When the doctor came into the examination room, the first thing I noticed about him was the lingering odor of cigarette smoke that came in the door with him. It surprised me a bit. I am rarely around smokers anymore. He said some pleasantries and I watched him as he noticed my collar. He said, "I am impressed by your collar." I said smiling, "There is no need to be impressed." We chit chatted about what denomination and what church. He told me a pretty terrible St. Peter letting people into heaven joke and all about his wife who has macular degeneration and was going blind. After he finished the eye exam and showed me pictures of the inside of my eyeball (trippy), he announced that my far away vision had actually gotten better. Excellent!! I thought. He was in his 70's and gruff. It was obvious who set the cultural tone in the office. But he was also thoughtful. After he shifted the conversation to an A&E special he had been watching on Judas, he announced with a bit of trepidation, "You know, I don't think the Bible includes all the important stuff about Jesus. They didn't let everything into the Bible."
I said and much to his surprise, "No I don't think so either. The people who made that decision were considering the impact on governing a society, too."
We talked for awhile of the relationship between religion and war as he made me read tiny letters and follow a light on the tip of a pen. For a moment he sat contemplating. We said nothing looking at each other for an almost awkwardly long period of time. This gave me an opportunity to broach something else I'd noticed since he first sat in front of me. I had debated whether to say anything from the moment I noticed. I was cognizant that my words had more weight about personal issues in a collar. I took the risk.
"I'm concerned about your breathing,' I said.
He had an abnormal breathing problem that when I closed my eyes sounded like so many other oxygen tank pumps I had heard... but there was no pump... just sharp inhalations lips pursed at the beginning of his breathing pattern as he spoke. He looked at me quizzically. I had chosen my words carefully.. I didn't say "You shouldn't smoke" Nor was I even thinking it. I was just feeling empathy for his struggle.
He told me that he "sounded pretty good for a 2 pack a day smoker." He also said he was 70 years old and had lived a good life. He said his biggest problem was just how deep he would dig in his heels when someone told him not to do something, which people had been telling him his whole life.
I have tried to tell people I love not to do things that harm them. I do not think it ever worked, Not once. Telling a stranger wouldn't have a different outcome. Telling him I was concerned about his breathing was honest, vulnerable, risky. He told me he had wanted to try to quit by changing first to e-cigarettes and was looking for another reason to try to do so. I believe today I was his reason, not because I showed up as clergy rather because I showed up as myself, in a collar.