Call is this odd and wondrous thing – it took three years of strenuous theological education, three years of discernment, and three years of my local governing body grilling and questioning me, until finally, there was nothing left and all is calm. Call is this odd and wondrous thing that requires the seeker to question whether they are sufficient, and to have others question the same – sometimes at the same time, and other times at different times. And finally call is this odd and wondrous thing that results in God revealing skills that a person didn’t know they had, and a whole passion and at times torturous love that they didn’t even know they had.
At last, I am breaking the silence that has plagued my blog for the last nearly seven weeks. The silence has been impossible, but a mark of a spiritual practice of this new pastor, and soon-to-be Minister of Word and Sacrament in three short weeks. Having started my call (yes, my call, as it is recognized by my Classis, and by the RCA!) six weeks ago, silence has been something I have been feeling quite a lot recently, but definitely not from the God who has carried me and the figures of the scriptures that keep me nourished – through the wilderness place, and I have chosen to honor and preserve this silence until such a time as the words feel just right beneath my fingers.
The first six weeks of my CPE residency at the University of California San Francisco has been marked by transitions – life into death, death into new life marked by a renewal of faith in the midst of deep crisis, and precious moments shared as last breaths are taken, prayers of commendation prayed, prayers of joy and hope prayed, prayers for new hearts and lungs, for LVADS, ICDS and pacemakers, for donor families and for those receiving organs in the middle of the night, and for those who are rejecting their organs and will not be relisted for another. For assumptions and agendas shattered, for hands held, for young children surrendered back to God with tear-filled eyes, and watched as cheeks were shaved lovingly with care in the ICU. The intimate moments I have witnessed and been asked to be a part of in the first month and a half have left me speechless, and have also caused me to lean even further upon the grace and providence of the God who was willing to go to the cross not solely for the sins of one, but for the salvation of all.
I have sat in the silence when silence is due, and offered what felt like pastorally insufficient answers to the question of theodicy to people facing diagnoses they don’t deserve and that will ultimately rob them of their earthly humanity, but not God’s love for them. No seminary class, no pastoral care seminar could possibly prepare me for the family meetings, ethics committee consults, or end of life pages at 3am that happen all too often for this Cardiothoracic ICU chaplain. Nor could they prepare me for a midnight baptism of a baby born at 26 weeks, beloved by God, created in God’s precious image, yet struggling for every breath as the parents ask for a baptism before the baby rejoins its creator in heaven. These a sampling of very things that in just six short weeks I have been privileged to witness, and yet, words are insufficient. Silence can only do them justice, as in the silence, God is present to witness their grief and joy, sorrow and happiness, as both of these emotions are intertwined and painfully commingled in a concoction that only the divine can understand and the words of this chaplain simply cannot properly describe.
On the most difficult of days, silence is the only tool I have to offer, despite having a fancy undergraduate degree, and a three year professional degree from one of the best seminaries in the country. No pastoral care class lingo, no fancy theology, no quotes from Jesus or the Psalmists, or the prophets will do – only sitting in the silence, feeling for the stirring of the Holy Spirit. In these moments, the Divine speaks words more sufficient than any that my lips could summon, more empathic than I could ever be. My very first supervisor once said that a chaplain is one who does not seek to be the Holy Spirit, but rather brings the Holy Spirit into the room, and in the middle of the night, whatever that night is (physical or metaphorical), the chaplain does not act as the center of the conversation, but allows the Divine to take center stage.
As a transplant chaplain – one who sits with families in the liminal place, families who await with hands folded prayerfully mixed with hope, fear and expectation that God will not fail their loved one, that God will hear their plea, that God will not beseech them, that the Ultimate Healer will heal them – my prayers too are filled with these pleas, and far too often, my eyes are filled with tears as healing happens unexpectedly, and not in this life, but in the New Creation with the Triune One in Glory. Hugs shared with families known only for hours, days, weeks or months, yet bonds forged for a lifetime, faces engrained into a memory that will never be forgotten. The beauty of this call is something that words cannot describe, and frequently, at the end of the day, my Muni-ride prayers are comprised of simple tear-stained prayers as I do my scripture study in the company of my anonymous bus congregants. The anonymity is a blessing after a day of incredible intimacy, and yet, I wouldn’t trade this God-given call for anything, and every day, I wake up praising God for another day in the ICC/CVT, another day with my patients, another day of prayer, tears, laughter, and most fittingly at times, Spirit-filled silence.
The amazing and wondrous part of this all is that in the midst of my Monday through Friday blessing of serving and being among, my Classis has finally deemed me fit to be ordained. I remember my first “adult” job – teaching skiing, and how I thought it was the coolest thing to be paid to do the thing I loved: work with kids and ski for free. Yes, there was a lot of responsibility, and the possibility of getting hurt (and I did once or twice, I broke my arm one season while I was in college, which didn’t make my college lacrosse coach happy…), but I could do the thing that made me happy and fulfilled me. Again, this too felt like someone listened to my plea for direction and purpose, for the intersection of something that I love and my necessity of purpose in life that pays the bills, and God did it again. Out of right field, came hospital chaplaincy, at least for now.
So in a few short weeks, I will be welcomed into the fold alongside some of the men and women who have taught me, nurtured and encouraged me, showed me the way of true Christian community, and ultimately, what it means to be Christ-like. And I couldn’t be more excited, humbled, thrilled, and at the same time, ready for that day to come. You see, planning an ordination service feels much like planning a wedding: filled with nesting and primping, preening, changing and advice-asking, naysaying and advice-getting, until finally, the bulletin is complete, all parties have been asked to participate and the hymns, scripture and prayers have been chosen. I have done all of this, and like my call as a chaplain, I did some of it simply sitting in the silence with God, waiting for the right scripture passage to appear, the right hymn, the right ____.
Soon and very soon, I’ll leave my beloved San Francisco to go back to the place where my faith was first nurtured and cultivated, where my call was first recognized and affirmed, where water was scattered over my infant brow, and I read my very first faith statement before the body of Christ declaring my dedication to the Triune God for life as a fourteen-year-old adult, not the faith of my parents – all of this to take the vows of a leader of the church. All of this seems so tremendously surreal, exciting, and yet, for the last six or so weeks, I have already been living into this identity – as pastor, comforter, Wounded Healer (Henri Nouwen) – and so my return to hallowed ground to have precious hands laid upon me in prayer will simply be a celebration of the work God and I have already done together and the work God will do in and through me from sunrise to sunset.
Thanks be to God for this moment – and for the calls and silences. For they are most precious.