Day 6

I’m alone. I am the only chaplain at the hospital. The other chaplain, one of my mentors, and the Priest stop by early, 7:30ish, to make sure I have the print-out of the daily census for the hospital. It’s on the shared server that I have yet to access, so they stop in on their way to the mandatory Spiritual Retreat that all the real chaplains in the hospital system need to attend.

I say, “You two kids go have fun.” (Their both older, especially the Priest.) They smile warmly, and I feel confident as I place my imaginary chaplain hat on. Previously, I was in training. But this time, I’m the only chaplain here. I am the chaplain.

And that’s when I really feel it – what is called Incarnational Theology. It’s distinctly Christian in that it deals with the theology that arises (one of many, mind you) from the Gospel story of Jesus Christ. Many Christians believe Jesus Christ himself was God. Many others posit that Jesus Christ was the Son of God. I’m not entirely sure what either mean, especially the latter whose language arose to describe Emperors in ancient Greek culture.

I consider myself a Christian, and deeply ponder who and what Jesus Christ means to me. I don’t feel I have a sufficient answer for myself yet, but I truly believe that seeking is not a sign of lack of faith, but of deep faith. I hold the questions carefully in my heart because I understand that they have eternal significance (whatever THAT even means!). But I feel it, with every fiber of my being, even if I don’t quite understand it.

So, when I put on my imaginary chaplain hat, I know in some way, some beautiful, mysterious way, that what I am to the people I visit is the incarnation of a God that:

cares deeply about them
listens to their pain
is with them in the deepest sense of the word

Because I am the only one here, I really try to fully embrace this – I attempt to set all my feelings of inadequacy aside, all the other “stuff” that clogs my brain surrounding my life.

And I visit patients, family, staff. From the depths of my being, I try to embody love in the best way I know how. I know, with that great knowing, that I am always inadequate, yet God uses such an open, seeking heart to minister. Where I fall short, the grace of God steps in.

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Day 4

It’s like a middle school dance
That awkwardness
How I want to be there, yes, definitely
But I just don’t know how
What to do
How to hold my hands,
Stand

I don’t know what to do when I go see
Someone who has 3 months to live
But the doctor hasn’t told him yet
The weight of that knowledge on my heart
The unfairness that I know
And he doesn’t
So, I stand
awkwardly.

I stand and I try to remember
My presence is enough

So I smile, say hi,
My name’s Meggie
I’m the chaplain

Chaplain Internship: Day Three

I’m taking a preaching class right now at school, and one of the patterns we’re supposed to avoid when creating our sermons is called proof-texting.  Basically, we all proof-text to a certain degree.  We have an opinion, whether ignorant or informed, and we gather pieces of evidence from the world to support it.  The same can be done with Scripture.  We have a certain theological, usually cloaked by the word moral, perspective and use sacred texts to support that ideology.  So, when I’m doing chaplain work, I’m given by the title some sort of authority when it comes to such matters.  But I really don’t feel that I have this authority, especially since I do not know the Christian Bible so well.  I know even less when it comes to other religions.  When I make the statement, “In my professional, religious opinion…..xyz, ” I need to be able to back that with some sort of evidence.  Yet, isn’t this in of itself proof-texting?  And is this what gives me the authority to make such statements?  Especially when they are directly contradictory to what others have said using the same texts.

It’s really complicated this authority piece.  Like anything else, it’s imbedded within the structure of injustice that is my society.  I, by my position within the world, was able to access health and education, which foundationally gave me the ability to eventually be enrolled in the chaplaincy internship, which is how I came to say, quite definitively in the middle of the hospital to a woman who’s daughter just had a psychotic break due to her mental illness and parental-taught belief that God does not love her because she is gay:

“In my professional, religious opinion, it’s okay to be gay.”

Chaplain Internship: Day Two

Holy crap, so much to unpack. Already, my second day! But really rich, good stuff, so I’m not all that bothered by the challenge. I have some homework to do based on what I learned today: find local clubs in the area that offer military honors to veterans who’ve died. I say this because a WWII vet just died today when I was at work. We walked over and talked with the family, and it came up that the deceased was a WWII vet. We conversed about that for awhile, and it felt really good to be able to follow that line of conversation based on my military experience. I need to look into local clubs in the area who give military honors at funerals (Legion? VFW?). I remember being on funeral detail when I was a young buck sergeant in Alleghany County, Pennsylvania. It’s weird how I can fold a flag drapped over someone’s coffin at a funeral and never flicnch. Perfectly executed movements. The snap of the flag as we fold it, into a perfect triangle. No blue showing, whatsoever. But on the drive home, I can barely see the road. I remember this, and I tell the family – You are entitled to full burial honors.

But I shouldn’t have said that, because I don’t know. I can’t remember if you need to be honorably discharged to be eligible for this. I can’t remember if any WWII vet was ever actually dishonorably discharged. The point is, I spoke in the moment, and I don’t know if what I said was true. All I know is – I folded a couple flags at a couple of local, forgotten ceremonies for vets. I hope they look into it. I need to get more information about this.

And then a story I can’t hardly recount it’s already so long (and it’s only my second day!). But it ended with this theological rumination:

There are some things that happen in life that shake even the most able-brained of people. Things that even perfectly normal, well-adjusted adults need help with. So, imagine how these instances might disrupt an already disrupted mind. It feels like uncharted territory. The thing about it is, it’s just like sitting with someone in their grief. You sit with them. Yet so many people seem hesitant to sit with someone when they’re in cognitive disarray. At the end of the day though, it’s always about grace:

There is absolute freedom in knowing that you are wholly loved by God.

Sermon: Acts 17:22-28

One of my most beloved quotes from the Christian Scriptures, one that I draw on very often in times of stress, is “For in [God], we live and move and have our being.” (1) For me this is a beautiful statement of the absolute immanence of God, of our inseparableness from God because God is the locus of our entire existence. Imagine my surprise to find out the speaker, Paul the evangelist, is actually quoting from the Cretica – written by a Cretan poet named Epimenides, circa 600 B.C. In the next breath he quotes another poet, Aratus the Cicilian, circa 315-240 B.C. (2)

At first I’m very surprised by this, why would Paul be quoting old, dusty Greek poets – well, I guess not so dusty at that time – when trying to evangelize? Of course, I have to remember that Paul didn’t have these Christian Scriptures in his day, and even if he did, would he have quoted from it for this particular speech? Probably not, considering the context of where he is speaking. He is in Athens in the comedy of errors known as Acts that ensues after the Gospel of Luke. Many biblical scholars see Acts as written by, and an extension of, the author of the Book of Luke. Which is important to note because each Gospel writer had a particular agenda: each interpreted the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through a particular lens. The writer of Luke focused heavily on what the Gospel meant for a Gentile, or non-Jewish, audience. And Acts continues with that lens.

So, that’s our context: Paul is in a city that in its heyday was the center of all sorts of human inquiry – science, philosophy, art, theatre, rhetoric, architecture. Though perhaps on its decline, Athens was still a place of diverse ideas, people, and ways of being. Paul realized that despite such plurality, he still could draw on a common, traditional language of the people to which he spoke. And he did so to drive home the point he was making – “See, my Athenian friends, even your trusted Greek poets spoke of what I am talking about here.”

It’s not so surprising then after all, that Paul quoted Epimenides and Aratus.

But we can’t end there – in the context of the writer of Acts, because Scripture always needs to be drawn forward into our own context. In fact, as Paul clearly showed, even other bodies of knowledge need to be drawn forward, to help us understand our own, immediate context. In part, that is what we mean by stating we believe in a living God: that the inspiration of God – found even in ancient, Greek poets – did not end in a particular time or place. The Spirit of God is continually moving within and inspiring humanity. So, what inspiration can I find here within our passage for our time?

First, Paul makes an important point in Acts 17:26-27: that God bound humans to time and place so humans would seek, reach for, and find God. (3) As a third-year seminarian, I can’t help but read this in light of Paul Tillich, the 20th century theologian. Don’t get me wrong, as a third-year seminarian; I am pretty much over Paul Tillich. Somehow though, he usually manages to weasel his way into my papers, and now apparently, sermons. He too asserted that we are bound by time and space in what he called ontological categories.(4) Meaning that, for these two ontological categories, we are only now and here – which may look drastically different, depending on your particular now and your particular here. An ancient Mayan culture is vastly different than say, a 20th century Middle Eastern culture. We can think of many different human scenarios that seemingly have no common ground. And coming out of a modern-world, how to negotiate this reality is to assert there must be one, and best, universal way in which God is revealed. But Paul isn’t saying that in our passage, the Greek poets he quotes aren’t saying that, and Tillich defines a component of grace as that God works within our ontological categories. God, as a loving, living God with boundless grace and boundless patience, will honor our own particular heres and particular nows to reveal Godself.

So, what does that mean? Always the question, right? That’s interesting, but what does it mean?

It means that here we have a way to open ourselves up to the possibility that God, as a loving, living, grace-filled God, is also revealed outside of our own time, place, and tradition. It means that the place to begin inter-denominational and inter-faith dialogue is that God, by God’s very nature, is revealed within each tradition. This is scary for some. We all talk about tolerance, right? Tolerance as an ideal is a great thing. But I’m not talking about tolerance here. I decided a couple years ago I didn’t want to merely just tolerate another person and their world-views. I wanted to be able to affirm. And sure enough, over time, God showed and continues to show me, ways in which I can affirm another. This is one way, to believe as a core component of my faith, that the loving, living, grace-filled God I believe in works within the limits of our own embodiment, our particular heres and particular nows.

In many ways, this requires that we educate ourselves about the “other” whoever that other might be. It also requires that we dialogue, because a large part of our particular here and our particular now is that we are pluralistic, technological and global. We no longer have the option of remaining entrenched in our own understandings. Well, we do, but it’s not going to get us much further toward any sense of the Kingdom of God here on earth. I say this because our technological ability to engage in battle over differing ideals has reached such a critical point that we now can completely decimate entire countries with one armament payload. I say this because our dominant Western faith traditions do not contain the Earth wisdom that indigenous religions do that is necessary to avoid environmental devastation. We all need to talk, going in to each situation with the understanding, that a loving, living, grace-filled God revealed something of Godself within differing traditions that is now CRUCIAL to the entire world’s survival.

I have a hard time envisioning this God – Trinitarian? Pantheistic? Panentheistic? Mosaic? A Mosaic God? However, this language is no longer working for me because it’s still working from language that essentially makes God into a deity. But Paul, the Greek poets, and even Tillich seem to be pointing toward an even larger vision – that the very ground of our being is God. And everyone, by the sheer fact of their existence, has their being in God.

Now, this is problematic because there’s a lot of wrong out there, there’s a lot of ideals within a lot of religions that are not the most life-giving. But I think that’s the point of any dialogue – to discover what we both have to offer, but to also reexamine our own faiths and world-views to find out what we need to let go.

At the end of this sermon, I don’t think I’ve given you anything concrete to take home and say, “Yes, this is true, and I now believe it.” What I have done, however, is offer you an invitation to open yourself up to the working of the Spirit of God in the other. Hopefully, over time, you too will begin to not merely just tolerate, but affirm that all of us are needed, now, in our globalistic, pluralistic world to bring about the Kingdom of God. And that necessitates that God is larger, more loving, more living, and more grace-filled than we ever thought possible.

Amen.

1. Acts 17:28, NSRV
2. Kenneth Barker, Donald Burdick, John Stek, Walter Wessel, Ronald Youngblood, eds. The NIV Study Bible. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995). Commentary for Acts 17:28, page 1683.
3. Acts 17:26b-27, NSRV
4. Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology Volume 1. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951), pgs 192-198. In addition to time and space, Tillich also speaks of causality and substance as two more ontological categories.

Chaplain Internship

I just started an internship as a Chaplain, and today was my first day of clinical hours.  My supervisor mentioned that I should keep a journal, so I thought, heck, why don’t I just blog it?  So, here I am, my third year in seminary, interning as a hospital Chaplain, and moonlighting as a fiddle player for Sweet Lou’s Sour Mash:

I was late today.  There were several reasons why I decided to stay out late with the band after our Blue Moon Tavern show:

  1. It was the first day
  2. There was a little confusion about what time I’d start
  3. The belief that if we can’t be gracious with each other, how can we be gracious with those we serve?

So, I knew I could get away with it this time, but never again. 

The minute I arrived, I felt at peace.  Not that I wasn’t excited, because I was.  Not that I wasn’t a little nervous, because, again, I was.  But still, an overall sense of peace persisted.  My mentor is a wonderful woman who is as brilliant as she is kind.  And gracious.  I shouldn’t call her my mentor though because she says we’re colleagues.  “You have the title as intern, but you’re doing Chaplain work.  You’re a Chaplain,” she says.  So my colleague is a wonderful woman who is as brilliant as she is kind.  She led the whole day at just the right pace, taught me some of the most important things about Chaplaincy, and I got to visit with three patients!

It was really an incredible experience.  I was highly intentional about going in and giving off the vibe that the people are wanted and loved.  I channeled that energy as best I could each time.  I didn’t get anything hard as far as the kind of stuff you can see working in a hospital, but there was one curious case.  And it’s not so much the case itself, which I can’t really talk about because of confidentiality, but the conversation my colleague and I had afterwards.  She has such wisdom to offer, and as we were talking, she said that I was a wise woman.  We both are bringing the best of what God has given us to this ministry, and looking at the spiritual side of healing in addition to the physical and mental that hospital staff help heal.  I have a feeling this will be an incredible experience for me, probably the most formative theologically because I’m intentionally using that lens. But I guess I use it always anyways. 

And I love that it’s very mysterious, this Chaplain business.  In some ways, I feel like a detective trying to use all the clues I have – speech, body language, my own experience, the still small voice of God – to discover exactly what I can say and do that will be life-giving for the patient.  It’s a profound discipline in the art of listening well. 

Theological rumination of the day: The ways in which time/space/history (personal and corporate) influence how we perceive leadings of the Spirit of God.