Blog Post: Waiting in Darkness

[Preface: I was asked to write an article describing my work as a hospital chaplain for my denomination’s quarterly publication…this is huge, especially given my love for writing, my work and my Faith. Here it is!]

CHAPLAIN OFFERS RESURRECTION HOPE TO ORGAN TRANSPLANT PATIENTS

Walk down the hallways of the Heart and Lung Transplant Unit where I work, and you will see patients with some impressive surgical scars.

If you have the time to pull up a chair and pop open a juice cup, you will hear some pretty incredible testimonies of miracles and resurrections following their transplants. Others are still waiting for a new organ, but eagerly will ask you to share a Boost shake and a tale of where they are in their journey to transplant.

When I felt the call to chaplaincy a few years ago in the midst of seminary, I never envisioned serving transplant patients, hearing stories of resurrection transformation. At times, I am the spiritual guide; at other times, patient listener, truth teller, and stormy sea navigator; and finally, my favorite roles: hair stylist, makeup artist, and joke teller.

For those anticipating an organ, it is a period of waiting—the pre-Easter period, where the patient’s tombstone has yet to be rolled away, and she has yet to shed the clothes of her old illness. I have heard a patient describe it much like Jesus’ three days in the tomb, just before he rolls the stone away and appears again to his disciples. Some have years between diagnosis, listing, and transplant, while others only have weeks and months. Most are able to live at home with their families in this waiting period, attempting to continue some semblance of a “normal” life, while a few must wait in the hospital under the watchful eye of the heart and lung transplant teams. Regardless of how patients and their families come to the transplant process, they receive a visit from a chaplain.

Ministry to those facing what is possibly the end of their lives is anything but easy, and at times can be a spiritual and theological juggling act. Transplant chaplaincy, without a doubt, requires a faith in God’s providence—an understanding that rather than being able to provide the answers to those in this expectant resurrection period, I am there to be the “both/and” chaplain, the person who walks alongside in the midst of the ambiguities and offers words of encouragement and hope in a wilderness not unlike those of Abraham and Moses.

I can remember one patient who waited in the hospital for more than 80 days—what she called her “lung wilderness time.” She had risen and gone to bed each day holding in prayer a donor family she didn’t know, all the while asking God to keep her just healthy enough to survive surgery, yet not healthy enough that she wouldn’t remain at the top of the transplant list. She admitted to me that she had made peace with the time she had spent with her children and grandchildren, but felt restless in her soul in this resurrection-waiting time—that waiting for organs felt both peaceful and expectant and also horribly painful and nerve-wracking. “Waiting and praying for someone to die so that I can live feels very un-Christian, yet I don’t understand how that isn’t any different from what Christ did already,” she told me.

I don’t have all the answers to statements like these, but God does—God who is always present for his people in the midst of the mysteries of illness and tragedy. And what matters most is how we respond as God’s people. Into these dark places God sends his children, the church, to be with those who are suffering most greatly. As a chaplain, I have seen what can only be described as the communion of saints gathering around a single family when illness strikes. As they are being cared for, my role is to assure the family that love persists even in the question-filled darkness, that lament with God is acceptable, and most of all, that God can take our pain and suffering, anger and torment, without shame or guilt. I cannot answer questions, nor can I necessarily lead the families I serve to those answers, but I can encourage families that, to paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer, we believe in a God who suffers alongside us and laments along with us. 

Ultimately, I must believe that God is the chaplain and I am merely the vessel for whatever is needed in the situation, whether it be hope, direction, peace, silence, grief, truth, humor, or a new hairdo.

This work is beautiful, life-giving, and miraculous. In the midst of an ever-changing hospital culture, the chaplain is—I am—the one person who can meet people in transition just as they are, where they are—in the resurrection, or before. In hope or in new creation.

[My name] is a resident chaplain at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center in San Francisco, California.

Praise God for suffering alongside us and lamenting along with us.

Pray for patients waiting for organ donations as they hope for new life.

Find out how else God is using chaplains by visiting www.rca.org/chaplains.

– See more at: https://www.rca.org/news/waiting-darkness#sthash.EdEFGUsl.dpuf

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Blog Post: And The Sky Wept

Transitions are difficult. They always are. They come with beauty, goodness, formation, but undoubtedly, they come with some brokenness, weeping, heartache. Fist-shaking, cursing, and for the new me, plenty of tears.

What is all this about, you may ask? I am a minister without charge, a pastor without a call, a chaplain without a hospital, a minister without a flock. I finished my residency on Friday, and while I could finally say that I won’t be doing any 24 hour on call shifts for a while (huge sigh of relief here…), there were many tears (and I mean many…but my tear pouch is not empty, at least not quite yet), as I won’t be going to the place and serving the people where for the first time in my life I heard the voice of God the loudest. Now, mind you, I know this won’t be the last call I receive, but humor me for a moment, this ending feels catastrophic. It feels life-ending. It feels significant. Because for the first time in forever (yes, I did just quote Frozen…), I truly belonged, and it wasn’t because of something I did, but because of something God did. The work God did in and through me was magical, and at times, completely ordinary yet Divine perfection.

The morning after I finished, the sky opened, as though to empathize with my grief. If you aren’t aware, California is suffering from a multi-year drought of critical proportions, and the City of San Francisco hasn’t seen rain since December (the average rainfall in San Francisco is 0.1 inch per month, to put things in perspective). But finally, as if to say, I get your grief, I get the depth of this transition moaning, the skies opened and the heavens poured out the heaviest of raindrops. The sky boomed and roared, thunder crashed and lightening flashed – a storm truly unlike the San Francisco I have grown to know and love, but am soon leaving behind for my beloved New York.

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See, here’s the thing. Everything is going to be ok. I will find a call, and the process has already begun. Resumes have been circulated, countless jobs applied for, and desperate prayers have been lifted to the heavens. But the time isn’t right. My time is, but God’s isn’t. And that’s ultimately what matters. And what hurts the most about this whole thing. The growth in the waiting happens when I learn to listen, rather than speak. To listen to and for the still small voice of God, in whatever way it manifests itself.

Transitions are hard; they involve saying goodbye. A whole lot of goodbyes, in fact. And on Friday, I had to say goodbye to a group of people who felt like my “band of brothers,” my comrades, because verily and truly, it felt as though we had been to the front together. To be crude, working in a cardiac ICU, working with the sickest of the sick – patients who are on the last line mechanical ventilatory supports (both old and young) – brings people together in a way that I would imagine only soldiers who have fought in battle might understand. But, as my dearest Sikh supervisor said to me as we tearfully parted ways back in February, there are never goodbyes, only hello hellos. This doesn’t, however, deafen and dull the initial shock of the separation and transition.

But God is there…a voice in the wilderness, to lean on, just as I have been the one for others to lean on all these months. Perhaps it is time for a role reversal, however hard that is to face, fathom and stomach for this type-A personality, for this doer, helper, covenant-former and community-creator. Who knows all that God has in store for this liminal time, but I can begin by showing my gratitude for the weeping sky, the first sign of transition, change and ultimately, forward progress, rather than stasis.

And in the meantime, I’ll be here. Watching and waiting, hoping and praying. And working on patience. Watching the sky weep. Waiting for the sun to shine again.

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