January 15, 2021

Today’s Mea Culpa

By the Deathbed, Munch

By the Deathbed, Munch

There I was, sitting at his bedside.

This was a different kind of patient than those I normally see. He has been homeless. He has been in prison, convicted of a crime that disturbs me, one for which I can find little sympathy in my heart. I don’t know any details about his law-breaking, and have been told it was a one-time affair. Nevertheless, I find it hard to block it out of my mind when approaching him.

When I first met this man, he was living in a flea-infested motel without a dollar to his name. I walked up to him and introduced myself and he said there had just been a fire upstairs and that he could not wait to get out of there. People with suspicious looks on their faces and time on their hands were hanging around the surrounding motel room doors and corridors casting glances our way. Who knows what they were talking about, or what they thought of someone like me pulling up. It was not the most comfortable setting.

This new patient, however, was friendly enough and good at conversation. He’d spent time in a downtown mission but hated the rules and despised even more the pervasive stench of tobacco that wafted from those who shared his dorm room. He had enough trouble breathing, he said, he didn’t need to inhale that rank air all night every night. He claimed he never had problems with smoking, drinking, or doing drugs. But he was estranged from his family and wanted nothing to do with them (I’ll never know their perspective). I didn’t get a clear timeline of his work, travels, prison time, or health problems. He did confess that he had little use for religion, without explaining further. So I gave him my normal spiel — a chaplain comes to be a friend and support first, and is also available should you want to discuss any spiritual concerns.

I left him that day wondering how this was going to work out. It is not normal practice to admit hospice patients who have no caregiver or place to live in which care can be provided. This guy, like many of the street-wise, was somewhat charming, a good talker, a survivor. He knew how to procure what he needed and was used to getting his way. Now he was facing that season of life when “others will…lead you where you don’t want to go.” I could see the potential for major problems.

However, one of our gifted and dedicated hospice team members found a place for him that provides homes for indigent hospice patients. Our team goes in and visits, and volunteers in the home look after him and help him with his daily needs.

Today I came and sat at his bedside. Our patient had experienced a change in condition. He was close to entering the stage we call “actively dying.” He was lethargic, opening his eyes but fading in and out, and was not coherent verbally. There I sat, looking at him. Wondering.

“How little I know about this man!” I thought. I know enough that I’ve made some judgments about him, and they’re not very kind. I wouldn’t trust him any further than I can spit. I am tempted to consider him as a lost cause, a waster of life, an ingrate who frittered away whatever gifts God gave him. A loser. Look at him now — here in his last days or maybe hours — totally dependent on the care and generosity of others, no family around, no friends coming to visit him, no record of achievement or accomplishment (that I know of) to look back on with satisfaction. When he dies, few will mourn his passing, and some will likely rejoice.

“Stop!” I tell myself. I don’t really know this man. I’ve heard so little of his story and know nothing about the context of his narrative. What assurance do I have that any of my assumptions are accurate? What right do I have to talk in definitive terms about a fellow human being, a neighbor, when in reality I’m virtually a stranger? Besides, it is not my job to pass judgment on him. I am here to show kindness, to offer comfort, to encourage peace of mind, heart, body, and spirit.

Like it or not, I make such judgments every day, a thousand times a day. Most of the time, I am not even aware I’m doing it. I peg others in their place and assume a certain divine verdict has been passed.

As I rose to leave the room, I didn’t feel so well. A human life was slipping away and I was keeping score.

Kyrie eleison.


  1. You’re human, Mike.

    You did a good thing. It’s not easy to be a “little Christ” to an unlovely person.

    In God’s eyes we are all the unlovely. The unaccomplished. The ungodly.

    Just the sort that He loves to raise from the dead, and then give all the riches that He has to offer.

  2. Thanks Chaplin Mike, your story made me tear up. You might laugh, but I have similar thoughts at times when I comment on blogs. I realize how little I really know everyone and how easy it is to be judgmental.

  3. Richard Hershberger says

    “He has been in prison, convicted of a crime that disturbs me, one for which I can find little sympathy in my heart.”

    This is one of the hardest things for a Christian do deal with. We give a good talk about how we are all sinners, but most of us believe in our hearts that our sins are the venial kind: peccadillos which are the understandable outcome of human frailty. They aren’t like those other people’s sins: the result of willful depravity. We end up thanking God that we are not sinners like everyone else.

    I find this having a more direct application to my life than I would like. I live on the same street as a pedophile. I know this because the rumors went flying through the neighborhood when he moved in, so I checked the state sex offender registry. There he was. I was still somewhat skeptical, as the range of offenses covered by these registries tend to be overbroad, so I also checked the state’s judiciary databases. There he was, with enough details to established that his offense was exactly what we imagine when we think “sex offender”.

    So how ought I react to this? Some response is inevitable. He lives two houses down, next to my mailbox. I know that I don’t want my kids anywhere near him. His house is on the far side of a small parking lot, so the parking lot is the limit to where my kids are allowed to range. All the neighborhood kids know to avoid that house, even if they aren’t old enough to know why. Beyond that, I don’t know. Do I shoot the breeze with him, talking about football and the weather when we happen to meet? My gut reaction is to not speak to him, or even acknowledge his presence. But I am pretty sure that is not the right answer. I honestly don’t know what is a good Christian response to this situation.

    • I live in the same _house_ as a registered sex offender. 30 years ago he was an alcoholic and apparently did something (he doesn’t even remember it) while very drunk one night. He spent years in prison and years homeless and drug addicted, then got reconnected with the church. To the best of my knowledge he hasn’t used drugs in nearly five years (stopping soon after he started coming to my church). When our church was forming a Christian intentional community, we invited him to join us.

      His “offense” was committed nearly 30 years ago when he was a very different person. But when he moved into the neighborhood, not only did the rumors fly, but one neighbor hired a private investigator to break into our house and collect information on the people living there. (One of my housemates heard noises downstairs and when she found this random stranger in the house, who proceeded to start interrogating her about who lived there, it totally freaked her out.) There have been other incidents as well (broken windows, etc.) that might just have been random chance… and might not.

      Now, I understand perfectly why people would react that way… but next time you meet this guy on the street, maybe you could ask what his story is. It’s not like he isn’t already painfully aware that the whole neighborhood knows his history, and you could probably sense rather quickly whether he’s really someone you need to be afraid of, or just someone still paying the price of a bad mistake years ago.

  4. I have a cousin who is a convicted pedophile and drug addict. (he lives in another state)

    We speak often. We speak of goings on in our lives. He lives alone and is very lonely and unhappy. I just try and encourage him and now and then I am able to speak to him about the great love of Christ for him.

    Although he has brought up his crime in a general sense, we never go there. I just remind him that the Lord has forgiven him and today is a new day.

    I pray for him. Other than that, I don’t know what to do.

  5. Best website in town.

    Greg Boyd’s Repenting of Religion talks about this…yeah, stop judging others,’ –but how? Judging others is how we safely navigate our way through the fallen world, to do otherwise sure can get baffling. When I try to look at/treat others the way Jesus does, I often end up getting taken advantage of, which sure can act as a powerful disincentive…. Lord have mercy.

  6. We all do this. We all keep score, at least at some level, in our minds and hearts. The question is whether we catch it and check it before it becomes a way of being, preferably long before, and attune ourselves to the grace of Jesus as our guide. You’ve clearly done that.

    I work in a downtown area where I literally can’t walk two blocks from work most days to get a soda or a sandwich without running into someone down on their luck. Many ask for something, usually money, but not always. I do what I can to help, show concern, and pray for a lot of wisdom. It’s so easy to think something like “there for the grace of God go I,” but the problem is that this implies there is a place where the grace of God does not or cannot go. I don’t believe that, so I try not to think in those terms. It’s never easy. I fail a lot.

  7. I grew up with a guy who has since been in and out of prison. I first met him at 16 when he came to work at a place where I was washing dishes. Of course I knew of him, he had a reputation of being crazy, a psycho fighter. In fact, six weeks before coming to work he had been stabbed six times by a guy he was beating the pulp out of, and didn’t realize he was stabbed until the guy had stopped moving. I grew to know this guy, he could be charming but he was also volatile, violent and unpredictable. Whatever demons plagued him, it kept him in a state of using only his reptilean brain.

    I lost contact with him in my early 20’s. I had kept him at arms length (and told him so) just for my own self-preservation. I heard about him over the next 30 years (mostly from law enforcement I know), committing many violent acts, some sexual in nature, spending a lot of his life in prison.

    Five weeks ago he showed up at my gym. And as he peered over and that recognision crossed his face he approached me, gave me a hug, and proceeded to tell me life had been rough and he had found the Lord.

    It is hard for me to share any information about myself with him. I (and others) still consider him dangerous. I have talked to him about God, never in a condescending way as (from my past experiences with him) it could set him off. I pray for him. But out of safety for my family I will never get to know him more than superficially… it is wrong I know, but I would rather answer to God then to regret I put any of my family in danger. I truly hope God is working in his life.

    • There is an important distinction to be made between exercising good judgment and being judgmental.

      • Katharina von Bora says

        Thank you for acknowledging this. I would also note that you can forgive someone without ever being in the same room with him again. And we also don’t have to assume that just because someone has served his time or gotten sober, he’s actually repented and truly changed.

        I get nervous when this topic comes up because it seems like there’s pressure to prove one’s Christian love by letting sex offenders into your life. It’s a bizarre interpretation of forgiveness, imho.

        • Marcus Johnson says

          I hear you, Katharina. Too often forgiveness is confused with absolutism, and our responsibility to forgive is contorted to include a responsibility to trust.

    • Christiane says

      Protecting your family in the light of what you understand about this individual is a responsible choice. It sounds like this person you describe is unwell in ways that may not be under his own control, much less yours, and he needs a good support system of supervision to maintain some kind of stability. So keeping your connection with him compartmentalized away from your family is likely best for all concerned. Including him.

      In the great mercy of Our Lord, people can change and do change, but there are illnesses that affect folks all their lives, and compassion for them need not mean disregarding wisdom as pertains to the welfare of your family.

      There are people whose needs are such that we cannot be there for them in the ways that we might want, their needs are too great, and we are not up to it realistically. But we can keep them in prayer and show compassion and encouragement to them when appropriate for all concerned in the bigger picture. Your situation is a tough one in this case.
      Your family need to be kept out of potential harms way. That red light needs to be honored as wisdom.

  8. Mike, it sounds like you’ve been reading your Bible of late, and maybe even preaching from it. This is last Sunday’s lectionary Gospel reading all over again (the bent-over woman in the Synagogue, Luke 13.10ff.), with one major caveat: In your case, both the voice of the Rabbi (“come on OTHER days if you want to be healed…”) and the voice of Jesus (“she is a daughter of Abraham…”) are talking at one another inside your head. Just like they so often do inside my head.

    In your case, Jesus seems to be winning. But the struggle isn’t over. It’s never over…

  9. Mike, well-written reminder of the challenge of loving others. Thank you.

  10. Travis Sibley says

    Just shared this on my FB.

    Thanks so much for your honesty. I, as an RN, have had and have seen all manner of healthcare workers in ALL environments, go through this. Unfortunately, many caregivers don’t recognize what they are doing or don’t care.

    I struggle with this daily in hospice. When I go to judge it reminds me of the mess that I am and of God’s grace and mercy and reminds me to show that as best I can to other people.

  11. This reminds me of an incident from my time as a residential student at a conservative Christian college. One of the Bible profs was giving a chapel talk and opened up the floor for questions. A sincere student asked him if he could share some of the sins he still struggled with. Being so spiritually mature and high on a pedestal, he did have to think for a moment. Then he finally came clean: “I am often tempted to take a second yogurt in the cafeteria.” To which the whole student body exploded with laughter. The catch: it wasn’t even for dietary reasons. It was just that he felt it unfair to any student who might potentially be left yogurt-less should the near inexhaustible supply run out.

    I’m just sayin, though. Sin is sin is sin, and it’s always ugly. But this is so seemingly mundane, I almost feel like Luther’s father confessor: Go get a hooker, Chaplain Mike, and come back when you have a REAL sin to confess. 😛

  12. Minus the disturbing crime, I could easily be that man in a few years (although I don’t think I have the street savvy or charm to survive for very long homeless); thank you, CM, for being there for him, and I can only hope that if the need should arise, someone like you will be there for me.

  13. A registered sex offender (pedophile) once wanted to attend our church. He was up front with us, which we appreciated. But we had a very young church loaded with families with young children. And we had very few resources to help him in any way (e.g. no men’s groups, no addictions groups, etc.). And we worshipped in a warehouse building, sharing space with a children’s birthday party provider and a children’s karate school. Kids coming and going all the time day and night, seven days a week. We could not think of any time he could be at the church that would be safe for either him or children. It would be, at the least, a constant temptation for him. And so we had to turn him away. This was eight years ago and it still eats at me and the other former leaders… we could not help this man.

    I am also haunted by the way this church of ours died this past February, shortly after its 18th anniversary of founding. We had always been a place that all kinds of people felt at home in—for whatever reason, we were extremely diverse in race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, ages groups—you name it, we had it. We also seemed to attract and hold on to people with mental issues, mostly schizophrenics (which we did quite well with) and people with various personality disorders, who were much harder to pick up on until it was too late. In our final years, we went through three crises; each one precipitated by a (different) individual with a personality disorder who lost control and went on a campaign, ripping out part of the church. We were so weakened by the first two that when the last one occurred, we just folded.

    What I keep turning over in my mind is how we should have treated these people who had these mental illnesses? How do you show compassion to someone who is so disturbed inside that they are actively working to destroy your church? What about all the other people in the church? I’ve looked, and there doesn’t seem to be much advice out there for how to show Christ’s love to the mentally ill in the church. Even though these folks killed us off, I still feel compassion for them—compassion in the midst of sorrow in having lost our church.

    This stuff is tough.

    • That’s quite a story, Vera. Though the congregation eventually dissolved, my impression is that you fulfilled an important mission. Jesus’ ministry was brief as well.

      • Yes, we tell ourselves that as well–we were around a total of 18 years and did a lot of good for a lot of people who were misfits of one kind or another. Yet in the end, we were not able to sustain things.

        In the absence of finding any professional resources to help with integrating the mentally ill into church, I have come up with my own principle that I will strive to follow in the next place I serve. I would sooner have a ministry shut down than put a volunteer in a position of leadership about whom I have serious doubts about their personal mental/emotional stability and/or ability to work in a normal way with others (eg. without insisting on dominating them, for example).

        The mistake our church made was our pastor had a mindset of always wanting to rescue people with problems. While this led us to have a stunningly diverse congregation, it was not so good when he also thought he could give troubled people confidence, purpose and second chances by putting them in positions of leadership.

        In hindsight, I think the best we could have done for our personality disorder folks would have been to love them, welcome them, be there for them, even find them appropriate places of service, but never, ever give them positions of leadership.

  14. This is an area where my wife is the stronger person. She will go out of her way to put some money in a homeless persons cup. She will speak to them because she wants them to know she values their humanness. I confess I just role my eyes sometimes… but she is the one with the compassion.

    I recall one time in particular we were in our car, sitting at a red light outside a mall. We were approached by a man, slightly unkempt, who stated he was in town for a friends funeral, had misplaced his wallet and needed 20 dollars for bus fare (He would even trade us the watch on his wrist). She asked him his name and he gave the name “Bob Betts”, which also happened to be the name of a bar about two miles down the road. Not only did she give him money ($30 I seem to remember), but she also, with some coaxing, got him to come into our van and we drove him downtown (about 10 miles away) to the bus station. Now in my head I suspected that he probably was out collecting a few bucks for said bar, but what he got was a ride out of his way…yet I could be wrong…maybe he was someone else, or genuine or the least of my brothers… anyway I kept my mouth shut and we did the deed because it was something she wanted to do. As I said, my wife is better tat this than I…

    • Hehe, a guy once walked into our church with a story about needing money to catch a train to meet his ex-wife or something.

      We thought we were smart, so we went to the station with him and bought the ticket. Left him on the platform.

      I still wasn’t 100%, so we loitered in the car in front of the station just to see.

      5 minutes later, out he walks! Turns out you have a grace period where you can get a refund on a train ticket. Smart guy, but the thing is it makes it harder for me to take the next one seriously…

      • A similar thing happened to my husband. However, this guy got off the Greyhound bus just as it was leaving because he was too emotionally disturbed to make a real decision, not to get the ticket refund.

      • Which is why, when I offer to buy someone bus fare (which is only a couple of times a year, since I often let myself be way too busy to pay attention to them), I always say, “Well, I don’t have enough cash for a ticket, but I could put it on my credit card.” People often lose interest at that point.

        On the other hand, I once had a conversation that started out that way, and then once it was pretty clear she was just trying to scam me, I said, “I’m not going to give you money, but can I buy you lunch?” I got enough food for both of us, and as we began eating, completely out of the blue (I hadn’t even mentioned my faith up to this point), the woman asked, “I’ve heard that Jesus is the Lamb of God, but what does that mean?” I told her about how the Passover lamb was a celebration of freedom from slavery – and how Jesus sets us free from all forms of slavery, even things like addiction. We ended up talking for over an hour – every time I thought the conversation was over, she would say, “Tell me another story about Jesus,” or “I heard he fed five thousand people, tell me about that.” I never saw her begging money again, and at the time I used to walk by that place every day – so I still hope that maybe something changed in her life that day.

    • My point though is that, like CM above, I was the weak one and I was judging. Right or wrong, it was my wife who trusted, who didn’t judge, who left it in God’s hands whatever we (specifically I) was thinking. I judged, she didn’t.

      There was a time early in my career when I worked in Philadelphia. For any of you who have lived or visited, at least around 1990, the downtown area all the way to Market Street is lined with pan handlers, all year long. Walking the streets regularly you just learn to unfocus and ignore, because sometimes they could get aggressive. But in that ignoring it is almost like ignoring a class of people out of existence. Now, coming from me, more a realist, that’s pretty idealistic thinking. But I was (and still partly am) that guy who ignored, who judged.

Speak Your Mind