Christmas Promise

On a long-ago Christmas Eve, I did my last visit to a patient as a hospice chaplain.

I was honoring a promise.

All I did was hold a hand in a dark bedroom while storm clouds trudged across the night sky. In the nearby houses, seasonal lights flickered in the rain, inflatable Santas and snowmen waved their greetings, and outdoor ornaments sparkled as the gusting wind teased them.

In the patient’s room, it was quiet.

In the patient’s room, she now mostly slept.

I’d already started working as a church’s “new minister.” It had been a tough decision to leave hospice—an intimate ministry—for a mid-sized church with hundreds of members, a sprawling budget, and endless obligations. So many decisions are a combination of guesses, selfish and selfless reasons, and trying to do the right thing at the right time of life. I didn’t know then (and I don’t know now all these years later) if it was the best choice . . . but it was my faithful risk to say “yes” to serve a congregation.

Some of those “endless obligations” during the first days of church work were the Christmas Eve services. There I would preach. There I’d read the ancient stories of Jesus’ birth. There I’d seek to connect an old, familiar tale to the daily hurts and hopes of modern folks. There I’d help a congregation light candles and proclaim the “light of the world.”


Hope! Love! Joy! Peace!

But I’d also made that promise to my patient.

I told her that I’d stop by for one last visit. She would soon be assigned a “new” chaplain, but her “old” chaplain would come over for a few moments. There were a couple of hours between the early evening service and the midnight candlelight celebration, so I headed to her home.

Of the many patients I met during my stint as a chaplain, she was among the quietest. She didn’t complain about pain or her illness; she didn’t have melancholy regrets or lingering guilt. She hadn’t been involved in “formal” religion for years, but sensed God’s presence, sensed there was something more than one final breath. She’d raised several kids and was proud of their accomplishments. One of them, a daughter as quiet as her mother, had come to live with—and care for—her seventy-something parent.

In my final weeks of hospice work, I’d visited this patient and she wondered if I could stop by at Christmas.

Of course I could.

I think she was surprised that she’d made it to Christmas. A doctor had told her she would “die soon.” Soon had not yet come, while the closing days of December had suddenly arrived.

I was dressed in a suit. Fancy tie. Matching socks. I’d already preached a sermon and would soon be preaching another one.

I sat beside her.

We held hands.

We prayed. Unlike my tie, my words weren’t fancy. Instead I only spoke a simple prayer: for her, for her daughters, for this day, for a life of memories and for the gift of each new morning.

Nothing stunning or spectacular happened. I didn’t say anything that transformed her life. Neither she nor her daughter confessed awful family secrets (there probably weren’t any) or gushed about how wonderful a chaplain I had been. But we did have a good chaplain-patient relationship and we wanted to be together for one more time.

To this day, I know it was a privilege to sit with her. While it was a bed she could barely get out of anymore, we could still share some quiet, supportive moments. Isn’t that all we have anyway? Time with another? Time to say thanks? Time to give and receive a gentle hug?

An hour or so later, after that visit, I would preach. In the Christian tradition, sermons are known as “proclaiming the Good News.” And in particular, at Christmas, it’s good and bold news of hope in the strangest of places: a manger. It’s good and radical news, as it claims a gurgling baby born in an obscure town will challenge an empire. It’s good and quiet news, because the Christmas tale highlights a gathering of nobodies and ne’er-do-wells on a “silent night, holy night.”

I sat on the edge of her bed, held her hand, and gave thanks for her life. Soon, like you and me, she would die. But right then, honoring a promise, I just wanted to spend time among the living. Among those who understood that every day, and every breath, is a blessing.

Later, I would help a congregation light candles and light up a sanctuary.

But in that quiet room in the quiet house on a long-ago Christmas Eve, she was my candle.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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  1. I have memories like that. Being called to see a dying Vietnam vet who had real trust issues. He was in the chair and dying, I picked him up and put him into bed for the last time. The Rn stayed with him on that cold, snowy December day as he died peacefully, knowing someone cared enough to drive the 45 miles to go see him.

  2. My great grandmother, a tall fluffy woman with thick wild grey hair and a sweet smile that made me wonder what she as really thinking. She lived in the mid-west in a small town. My great grandfather had passed away when she was in her late 30’s so she’d found a job to help pay her bills that she was probably born to do. She was the funeral home’s intake assistant. When my grandmother told me that I was a little freaked out. Then she explained. She would be called to the home of someone who was near death and she’d spend a few days with the family and the dying person to make the transition easier for the family. This way they knew they had a person who knew their family member and would, as my grandmother said; ‘do proper’. By the time I was old enough to visit with her, she had stopped the home care, the small town was a small city and she helped out for a little money at the funeral home but she was in her80’s and a little confused. She invited me to see where she worked once and in her tiny office she had a poster board next to her calendar with stars, the kind you can buy at the 5 and dime, all over it. She smiled that sweet smile and said, ‘Oh you are admiring my dear friends.’ She explained that she’d set up that board and put a star on it for every person she’d helped find their way. She was very proud of her work. There was no sadness for the people or their families. She told me that those stars were the placeholder in her memory of each person. She spent the rest of the afternoon telling me about some of the people she’d gotten to know. I was really too young to have understood the moment. She was called to the work and suited for the work as are you.

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