Category: Religion and chaplaincy

Stop raging against the dying of the light.

As a writer of murder mysteries that feature a hospital chaplain, I’ve probably given death a lot more thought than most people.

Brief sidebar–my daughter seems to have inherited my fascination with the morbid. While most children play the License Plate Game on long car trips, my kid keeps a tally of the different roadkill animals we pass. I think we got up to 13 possums on our drive from Illinois to Virginia last summer.

Okay. Back to my fixation with death. When I was in college, I realized that there was no heaven, at least not in the sense that I’d been raised to regard it. When I say “realized” it genuinely was a moment of realization, like a reverse Road to Damascus moment.

Here’s how it went down. My roommate, who is Jewish, had received a kosher care package from her mother in advance of the Passover holiday. She and I unscrewed a bottle of Manischewitz wine (which, if you’ve never had the pleasure of trying it, tastes like Kool-aid with a fistful of Jolly Ranchers melted into it). As we drank, she told me about all of the ancient traditions of Passover — the meanings behind the food that was eaten and the words that were spoken. I realized in that moment that my sweet roommate, who is still one of the nicest, most considerate people I’ve ever known, wasn’t going to hell. It kind of broke my brain. I mean, this thought was totally at odds with everything I’d been taught as a strict Baptist, i.e. all non-believers, including many Catholics!, would go to hell. Jesus was the Way, the Truth, and the Light and NO ONE was gonna get to the Father except through Him. But how could this be so? My roommate was following the religious teachings she’d been raised with. Was she really supposed to throw all that out and toss aside her family and thousands of years of history in order to score a ticket to the one and only (Baptist) Heaven?!

Once my belief in heaven and hell became unmoored, other long-held “truths” got caught up in this tsunami of doubt. I have never been able to get back to any kind of certainty about what happens after we die. All I know is that I don’t believe that anyone deserves eternal damnation, especially anyone as good as my Jewish roommate. This uncertainty has made life all the more precious to me. This life may well be all that there is. You might think that that would make me cling to it like some kind of stubborn, agnostic barnacle. On the contrary, it’s made me value quality over quantity. For me, fifty bright-burning years of wonder and joy, soaking in the warm light of consciousness is always going to be way better than 100 years of meh.

Along those philosophical lines, I encourage you to read this wonderful piece in the Washington Post about the American obsession with extending life. So many of us try to stretch out those last months and years like stingy people trying to spread our little pat of margarine across an endless piece of toast. I hope that, when my time comes, I’ll have the courage to face the unknown with bravery and with the hope that there is some kind of heaven. Perhaps the kind of place where my roommate and I can sit around together, sipping terrible wine on a Tuesday afternoon.

Paging Chaplain Barbie

I came across this great blog post today, written by a young, attractive female hospital chaplain: Paging Chaplain Barbie. “Chaplain Barbie” relates this experience:

Patient: “You don’t look like a chaplain.”
Me: “What does a chaplain look like?” 
Patient: “An old man with wrinkles and white hair.” 

There is a scene almost exactly like this in A Murder in Mount Moriah! I know this happens to women in a lot of professions (engineering, math, and science are obvious examples), but there is something about a young female religious professional that can be particularly difficult for folks to get their heads around.  Hooray for the real Reverend Lindsay Hardings out there!

Why write murder mysteries? And why have a chaplain solve them?!

One of my writing heroes, the fabulous novelist Ann Patchett, was interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air recently. She said that all of her books are fundamentally about groups of strangers who are thrown together in unusual circumstances. Patchett reckons that all writers have a similar “thing”–the theme that underpins almost all of their writing. Jack London? Man against nature. Hemingway? Strength and the loss of strength.

My writing buddy, Charlotte Morgan, heard the Patchett interview, too, and asked me what my theme was. It may not be entirely obvious to those who’ve only read A Murder in Mount Moriah. In fact, it wasn’t something I’d ever thought about. Yet, I was able to answer Charlotte’s question immediately. My theme is death. Or perhaps more accurately, my own fear of death and my exploration of other people’s attitudes towards death. That may seem an odd answer given that most of what I write is (or tries to be!) funny. But I’ve never seen any incompatibility between humor and death. Indeed, one of my first literary ventures was writing an original comedy piece for my forensics team when I was a freshman in high school. The story I wrote began with the death of an old woman who was “rammed by a ewe”. All these years later, I’m still pretty proud of that pun.

So death is my theme. But why have a main character who is a hospital chaplain? I suppose that my protagonist, Lindsay Harding, is my shield. Her wisdom and humor protect me from the aspects of death that I would otherwise find too scary to confront. Because hospital chaplains see death so often and in so many forms, they are often able to find moments of levity, beauty, poignancy, and transcendence within the processes of dying and grieving. I think a lot of us feel, or want to feel, this way about death–that it would be better to treat it as another part of life rather than as “that which cannot be named”. To that end, I commend to you the heartbreaking and hilarious series of tweets recently put out by comedy writer Laurie Kilmartin, whose father passed away a few days ago. Check it out. If you don’t laugh AND cry, I will eat my hat.

p.s. This post is dedicated to my friend, Ida Jarron, who passed away late last week. I went to visit her recently in the nursing home she moved to after her condition took a turn for the worse. As ever, she offered me a gin and tonic, which (as ever) she poured with a very heavy hand and almost no mixer. I suspect that I am one of the few people who can say that they’ve walked out of a nursing home at 4 o’clock in the afternoon steaming drunk. RIP, Miss Ida.

Why write books about chaplains?

I came across an inspiring blog post today: Life as a queer chaplain by Laura Arnold. I’m at a particularly thorny stage of writing the next Reverend Lindsay Harding book, and I’ve been a bit discouraged. This post really helped reconnect me with my “mission”–to entertain and engage, while reminding people that we are all children of God*. We all need love. We all seek truth. We all crave meaning and connection. Chaplains, whatever their personal stories, come into our lives at critical moments and do their best to help us walk through to the other side. But chaplains are just like the rest of us–struggling with their own inner turmoil and trying to make their own way in this world.

*Note: Please substitute The Universe or Humanity if the idea of God doesn’t speak to you.