In Andrew Greeley’s Bishop Blackie Ryan mystery “The Archbishop in Andalusia” the character Bishop Blackie makes a comment after celebrating Mass in the cathedral at Seville. He said “Every sacramental encounter is an evangelical occasion. A smile warm and happy is sufficient. If people return to the pews with a smile, it’s been a good day for them. If the priest smiles after the exchanges of grace, it may be the only good experience of the week.” (The Archbishop in Andalusia p.77)
I’m the kind of person that if I’m angry or not doing well my face can show it even if I don’t want it to. It’s sometimes hard to hide emotions even though I try, but I have gotten pretty good at hiding them by putting on a poker face and smiling, even if it hurts to do so. This works most of the time, but sometimes with people who know me pretty well it catch me. They ask me if I’m doing okay and they are pretty good at taking care of me in those moments, which unfortunately are a lot more common after Iraq than before it but occasionally happen.
However on the whole I remain a pretty upbeat person. I think my most common greeting with people that I work with or see relatively often is “Hey, what’s up, what’s new, what’s happening in the world?” Most of the time I’m a pretty laid back kind of person. I think that this is due a blend of genetics from a recessive gene in my family as well as having grown up on the West Coast and spending a lot of my adult life somewhere in the former Confederate States of America. The genetic factor has to be a recessive gene as a lot of folks in my family can get spun up and pretty serious pretty fast.
Since being upbeat unless I am downcast is the baseline for me, even with my PTSD I find a lot of humor in life and still manage to have fun. I love the folks that I work with in my ICUs and being in those places with those colleagues does me an incredible amount of good.
One thing that I have noticed is that it is important for me to smile; in fact I generally like smiling except when I don’t. I admit that there are some times and some people that I am like the scene in the movie Patton where Patton is forced to make conversation with a Soviet General after the war. In those kinds of times the smile is definitely faked and thankfully most people don’t realize it.
However what I find is that many people respond positively to a genuine and caring smile and greeting. Let’s face it times are not the best, all the economic problems and political conflict coupled with ongoing wars and wondering what is going to happen stress a lot of people out. A lot of this is the news media’s fault as they heap one negative story after another on their viewers, particularly those who are addicted to 24 hour non-stop cable news and talk radio. As a result it is amazing to see the number of people out in town who don’t smile. Since I work in a pretty good sized teaching medical center I see people going through a lot of health and life crisis, but even here I don’t quite see the level of disgruntledness that I see out in town. Frankly I’d like to see a lot more gruntled than disgruntled people.
In the past year that I have been here I have endeavored to be as positive and cheerful as possible and with some exceptions I have managed pretty well. In fact I have made it my crusade to honestly try to greet everyone that I contact with a kind word or smile and often a God bless you or simply “blessings on your head.” What I love to see is someone who has been obviously beaten down; do a double take when they realize that someone; that being me, is taking the time to say something nice to them. I love the sheepish smiles, the surprised thank you and God bless you responses that I get in return.
No place is this more important than church or chapel service when I or for that matter any Priest or minister serves God’s people. Grumpy pastors, who are too bothered to care, perform their duties in a perfunctory manner or worse are rude and disrespectful to the people that God entrusts to their care do damage. It’s like Archbishop Blackie said, the encounters that we have are occasions to share the grace and love of God, to be with them, care for them and are in a very real sense both evangelical and sacramental occasions. When I was in Jacksonville Florida as a Navy Chaplain I would occasionally serve at the altar of our cathedral church. People would almost always comment on how joyful I looked while celebrating Eucharist and serving communion. How can I not be when I am entrusted with such a great gift for God’s people?
Judy and my college room-mate Kendra is in town this week. We had kind of a three’s company situation. I had my men’s bedroom which was a total college guy mess and Judy and Kendra shared the other bedroom. At the time Kendra was an Atheist being bombarded by many of our well meaning but hyper aggressive Christian friends. We had a blast. Kendra is like super duper deaf, lost all of her hearing at the age of four after she had learned to speak and read. She’s incredibly intelligent and as a 15 year old scored in the upper one percentile of the SAT where I not to be too flashy scored somewhere around the upper thirty-fifth percentile due to my abysmal math score. It was due to Kendra that I learned sign language. All of Judy’s friends were deaf at Cal State Northridge and I needed it, but Kendra and her sense of humor helped make me do it. When I first met her Judy had to run out and when Judy came back to her dorm room, this was before the three’s company” set up she found Kendra and I reading the “Official Sick Joke Book” and since I couldn’t sign just yet pointing to the jokes and laughing. Anyway, Kendra eventually came to faith and joined the Episcopal Church in Pasadena just a few years back. In her spiritual biography she mentions us not trying to convert her, even going to church with us without feeling pressure. She knew that we cared for her and our continued friendship was a part of how she came to faith. I thought that was so cool. My sign language is in the crapper now but I am going to do my best to have fun. I picked up a copy of “Mommy Dearest” so we could watch it and relive great memories of chasing each other around the apartment with wire coat hangers saying “no more wire hangers.” Trust me you have to see the movie to get this one.
Of course I try to ensure that I don’t appear to be a total idiot when I do this, with some mindless smile or joke that is inappropriate to the occasion. Let’s look at a unlikely scenario: With me in the room the Doctor says to the patient “Sir, I have good and bad news.” The patient says “What’s the good news?” The doctor replies “the good news is pretty soon you will feel no pain.” The patient says “Doctor that’s wonderful news, you know I’ve been in so much pain for so long. So what’s the bad news?” The doctor replies “Son you’re going to die.” Then I as the chaplain with a mindless big grin on my face chime in, “Let’s focus on the positive now…have you seen The Bucket list? Gotta love Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman huh? They are such good actors. Hey, I have an idea, you want to pray?” As the nurses and doctors struggle to pull the man’s hands from around my throat I gasp out “so do you want me to come back later?” That of course is extremely unlikely in my case; in fact I usually am the glass half-full kind of guy when it comes to dealing with sick people since I am neither a physician nor God.
I have a sense of gallows humor but am very careful how and when to use it and thankfully I am able to not smile like an idiot when bad news gets delivered. It’s a gift. Let’s face it there is that stuff about those Chinese kids Yin and Yang, everything has to be in balance.
All this being said there are times where the foot is in the other shoe. These are the times that the person who is afflicted with a life threatening condition or knows that they are dying is the one who smiles and comforts others, even throwing in a joke or poking fun at someone in the room. Having experienced this even very recently I have to say that these kinds of folks do more for me than I think that I can ever do for them. Often there is a time of interaction where the person allows me into their world, to share a story, a laugh and a blessing. For a Priest it doesn’t get any better than that. These are holy times where God shows up and tonight I have the honor of spending time with such a man and his family. I am reminded at these times how precious the time is and just how in the midst of pain, suffering and even death, that the God who says “I will never leave you or forsake you” is truly with us as we walk through the “valley of the shadow of death.”
I’ll be smiling tonight in every ward that I visit and hopefully with every staff member, patient and family member that I encounter, knowing that in their lives, that smile might be the only good thing that happens to them all day, or maybe even all week.
Make sure that you smile and give a kind word to someone soon.