing his life “like a movie reel,” and seemed to be talking to a childhood friend. Later he asked his sister where his phone was because he needed to call her to say goodbye. “I’m right here,” she said, confused.

Yesterday’s confusion had turned into the agony of today, and I began to identify the family’s experience with that of Jesus’ disciples. I rarely make such explicit theological connections for patients or families, preferring instead to draw forth their own ways of making meaning. But, knowing the family were devout Catholics, this one tumbled right out of my mouth – It strikes me that we are sitting here on Maundy Thursday, a day when Jesus told his disciples that he would not be with them much longer; that he would be going soon to be with the Father … perhaps God gave your father/brother/son a similar awareness. They wept like that other bewildered disciple, Mary, outside an empty tomb.

When it was time to conclude, I made my way to church with a heart both heavy and amazed at the way Word had become flesh. So, too, in the ritual of our foot-washing service. I had been rather delicately rinsing the hands or feet of several congregants, until it was my turn to sit at the foot-washing station. A three-time cancer survivor not only washed, but massaged my feet with a tenderness born of great suffering. Here was Jesus at the feet of Simon Peter. Here was Mary anointing Jesus’ feet with oil. Here was the segment of the family’s pain carried in my own body suddenly released in an act of servant love. 

This patient’s family all spoke of their commitment to live as a witness to the love he had given them. This Maundy Thursday I gained a new appreciation in and through my body of Jesus’ new commandment to love one another. 

Rachel Revelle is an Alliance-endorsed chaplain based in Denver, Colo. and a member of Calvary Baptist Church. She is a graduate of Wake Forest University School of Divinity and was ordained at Alliance congregational partner Knollwood Baptist Church. 

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