James was a middle-aged man whose metastatic cancer had caused paralysis below the waist. When we met, he spoke of his leadership responsibility for his extended family, including children, grandchildren, and his younger siblings. While acknowledging the possibility of dying soon, he felt his purpose in life was to heal and rehabilitate so he could resume his responsibilities. To do anything less felt like failure.
James began treatments for the cancer causing his paralysis, but these made eating intolerably painful and he began wasting away. He shared how deeply this scared him, but it didn’t weaken his resolve. James reflected thoughtfully on how humbling his illness was, but also on the life lessons it was teaching him. He wanted to capture them all to share with his loved ones during his remaining time on earth.
James was no stranger to hardship. His family of origin was large and poor; his mother exuded love for God, but James fell into gang life. James shared, in a matter-of-fact way, about being on the receiving end of bullets shot with the intent to kill, and about renewing his relationship with Jesus while in solitary confinement. By his thirties he had earned his release and begun the life of a working family man.
The seeds of faith within James grew stronger as he confronted his illness. He began speaking openly about his mortality, slowly building his trust in God to care for his loved ones when he could no longer do so. At the same time his faith also intensified his will to push through pain toward recovery. James began making steady progress, putting on weight, then walking a few steps, eventually climbing stairs.
As the prospect of discharge to home came into view, James wanted to explore “a new kind of prayer”—one that felt truly authentic, not formulaic. Above all, he wanted to express gratitude for his life—not just the domestic life he looked forward to going home to, but every step of the journey that made him the person he is today. He had come to embrace himself fully as a child of God.
I adopted the tagline “Practicing Hope Amid Loss” for many reasons. Hope, like gratitude, is a muscle that develops strength with practice. Krista Tippett adds, “[Hope] is not wishful thinking, and it’s not idealism. It’s an imaginative leap.” The challenge of our elder years, it seems to me, is finding that place where we can be fully present to and engaged with loss while, at the same time, not losing faith that light remains in the darkness. Some days that feels like quite the imaginative leap.
My eight visits with James, spread over four weeks, gave me a master class in practicing hope. Since the onset of COVID our family has endured one health crisis after another, and sometimes I have struggled to imagine positive outcomes. After one of these crises hit, my supervisor commented that it would be entirely understandable if I needed to take some time away from chaplaincy. But I was finding that chaplaincy work was helping me keep my situation in perspective, even inspiring me. Shortly thereafter I met James, and for that I am forever grateful. He turned out to be just what I needed.
My training taught me to keep my situation “out of the room,” to focus fully on James and get my own needs met elsewhere. It wasn’t difficult—James’s life experiences were so far removed from mine, and his personality and needs were so intense, that there wasn’t room for me in that room anyway. Later, reflecting quietly, I could see how he was raising and addressing many of the same questions and fears that had been filling my mind. He not only challenged me to adopt a posture of hope, he showed me what it looked like to practice hope in the midst of loss.
In the end, James’s hope bore fruit: he received what he had been seeking—more time with his family. In the end, I have been blessed, too—our health crises have left their mark, but our spirits have been strengthened. Many situations we confront as chaplains—and as humans—seem to have no possibility of a happy ending. I believe it is good for us to build up our muscles of hope whenever we can so that they may become a source of strength when the loss that surrounds us becomes deeper.
 Krista Tippett Wants You to See All the Hope That’s Being Hidden, NY Times, July 10, 2022.