February 2, 2017

Painted Paragraphs

Almost any situation is made better with life-affirming literature.

Dixil Rodríguez

I walk through the front door of my home and leave the purse, satchel, and keys at the entrance. The hour drive back home found me narrating my day to God. So many details. I walk past my laptop and see the blank page welcoming me, along with an impatient cursor that might as well say, “Write!” Where to begin?

I stand at the information desk waiting for the receptionist to find an elusive envelope for me. Everything and everyone around me is moving so fast while I stand still. I have volunteered in this hospital once, as part of a training process. The distance from home is rather significant, but it’s the hospital structure itself that intimidates me most. New and old architecture meet to create something beautiful that spans for blocks and has forced the city to create new streets named after the hospital’s structural additions. My friend Esther is a chaplain here. I remember my first visit.

“We are under construction,” she said as we toured the facility. “Is that not the greatest metaphor for what we do and who we are?” Esther, a seminary and church friend, has asked me to help “fill in for today.”

“Here you go.” The receptionist hands me a thin manila envelope. This is it? The receptionist then hands me a badge with bold red letters that read: CLERGY. I thank her and return the badge and ask for a simple “volunteer” badge. She looks confused. “You are the chaplain; the good person visiting sick people? ambassador of God? You need to wear that badge so that people know who you are.” She extends the CLERGY badge again.

I am just filling in for a dear friend. The receptionist waits a moment, then retrieves a plain white badge and scribbles: Chaplain. I thank her and walk away, consciously aware of her choice of words: an ambassador of God.

I open the manila envelope and find my list of three people to visit. This will not take long. At the bottom of the list I recognize Esther’s handwriting: “Patients may ask for literature, so have some books on hand.”

I adjust the small satchel I carry with four books: a Bible, two copies of The Desire of Ages, and The Story of Redemption. I say a prayer and step into the rushing crowd around me, aware that I cannot even hear my own footsteps.

49 1

“Tired and So Weary, but I Must Go Along”

Any chaplain will tell you they have a tradition of sorts before entering a room. Mine is simple: I stand at the door, say a prayer, and invite the Holy Spirit to walk with me for the day. So here I stand, at the door of Room 308. As I pray, I hear singing, softly at first. I know this song. I lean in to listen, not wanting to interrupt. The male voice seems to be moving around the room:

“Well, I’m tired and so weary,

But I must go along,

Till the Lord comes and calls me away—

Where the morning’s so bright,

And the Lamb is the light

And the night, night is as fair as the day.”

As I listen to the beautiful lyrics, I almost forget why I am there. I feel a light touch on my elbow, and a nurse invites me to enter the room. The soloist is Dr. Richardson, who visits his mother in Room 308 twice a day. I knock, enter the room, and introduce myself. There is minimal light in the room. Dr. Richardson smiles, stops singing, shakes my hand, and with a quick goodbye promises to return.

The receptionist waits a moment, then retrieves a plain white badge and scribbles: Chaplain.

In front of me is an elderly woman holding a blank Bible. No ink. Braille. Her eyes are closed; she is humming. She invites me to sit closer. Her thin, wrinkled hands speak of a long journey to this bed. Her name is Janna. She is 101 years old and proudly tells me she was one of the first secretaries in a military base in Texas. I cannot imagine all she has seen: war, loss, progress, change. She has been blind for 10 years.

“Can I tell you something, chaplain? I don’t miss it. I see Jesus more clearly now than ever before. When I read the Bible, I see the most beautiful images of heaven. Soon I will sit at Jesus’ feet and see His smile. I will be home.”

The conviction in her voice, her hands reaching to the heavens, she speaks with a fierce faith. No earthly distractions can cast shadows on these heavenly images. I learn of her family, the death of her husband 30 years ago. Her stories are a life witness of miracles from God.

One day she woke up and found only four eggs and four slices of bread for breakfast. She prepared breakfast for her two children and her husband. When they left for school and work, Janna knelt in the kitchen and prayed: “God, I pray for a miracle for my children. They need food.” She checked every cabinet, and in the highest cabinet, way in the back, she found two cans of beans “hiding.”

That night, while praising God for this miracle, she prepared a watered-down bean soup for her children, letting them eat before she and her husband shared the leftovers. That evening someone knocked at the door. But the only things on the porch were two boxes of food with fresh fruit and vegetables. “God touched someone’s heart. He is so merciful and good.” For an hour I hear stories of similar miracles. She is witnessing to me, even though I have come to visit her.

She is tired. I ask if I can get her anything. Janna points to her feet where a box of magazines has been placed on a chair. Her son brought them to read together. She asks if I will read to her until she falls asleep.

I carefully open the box, aware of what a privilege this is. Nicely packed are two stacks of Signs of the Times. I hold the magazine in my hands. I know this publication! At one time my job was to edit this publication!

The silence being long, she asks if all is well. I share a brief background about Pacific Press Publishing Association (PPPA).

“So your visit was not a coincidence,” she whispers. “Do they print books?”

Books! I reach for a copy of The Desire of Ages, feeling how light the satchel suddenly feels. Janna holds the book, touches the print, brings it up to her face, smells the pages. “Let’s start this one.”

We read for a while, and in a moment of pause she reaches for my hand and whispers: “Beautiful! Thank You, Jesus.” A few minutes later she is asleep. I leave the book on her night stand. After a quiet prayer by her bedside, I exit and find there is a melody in my every step.

49 2

“There Will Be Peace in the Valley for Me Some Day”

I turn and see the elevator again. I am walking in circles. I am on the right floor. What am I missing? At the information counter, Nurse Alice helps me. She takes me to a hall with blue double doors and opens the doors.

“This hospital wing is designated for individuals who have suffered physical and mental trauma,” she says, “Mostly abroad. If you need a gown and mask, the nurses will help you. Please leave the satchel at the desk.”

Oh, no. I explain the importance of the satchel. Alice smiles and offers a small clear bag. No pens or personal items, but she will allow two books for my visit. As I unpack the satchel, Amber picks up The Desire of Ages and thumbs through it. I purposely slow down as she skims the text.

“Do patients really ask for this? Does it help?” She stops and reads silently. “I see tragedy every day. I wonder about Jesus . . .” Her voice trails off as she finds another spot in the book and reads.

Patients have to ask for reading materials before we can provide them, and it never fails: they do ask for an inspirational book. She looks at me, holds the book tight, and whispers: “I am not a Christian, but would you mind praying for me, for peace? I feel so restless with all the pain I see. I have children. I need to find a church, a Bible . . .”

I hand her the clear bag that already contains a Bible, and she places The Desire of Ages in it and tells me this was unexpected. I smile knowing this is what I was missing, while lost on my way to the next visit. There, in the hospital wing where physical and emotional traumas are abundant, we pray. Walking down the corridor toward my next visit, I thank God for unexpected encounters.

“There’ll Be No Sadness, No Sorrow, No Trouble I See”

A cheerful “Come in” welcomes me into Room 430. I quickly assess the room and see a box of gauzes, scissors, tape, clips, ace bandages, and silicon squares. Amputation. I carefully pull the curtain aside and see a young man sitting on the edge of the bed, bandages covering both legs above the knee.

I introduce myself, and he shakes my hand. His name is Ben, and he has been there five weeks. I learn about Ben’s injury while serving abroad, the agonizing trip home, his feelings of failure, and his worries for friends. He talks of dangerous zones where he spent hours waiting in the dark, praying he would live to see the sunrise. His detailed story and heartfelt pain fills the room until I don’t think there’s room for anything else, not even me. It feels as if the lights have gone out in the small room with the weight of brokenness.

Yet somewhere in the darkness he found light, a purpose, and held on to it: “Some say you find God in difficult situations. I know God found me.” During a long night of combat Ben was shot eight times. The bullets lodged in his leg splintered into shrapnel; by morning Ben was almost dead. He was sent home.

“That night, waiting for transport, a chaplain found me, spent the dark hours in the field talking to me, keeping me awake, praying, and encouraging me. I never saw him again. Actually, nobody did.” A silent comforter in the middle of the night, praying, an ambassador of God. Ben says he has found faith. He wants to know God. Ben points at the Bible on the table next to him. He is almost done reading it and can’t get enough of the Word of God.

“I want something to fill in the gaps. Does that make sense? Literature that is inspired.

I don’t even look at the bag and pray to be inspired in the selection. The Story of Redemption is the book of choice. Ben turns the book around in his hands, looks inside, turns to the first chapter, and begins to read. After a few moments he looks up and says: “Thank You, God! This is the type of book I’ve been searching for. Where can I get more?”

I promise to leave some additional reading with Esther. His gratitude has reminded me of how inspired, painted paragraphs can change a life. Outside the room I say a prayer of gratitude and head to my last visit.

“The Flowers Will Be Blooming, and the Grass Will Be Green, and the Skies Will Be Clear and Serene”

I walk the third floor to the small chapel and sit in the dim light. My last visit is close to home. I sit in quiet reflection praying for heavenly words to fall from the sky. Dear God, let me be a positive influence here.

Room 901. The floor is usually quiet, and all nurses whisper, focusing their attention on the sounds of mechanical support keeping patients alive. I knock on the sliding door. I cannot see the patient; a curtain surrounds the bed.

A man slides the door open, takes my hand, and whispers: “Hello, I’m Mark, and that is my wife, Emma, and son, Eric. I know who you are. I read your articles in the Adventist Review.” I offer to call a colleague to work with Mark’s family in case they’re not comfortable with my presence. He shakes his head and says, “We asked Esther for you to visit.”

I walk into the room. Someone is speaking softly. I dare not breathe to interrupt any thought in the room. Eric sits on a small couch in the corner, and Emma is reading a book to the young woman on the bed. I glance at the monitors and feel pain in my heart. The patient is not well. Mark introduces me to the family and explains how his daughter, Wendy, had been in a horrible accident after picking her children up at school. All the children, their sweet grandchildren, died in the car crash.

Wendy’s husband was abroad. When he returned, he suffered a stroke the day after the children’s funeral. Her family immediately moved nearer to Wendy, in order to be present during such a difficult time. Nobody seemed able to console her. Weak and heartbroken, Wendy mourned the loss. One morning, at breakfast, she simply fell and never woke up.

“She lost a lot. I understand she felt hopeless. I know God understands that too,” says Emma. “I sit here and read to her all day long. This was her favorite book. She was a gift from God to us.” I glance at the book she is holding. It’s an older edition of Steps to Christ.

Countless exams brought about the bad news: Wendy was brain-dead. Her organs were shutting down. Emma explains how in a few hours compassionate measures will be taken and mechanical support will be removed. Her voice trails off, and she slowly runs her hand over the book, sighs as her husband stands next to her.

For the next three hours I meet Wendy through the happy memories her family shares; memories that for a brief moment bring a smile among them and soften the hardness of what is to come. We pray between stories, sing Wendy’s favorite songs, and the room is filled with peace.

A few hours later time of death is pronounced, and I join the family embrace as Mark prays, speaking to his heavenly Father, thanking him for the gift of Wendy, praying for comfort, praying for understanding and peace. I feel my own tears and let them fall. Come, Holy Spirit, we need You. In that moment all seems calm and serene as we embrace God’s promises, comfort one another, and pray together as His children. There will be peace in the valley.

I return the sealed envelope and write “private” on the seal, knowing Esther will be the one reading the progress notes on the visits. I glance at my watch and realize my three visits have taken 24 hours. The receptionist takes my badge, reads the print, and shakes her head. The importance of words.

There it is! In pondering the obvious I see the entire day unfold in front of me like a book being opened for the first time. The books, the magazines, the encounters, the reading, our publishing ministry in action all over this hospital! People searching, asking, longing for words that will inspire them and lead them to discern Scripture and find a God who is present with us, all the time, in every corner of this world: from a quiet bedside to a dark night in the wilderness. The Holy Spirit is still touching the hearts of humanity, engaging them in a sincere search for Jesus Christ.

I walk out of the hospital and peek into the empty satchel and remember the hands that now hold these books. A memory floods to mind as I recall my amazement the first day I walked through Pacific Press Publishing Association a
nd observed the printing process: books being bound, magazines collated and prepared for shipping; all traveling across the world, sharing hope and peace.

Today I saw the church’s publishing ministry in a different light. I drive home singing: There will be peace in the valley for me, O Lord, I pray.

In my home office I run my hand across the long lines of Pacific Press Publishing Association books. Some were gifts, some were purchases, and others were “borrowed” from my father’s office. In the quiet room I write to an old friend:

“Dear Dale, if you’ve ever wondered how the work of PPPA is reaching out to the world and changing lives, let me tell you about my day . . .”

Dixil Rodríguez, a university professor and volunteer chaplain, lives in Texas.