As I mentioned earlier, Tommy initially believed that no one, especially God, could ever forgive him or love him. Day by day, however, in Tommy’s journey of faith, he came to trust in God’s loving forgiveness and acceptance. Three months following Tommy’s heart transplant, he returned to his home state. However, five months following his heart transplant, he returned to our VA hospital because his body was rejecting his newly-transplanted heart. It was painful to watch him struggling so deeply, and physically declining with each passing day.
The day before Tommy breathed his last breath on this earth, I spent several hours with him. He was very, very weak. Some of his last words to me were, “Thank you. I am so glad that I came here. I got a new heart; really I got a new healthy heart. If I had not come here, I would have died anyway. However, if I had not met you, I would have died with an ugly, mean-spirited heart that was tightly-packed with horrific memories. I would have died with a heart that was imprisoned by self-hatred and shame. You helped me receive a brand new spiritual heart. Thank you. Now, I can die with a peaceful heart of lovingkindness. I can die knowing that I have a heart for all eternity that will beat with unconditional love and joy. I have a new heart.”
Tommy’s story will continually live on in my own heart. From Tommy, I again learned the priceless gift of providing a safe haven for someone to share their personal story of deep heartache. As a chaplain, I firmly acknowledge that all of us as humans have many stories to tell, that some of these stories gnaw away at our souls and leave us imprisoned by guilt.
We all long to know we are loved, accepted, and forgiven. I am well aware that when another person invites me to journey with them into their story, I am treading on sacred ground. As a chaplain who abides with people in the pit of their pain and suffering, I bring a physical reminder of the presence of Jesus, the Holy One, among us. When listening to people’s heart-wrenching memories, it is not for me to tell them where God was in the midst of their hell. Rather, it is simply for me to be a safe haven as I encourage them to listen for the Holy Spirit’s voice speaking to them about where God has always been for them in that intense and horrible experience.
In Tommy’s outpouring of his profound anguish and guilt, his heart was able to let go of the burdensome weights that kept him filled with shame. For Tommy, God came near to his broken heart, and lifted him up to soar with a heart that beats with eternal love and peace.