Much like I would imagine a first-time new parent might feel on the eve of the arrival of their new child, my call to Hospital Chaplaincy didn’t come with an instruction manual. In the months preceding my move to San Francisco and the start of my CPE residency, I began to have doubts – doubts that my 3000 mile move was indeed what God had in store for the next year of my formation, that my residency was the right place for me, and most of all, that working hip (and at times shoulder and ear-) deep in the stories, suffering and grief of the ill and dying was what I was supposed to be doing. As I worked in the advancement office of my seminary during the day, and packed boxes at night, I said deep, breathy prayers to my God, asking for courage and strength, discernment and clarity – never once asking why, but always asking for the courage to jump into an experience that all at once felt filled with doubt and fear.
In the Gospels, Jesus’ ministry begins with weeding through people to call his disciples and earthly ministry compatriots. [I should pause here to distinguish that I by no means perceive myself as a disciple in the traditional, scriptural sense.] In the Gospel of Matthew, a disciple approaches Jesus, but makes certain demands of Jesus before he is able to follow him: “Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ Another of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.” (Matt. 8:18-22) Christ emphasizes that those who dedicate their lives in the service of the almighty must understand that it comes with sacrifices – whether they be physical (homes, geography, physical property, items, etc.), emotional (separation from family, friends, community bonds, etc.) or otherwise, but it doesn’t come without the companionship of God.
I can relate to this passage from Matthew; never did I expect that my ministry as a hospital chaplain would involve holding the small hand of an infant as she passed away, baptizing a premature baby, offering a blessing for a Left Ventricular Assist Device (LVAD for short) before a patient went home at their request – understanding the new life this device will provide this person with, and discussing the deepest of life’s issues with heart and lung transplant patients in the depths of the night, a time when things seem most pressing, and the heart seems closest to the Divine. Excerpts of the work God has done in and through me are not sufficient enough to explain the weightiness that is the work of the chaplaincy, and yet also, the joy.
As a transplant chaplain, I am often called to be present with families in times of desperation, when all things seem fraught with fear, and treatment options seem so totally futile. Physicians speak about the futility of life and medicine, and yet, this is precisely the moment when clergy and chaplains edge in – to hold frail and IV-scarred hands, to offer up verses of Scripture, to ask, “what may we offer together God in prayer in this moment?”and most often, to feel completely comfortable in the painful silence that accompanies panic, pain and grief. This past week, I was called to the bedside of a young mother who was told she would not be receiving a lung transplant; no longer able to speak because of a tracheostomy, she wrote out that she still believed in the possibility of a miracle – a Lazarus moment of her own, but was also not afraid to die. Together, we read the story of Lazarus in the Gospel of John, and as I did so, tears began to fall from her eyes (and mine).
Hospital Chaplaincy is not for the faint of heart; I have experienced many Lazarus moments, and have also experienced many Matthew 8 moments, where God has firmly told His disciples that the service of God is not an easy path to walk, frequently filled with many difficult choices. Over the course of my more than 6 months as a chaplain in San Francisco, I have wandered and tread upon paths that could only have been created by the Sacred. A phrase frequently used in Chaplaincy is, “sacred space,” and I have felt that much of what I have experienced in my interactions with patients and their families over the course of the last almost 7 months has occurred in “sacred space,” created only because my previously faint heart has been filled willingly with the Holy Spirit, ready and willing to do God’s Work for the Good of others.
Even though the Lazarus moment doesn’t come for everyone in the physical sense, it does indeed come for all at some point (physically, spiritually, emotionally, theologically, what have you), and the role of the hospital chaplain is not to convert/convince/change an opinion, but rather to stand in the midst as a grounding point when all else is disorienting and chaotic.
By the grace of God, I have been called and equipped to this ministry, and the hesitancy, doubt and fears of failing all fell away after the first month or so. I realized that God was requiring of me to jump into my call, trusting as I had so many times before that God’s call was authentic, and therefore, am equipped with the tools and skills for such a time as this, but only if I remember that it is God’s work, not Liz’s work, and a partnership.
As I begin my fourth unit of CPE on Monday, my prayer is that I continue to hone in on the still small voice of God – not only for myself, but also for my patients; I came to the conclusion midway through last unit that if I cannot do that for myself, there is no way that I will be able to do so when I am standing in the midst and in solidarity with the patients and families I work with on a daily basis. May I have compassion for myself, a discerning ear, and continue to listen for God’s will for my own life so that I can listen compassionately to the concern of others in crisis.
Amen (or as we say in CPE, “may it be so…”).