Friends, it is good to be back with you. You know, I was your Director of Youth Ministries from October 2017-September 2020, which always felt more like ten years to me than three. Now I’ve been gone ten months, and it feels like it really might have been years since I saw you. And although I’m still your seminarian and you are the sending parish who supports me on my discernment journey toward the priesthood, it’s been hard to stay connected during a global pandemic. So, let me start with this: hi! I missed you. It is so good to see all your faces and to be in this sacred space together, again.
Here’s a very quick update: I’ve been going to seminary a little more than full time since September and also interning at Church of the Ascension in Lakewood—internships at parishes that are not your sending parish are required for all postulants. My hope is to graduate from Bexley Seabury in June. And this summer, I’m taking Clinical Pastoral Education or CPE. This summer program is the initial unit in a four-unit course for hospital chaplains. Everyone aspiring to the priesthood is required to complete at least this first unit—partially so that students can discern whether their call to the priesthood is actually a call to chaplaincy and also so that someone who wants to be a priest learns how to be around people who are experiencing suffering. Each of the CPE interns is assigned to a few departments where we round. This means we show up at people’s doors and say, “Hi! I’m Leah! I’m the chaplain on your floor. Would you like a visit?”
This introduction gets a wide variety of responses, but they fall into three categories. A little less than half the time, people are finally on their own for ten minutes between doctors visiting and nurses taking vitals, and they would actually really like to be left alone. One person early on made their opinion entirely clear when they announced, “I do not, nor will I ever want a chaplain in my room!” He didn’t even need to add — but you know he still did — “Now, get out!” which had the nurses peeking in the door to see if I was okay. I was trying to hide my grin.
Also, a little less than half the time, people really would like to have a conversation and we talk about all kinds of things from their kids’ birthdays to salvation. And then every once in a while, you walk into a person’s room, like I did back in June, and the patient bursts into tears. This particular person had been in the hospital for several months with one failed heart surgery after another, never quite healing in between. In CPE they teach us to ask metaphorical questions with our patients in order to reinforce the mind, body, spirit connection. So, if someone has heart surgery, ask them what has broken their heart in life? But I didn’t need to ask this patient. It poured out of them like a flood. “I thought they were going to let me go home, but I can’t be discharged. I want to go home. I need to be with my family. I want my mom.” And this person, as old as my own mother, collapsed into my arms and sobbed. After they had cried themself out, they walked me through the surgeries and the waiting and the isolation of pandemic life in a hospital, especially when your family lives hundreds of miles away. And then they got to the big stuff: God was not big enough to hold this grief, to support this life crisis. When God had seen the enormity of what this patient had to endure, God had gone next door to someone else’s room, someone else’s easier problems. God had abandoned this patient.
Now, the other thing they teach us in CPE is that we can’t fix anyone’s theology. It’s not our job, and even if it were, we don’t have time. We’re there to walk with the patient, but they have to find hope on their own. So, what’s a chaplain to do? We listen and affirm their experience, until the patient talks themselves back around or the Holy Spirit opens a door for us to say something we hope is vaguely helpful.
After a minutes long lament of how hard they worked to be a good Christian, my vaguely helpful suggestion was, “Maybe don’t work so hard.”
The patient was scandalized, and I immediately regretted my words, but it’s a common theme you hear in hospitals: I just need to work harder, do more, be better and then God will love me. Then God will heal me. Then God will give me what I want, what I need. Then God will finally show their face in this godforsaken room, and I won’t feel so abandoned and scared.
I have learned the hard way this summer, beloved, that when we rail against God this way, we are usually railing against ourselves and our own limitations. We are railing against pain in our bodies and heartbreak in our souls. We are railing against our fragility and temporary-ness. When we feel like God has walked away from us, it’s usually because we wanted God to answer a very specific prayer in a very specific way that’s extremely important to us. And we have to learn over and over and over again the hard way—that that’s not really how faith works. Does God answer prayer? Yes! Absolutely! Some of them! And also, no, definitely not some of them. And I have no idea how to predict which way it will go. I’ve prayed more this summer than I ever have in my life, and I can count on one hand the number of answers I’ve gotten that I feel satisfied with.
What we have to learn over and over and over the hard way is that God’s love is not a board game. It’s not Settlers of Cataan or even Monopoly. We can’t trade wheat for sheep or the B&O Railroad for Boardwalk. We can’t trade good works for good health. God doesn’t need anything we offer him—because God doesn’t need. God only gives. And the love God gives is broader, longer, higher, and deeper than the entirety of humanity will ever be able to imagine—but we are still invited to try. Love that big blows our arms open when we want to hold tight to everything we think we need in the world. Love that big challenges us plant our feet firmly in what God tells us is real—justice, mercy, compassion—and hold loosely the things the world tells us we need—you fill in the blank. Love that big creeps back into our hearts to give them hope when they are broken open and can’t seem to heal. Love that big brings back our “at least”, which CPE teaches us to wait for.
For my patient, it looked like this: “This is not what I wanted. But at least it looks like I will be able to go to a step-down facility a little nearer home. My son will be able to come visit me.”
“At least I will finally get away from these same four walls.”
“At least I will not have to eat this hospital food, anymore.”
And when you find an “at least” sprouting in your own heart and you nurture it, it grows like the proverbial mustard seed until all your hopes can live at home there. They become, “And I am really grateful for my doctor. No one else thought I could survive that surgery, but she pulled me through. I’m still here. I’ll get to spend more days with my granddaughter.”
And “my family just loves me so much. It’s overwhelming.”
And “I’m so glad you walked through my door today. Who are you, again?”
Now, please hear me loud and clear, Church. I am not suggesting that when you are having the hardest days of your life, you beat yourself up by saying, “Just be grateful!” No. Sit in your grief. Feel all of it. Don’t hide from it or minimize it but look it in the face and know it for what it is. Fear and isolation. Grief and powerlessness. Plumb its depths. Stretch out your arms and push against the walls. And then do your best to reorient yourself toward home. Ask God to help you shift your perspective and situate your pain inside the love of God. Because that’s where it lives. All of human existence is one drop in the love of God. See that when your dig through the bottom of the pit of despair you’re in, God’s love is there, and beyond the span of your arms and your aching heart, God is there. Bad things happen, prayers go seemingly unanswered, and we have no idea why. We can’t. It is simply beyond our ability to comprehend. One of the hardest things to let go of when we let love start to pry our arms open is control and the desperate need to know why, but there isn’t really an answer. And in the midst of that, God’s love is as constant as the tide. Let go, float in it, and breathe. Dive in headfirst and try to reach the bottom. Try to swim to the opposite shore. To chase it, explore it, luxuriate in it, nestle in, and make our home in it. It is the work of a lifetime, and we will never finish. But in the process, we will know God and we will be transformed. And when we are in the hospital bed, hundreds of miles from our families, the most faithful response a human is capable of will creep back in our hearts: hope in the form of an “at least” that reminds us of the most important things in our lives: the people we love, the people who love us, the things that give us joy, and the ways in which we contribute to this world.
And Paul’s prayer that he prays in Ephesians will be answered in us and everyone else who lets themselves be planted in God’s love—and we don’t have to work at it, the work will be done in us: “we will be strengthened in our inner being” so that when crisis strikes, we will know God is our strength. “Christ will dwell in our hearts through faith,” so that we are never alone, even when we feel isolated. And, just as I prayed with my patient a few weeks ago, we will start to “comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that we may be filled with the fullness of God.
“Now to Christ, who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”