Monday, June 25, 2007

Robert W. Cholke

Yesterday I learned of the death of the Rev. Robert W. Cholke in April of this year at age 67.

Cholke (everyone that I knew who knew him called him "Cholke," even Lee, his wife at the time) was my and Cheryl's CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) supervisor at the Haverford State Mental Hospital outside of Philadelphia. He was one of the most important people in my early formation as a clergy person. His imprint is still clear to anyone who knew him and who knew me before my time at Haverford. Cholke was bright, insightful, one of the most perceptive persons I have ever known, and funny. Most of all, he was real. There was no pretense and nothing hidden. He shared himself openly and freely.

Let me tell three stories about Cholke.

1. I clearly remember my first day at Haverford... I was more than a little nervous. I had had almost no experience with mental illness and was filled with stereotypes. My theology at the time was narrow and naive. And there was Cholke... chain smoking, heavy drinking, couldn't form a sentence without a 4 letter word, Lutheran, Cholke. I was aghast! What could this man teach me? He couldn't even be a real Christian. I was sure it would be a waste of time, just a hoop to jump through to finish seminary. I'd hang in there and be done with him as soon as possible. Little did I know.

2. As part of the CPE program we had individual sessions with the supervisor. One day, I arrived to see Cholke and he was running late with a patient. I sat outside the door for a few moments before it opened. When it began to open, I stood to enter. There in the doorway was a man who I reacted to as one of the most repulsive human beings I had ever seen. I could smell him from feet away. His speech was slurred. He was missing teeth. His face was swollen and bruised, as if from a fight. His clothing was dishelved and his hair was a mess. He had tardive dyskinesia - a side effect from the use of major tranquilizers that cause an individual to loose control of small muscles when they aren't using them. When he wasn't talking his tongue darted around uncontrollably. His fingers also moved, as if with minds of their own. My first reaction was to step back. His attention was on Cholke who was there completely and absolutely for him. Before he left, Cholke took the man and embraced him with a smile and a laugh. Cholke saw what I could not. He saw the face of Jesus. No, he saw this man as a child of God. It was a moment of grace for a man from whom most would run. For me, it was a moment of transformation - one huge step on my journey to see what is real and true.

3. Cheryl and I participated in a couples' group with Cholke and Lee. Week after week Cholke would see something the rest of us had missed, share it, and we'd all think, "how'd we miss that?" Then came the week we were looking at some of the issues in Cholke's relationship with Lee. He was as clueless as the rest of us when it came to his own relationship.

I could write pages about the things I learned from Cholke and the ways those insights changed who I am. Whenever Cheryl and I would talk with another clergy person regarding their CPE experiences, more often than not we would shake our heads and give thanks that Cholke had been our supervisor. I hope he would be proud of who I have become and of the ministry I do. I know he would shake his head, laugh, smile, and call me on things I had not seen.

I hadn't seen him in more than 20 years. I am sure that he grew and changed and that the journey of his life sharpened his insights and enriched his ministry of caring. I do know that he married again and that family life had brought him both joy and pain. I pray for those who loved him and were close to him during these years, that God will hold them close in grace and love and ease their grief, especially his wife, Joanne Martindale.

These words were found in some of Cholke's papers... and they sum up his spirit...

People don't need a long life,
As much as they need a compelling reason to live,
And a compelling reason to die.
For upon these two necessities
Is Life for the human being
(in that great array of living things)
Sustained, enabled, and fulfilled.

Chaplain Robert W. Cholke, 5/18/94

Thank you Cholke for all that you taught me, for the imprint you made in my life, helping me to be come who I am. My life is richer and fuller because of you. Rest in peace my friend.