The Beatitudes of Woe

Blog Post by 
Rev. Dr. Jay Kanerva
Specialized Ministry – Chaplain

Luke 6:20-31

In the summer of 1994, a tremendous heatwave hit Chicago, contributing to the deaths of many inner-city residents. The homeless, the poor, and the elderly were the most significantly affected. I was serving as a student chaplain at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and one of my coverage areas was the Emergency Room. In this place, I experienced the defining moment when I understood my calling as a chaplain.

One day the ER was packed, and one man remains indelibly burned in my memory. He was a street person, homeless. This gentleman was wearing jeans, a t-shirt, a flannel shirt, and a trench coat despite the heat. He wore a hat over a mass of bushy hair, and he had a thick, unkept, beard. He was at the intake nurse’s desk. The nurse calmly spoke with him about his physical complaint. He said that his feet hurt. She asked him to remove his shoes. He was wearing beat-up old leather basketball shoes without socks. As he removed his shoes a powerful stench permeated the ER causing those in the waiting area to flee out into the hot street. The man had sores on his feet that had become infected, producing a profound odor. He recognized the disgust on people’s faces, and he began to cry. He turned to the room and said pleadingly that he was sorry. He and I met eyes and he again apologized through tears. I could only look away and kept walking. I glanced back and saw the nurse was gently cradling his foot, washing it, evaluating it, and speaking calmly, kindly, and soothingly to this man.

My immediate feeling as those double doors closed was shame. Woe to me, for I had failed as a chaplain. Woe to me, I had failed to be a blessing to the poor. Woe to me, I had failed to be a blessing to the hungry. Woe to me, I had failed to be a blessing to a man as he wept. Woe to me, I failed to be a blessing to a man who was despised, excluded, and reviled. This failure was the spiritual kick in the pants that was, and is, the greatest lesson that I have learned in my journey as a chaplain.

As it is written in Luke 6: 24-26:

“But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. 25“Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. 26“Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

The “Woes” are just as, if not more, important in our development than the “Blessings.” The woes that Jesus speaks of are those circumstances that humble us, remind us that we are connected to our neighbors and that we are no different from the one who stands before us. On that hot summer day in 1994 I was woeful. I had forgotten the pain of feeling alone, I had forgotten the call to humility that leads us to ask for help or to offer compassion, I had forgotten the grace I had once received when I was at my lowest. Woe was I and a blessing was that homeless man.

Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life…I need darkness as much as I need a light”

There are times in all our lives when we need to be confronted with a “woe to you…” We may be humbled as we are reminded of the darkness, hurt and loneliness that we have endured, through which we have grown and matured. As those called to serve the church in this dark time of COVID-19, the Delta strain, in the midst of a world that feels irreparably broken, we will encounter others who are mired in the shadow places that are devoid of hope and frightening. It is then that we can reach out our hands and provide hope as we tap into our experiences of being afraid, anxious, isolated – in darkness. We can then recognize the blessings of those around us even in the direst of circumstances. It is then that we can reorient ourselves to be the blessings for which we have been called.

We need not be ashamed of when we deserved a “woe to you.” Instead, learn from it, find the blessing of loving those who seem unloveable, and thereby become a blessing to the ones we serve.

May it be so, amen.

~ Rev. Jay

Rev. Dr. Jay Kanerva
Specialized Ministry – Chaplain


  • Posted July 27, 2021 7:18 pm
    Junie Ewing

    Thank you, Jay.

  • Posted July 27, 2021 9:32 pm
    Jim Cook

    “Woe to me” moments come to all of us. Not all of us recognize them, or we respond with a “woe IS me.” Thank you for your perception – as a student chaplain – and now as a revered chaplain. Recognizing those who are blessings in disguise is not something everyone can do – easily. Thanks for reminding us that we need to keep oriented to the opportunities to be a blessing to someone.

  • Posted July 28, 2021 6:32 am
    Bill Vincent

    Thank you, Jay, for sharing yourself and sharing your story. Amen and Amen!
    The words finally came to me in a hymn:
    “Break us open to disclose how brokenness can heal”
    (“Take Us As We Are, O God” GtG 312)
    Not a ‘pleasant’ experience, but one filled will hope and grace.

  • Posted July 28, 2021 8:02 am
    Ed Zumwinkel

    Thank you Jay. This is the perfect message for this moment. Really well done! Also a good reminder of the great work our Chaplains do!

  • Posted July 28, 2021 8:58 am
    Liz Rolf Kanerva

    Thank you for your thoughtful reflection, Jay.

  • Posted July 28, 2021 9:25 am
    Alexandra Lysdahl

    Thank you for sharing this, Jay.

  • Posted July 28, 2021 11:14 am
    Kathy Sherrick

    You made me cry, Jay, as I have surely been that person who ignored the needy, crossed the street or turned away at times in the past. I want to be the person who asks, “What if that person is Jesus?” And so I try to keep that in my mindset every day although, being human, I fail!

  • Posted July 31, 2021 8:03 am
    Kathy Judkins

    Beautifully written. Thank you for the reminder and perspective.

  • Posted July 31, 2021 4:48 pm
    Deb Tracy

    Thanks for being you Jay! Blessings!

  • Posted August 2, 2021 12:40 pm
    Janet L Riley

    Jay, You helped me to recall the times I have failed to be there for someone in need but also those sacred moments when by the grace of God I was present. Your reflection moved me and I am grateful to you for sharing it.

  • Posted August 3, 2021 5:44 pm
    Marilyn Gamm

    Powerful testimony! Thanks for sharing, Jay!

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