Friday, July 30, 2010
As my phone buzzed me from my sleep I thought, how did my alarm get set vibrate rather than ring? Through one half-opened eye I looked at it and realized simultaneously that it was a call coming in from the hospital and it was 4 am. "Hello," I said as awake and alert as I could manage.
"Is this the Protestant Chaplain on call for <insert name of hospital here>" came the official sounding voice from the other end.
I sat up and said, "yes, this is Nancy" as I forced my brain to pay attention to what was coming next.
"A family on <insert ward #> is asking for a chaplain, the patient is dying."
"Wait, let me write this down." I knew I couldn't rely on my memory at this time of night (or morning, I'm not sure which timeframe 4 am belongs to). I turned on my bedside lamp and reached for my notebook and pen. "Go ahead."
"I'm sorry for waking you, Ma'am."
"No apology needed, I'm on call, it's what you are supposed to do." The official sounding voice laughed and gave me the details. "Please tell the family I'll be there as soon as I can," I said as my mind had already started going through my closet thinking about what I can put on. As I physically opened the closet door I thought of the entry I read in the Beauty Tips for Ministers blog about always keeping one outfit pressed and ready for those middle-of-the-night calls and I wish I had paid better attention to the advice. I grab what doesn't need ironing and pull it on, make my way to the bathroom, put up my bed-head hair as neatly as possible (wasn't oily hair supposed to end sometime in my 30s???), wash the sleep out of my eyes, decide against any makeup beyond a quick dust of powder, put in earrings, and brush my teeth (a very important step I was glad I thought of even if halfway to the hospital I realized I had forgotten to freshen my deodorant).
I got in the car and thought "Oh, dear God, I have no idea what I'm supposed to do!" Which I immediately followed with the prayer "God, you are going to have to give me the words." Thankfully, the drive was uneventful and I even managed to stay within the speed limit.
I entered the darkened room to find two women, one looked about my age and the other older standing beside the bed where the man appeared to be sleeping. I softly whispered who I was. The younger woman, the daughter, stepped away from the bed and explained the situation to me.
"My father is dying," she said. Tears ran down her weary face but her voice was strong. "His breaths are coming further and further apart. He's been in so much pain and we don't want him to suffer any more. We've said our goodbyes to him. Please pray with him so that he knows it's okay to let go."
These words will ring in my ears forever. My mind and heart raced through time to two separate events, years apart yet just as vivid as this event unfolding before me. I remember standing with my grandmother at my granddaddy's bedside and hearing her whisper to him "Shug, if you are ready to go, it's okay." About ten years later, I said similar words to my own mother: "I know you don't want to be this sick and if you are too tired to keep fighting, it's okay." And, now, these people I didn't even know, had never met before walking into this room, were asking me to give their husband and father permission to let go of this life.
I stepped close to the bed, took his hand, placed my other hand on his shoulder, and leaned in close to his ear. "Mr. <patient name> my name is Nancy, I'm the chaplain. Your wife and daughter have asked me to pray with you." I took a deep breath and said a quick silent prayer asking God again to direct my words. "Heavenly Father, please take your son into your arms and relieve him of his suffering." As soon as these words passed my lips I felt his shoulder shake and I thought it was him taking another breath. "Give comfort to his wife and daughter in their sadness. God we know you understand our pain at losing a loved one and even though we can rejoice that <patient name> will no longer suffer but live in your glory, they will grieve losing him. Give them strength, God."
Before I could finish the prayer, his wife says "He's gone, I feel it." For some unknown reason, I respond, "I just felt him breathe" thinking this was the movement I felt. Both the wife and the daughter said they didn't feel anything, that he hadn't moved …
The events of the next three hours were mostly guided by the hospital staff, the doctor coming in to pronounce the time of death, the nurse disconnecting him from all tubes and such and telling the family they could stay with him as long as they needed. I sat with them for about two hours listening to them tell stories of his life amid tears and laughs. Finally, they stood and said they were ready to go and I walked them downstairs to sign the necessary paperwork to allow the hospital and funeral home to coordinate and cooperate. As I walked them to the front of the hospital, the sun was up and it was time for me to start my regular duty day.
I am deeply grateful to have had this experience and touched and thankful for my fellow chaplains who, after only half of my "regular duty day" sent me home to take care of myself, spiritually, emotionally, and physically (although I teased them it was just because they wanted me to shower). Through this event, I realized, again, the awesome responsibility that comes with God's call for my life. I will lead people through the most difficult, as well as the most joyous, spiritual moments of their lives and yet I cannot rely on my own strengths or abilities but those that God gives me for this purpose.
This experience of praying someone through their moment of death will stay with me forever, not in a frightening way but in an awe inspiring way as a testament of God's presence in our lives and physical being. I hope to always be amazed at the way God can build my confidence and humble me at the same time with the same experience.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
It feels a bit like tooting my own horn, but, again, some folks have asked to read this sermon. I wish there was some way to convey voice inflection in written text, but you'll just have to put in your own. Any and all feedback would be sincerely appreciated!
I'm working on my next sermon for August 1 at St. Thomas. You can check out the lessons on The Lectionary Page. Any and all suggestions will be considered!!
July 11, 2010
St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Luke 10: 25-37
Is it just me or does the first verse in today’s gospel lesson sounds like the start of a bad lawyer joke? Only instead of a witty punchline that puts the lawyer in his place, Jesus responds in a way that lets the lawyer and all of us, discover the truth ourselves. In the context of Luke, the lawyer seems to randomly approach Jesus as an individual. In Matthew, the lawyer asking this same question is part of a group of Pharisees taking their turn to attempt to discredit Jesus after a group of Sadducees has failed. In either case, whether he was prompted by a group or acting on his own, he wanted to test Jesus’ knowledge of God. After Jesus turns the tables on him and asks the lawyer what the law says, the lawyer goes on, as the author of Luke tells us, to justify himself, meaning he wanted to prove himself a righteous man of God.
I’m sure many of you have been in this type of situation, either professionally or in a social setting. Someone wants to find out who knows more about a given subject and begins to question us not out of curiosity but to prove their own worth. Some of you know that this summer I’m doing a chaplaincy internship at the VA hospital. Last week, I was the on-duty chaplain and part of being on duty for the weekend is to do the protestant services on Sunday morning. We hold two services, one in the main chapel for anyone who is mobile enough to come to it and then another service in the psychiatric ward, just for the patients and staff there. The other chaplains, in helping me prepare for my first weekend on duty told me about one of the patients in the psychiatric ward who says he is Jesus. They told me that often he will interrupt the sermon to make comments such as “that’s not what I really said…” or to offer commentary on what the preacher is saying. They said the best thing to do is to ignore him and keep going, that he just wants to debate but if I didn’t acknowledge what he says then he would be quiet. I don’t think I have to tell you that all week I was secretly praying that he wouldn’t be at the service. I really didn’t want to be faced with the situation of this man questioning my knowledge even if I was given permission to ignore him.
As I was greeting the patients in the common room in the psychiatric ward before the service, guess who I met? Yep, Jesus. He introduced himself to me and thanked me for coming to do the service and then sat right in the front. As the service began, he followed along attentively in the bulletin, joining in all of the responses and prayers (I remember thinking to myself, Jesus must be Episcopalian!). As I began my sermon, I said a silent prayer for patience and courage. About halfway into it he stood up and I braced myself. … But instead of saying anything, he simply smiled at me and calmly walked out. … Now, I’m not sure which action would have had the bigger impact on my confidence, if he had completely questioned what I said, or just walking out all together! But, at least he didn’t try to test my knowledge. For the time being, I’d like to leave that to my professors.
Okay, so this is a very light-hearted, bit of a stretch of an example of the self-righteous testing that the Lawyer was doing with Jesus but I know we’ve all been in that type of situation. The lawyer realized he couldn’t trip Jesus up on the law, so he tries with something that isn’t specifically defined in the law: “who is my neighbor”. After all, Jesus was well known for hanging out with unsavory types so maybe his definition of neighbor would somehow be a contradiction to or evan a violation of the law. The traditional view of neighbor was a friend or a fellow citizen, not someone who wasn’t an Israelite. Even for us, today, the word neighbor makes us think of those that live right around us, in our “neighborhood.” But Jesus has a different definition and in his usual fashion, her responds with a parable, one we’ve known since childhood. We all know that the point of the parable is to show us what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves. But why do we want to do the actions that show we love our neighbor as ourselves, what makes us desire to be this type of person? Let’s take a bit and, as my favorite professor would say, “unpack” it and look at it in detail.
First, the cast of characters: There is a man. He’s not given a name or a nationality or any type of identifier, just a generic man. The detail comes in his journey, he’s going from Jerusalem to Jericho, there was a purpose to him being on a road that at the time was known to be dangerous. The lawyer probably would have been able to picture himself traveling along this same road, feeling a sense of danger and not being surprised that the man fell into the hands of robbers. The robbers aren’t given any type of descriptor either. For the point to be made, it doesn’t matter who it was who was hurt or by whom, only that we see that a human being, one created by God in his image, is in desperate need.
Next comes a priest, a specific person whose job was to offer sacrifices and take care of the sacred rites of the people, who by chance, was going down the same road. He sees the man, yet doesn’t get anywhere near him and leaves him as the robbers did, half dead. After the priest, likewise comes a Levite, someone who served as an assistant to priests, who also passes by on the other side of the road, staying as far away from this man as possible. The story doesn’t give us any indication of their thinking or their feelings upon encountering the wounded man, leaving the lawyer and anyone else listening to fill in their own reaction to coming upon such a person. Anyone listening to the story, and even you and me, reading it and listening to it today, can see ourselves in each side of this equation.
Finally, there is a Samaritan, someone who despised and was despised by Jews. The description of the Samaritan seeing the man is opposite of how the priest and Levite saw him. The priest and Levite saw him first and then passed on the other side giving the impression that they went out of their way to avoid him. The Samaritan, the story tells us came near and when he saw him was moved with pity and he took action to help the man.
Jesus provides more detail about the Samaritan than any other of the characters in the story. His point is to show the lawyer who is seeking justification for his own behavior that those who focus first and foremost on the law rather than on the Giver of the law are the ones who don’t show compassion or mercy.
God provided the Mosaic law that was followed so painstakingly by the priests and Levites. The law is not bad. This was not the point of the story. The law provides direction on how to live life as people who loved God with heart and soul. The problem lies in making the law more important than loving God or even seeing it as a substitute. The problem lies in letting religious rules get in the way of being God’s people.
Following the rules isn’t how we get to know God. We obey God’s commandments because we know him and love him. Look at the text from Deuteronomy. Moses explains that God wanted his people to obey his commands because they had turned to him with all of their heart and soul not as a substitute for this relationship. Obeying the rules is the visible sign of our relationship with God. God’s purpose in creating us is to be in relationship with him, not so that he would have someone to give rules to. We are commanded first to love him with all of our being. We don’t have to search what God commanded us to do, he gives it to us plainly so that we can understand it and when we truly understand it in our hearts it will be easy for us to do.
Of all the rules and laws given to God’s people in the Old Testament, Jesus boils it down to loving God with all of our being and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Aren’t you glad you don’t have to sift through all of the law books of the Old Testament to find it?
But even though it is given to us plainly, don’t we all at one time or another, attempt to test what Jesus tells us against our own ideas of what we think justifies what we do? We, like the lawyer, want to know what we can do, what actions we can take, to have eternal life. Jesus tells us that the “doing” comes as a result of the “being”, not the other way around.
We don’t follow God’s commandments because that is how we learn to love God. We follow his commands because we love him. When we know and love God as Lord and Saviour of our entire being, we want to do what is pleasing to him.
What was the Lawyer’s answer to Jesus’ question of which man in the story was the neighbor? He didn’t list all of the actions the Samaritan did for the wounded man, but he simply said “the one who showed him mercy.” I think the lawyer got it (maybe that’s the bad punchline to the bad joke of the beginning). He realized that being filled with the knowledge of God’s will, true spiritual wisdom and understanding as Paul puts it in his letter to the Colossians, leads us to do the things that visibly show we love God and our neighbor. It isn’t doing merciful things that gives us eternal life, but seeking to know and love God with all of our being and it is this intimate knowing of God’s will that leads us to do merciful things, to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Let us all go and do likewise. Amen
Monday, July 19, 2010
My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. For if those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves. All must test their own work; then that work, rather than their neighbor's work, will become a cause for pride. For all must carry their own loads. Those who are taught the word must share in all good things with their teacher. Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.
What does it mean to bear one another's burdens, to be our brothers' keeper? Don't we each have our own burdens to bear? The world tells us to look out for ourselves, not to count on anyone but me. Even in this passage we read today, there seems to be a contradiction about helping each other and accepting our own responsibility. Paul tells the Galatians to bear one another’s burdens and then turns right around and says that each one much carry their own load.
The difference lies in the meaning of the words “burden” and “load”. A load is something an individual can carry – think of it like a sack or a backpack, something meant for one person to manage and we all have our own load, those responsibilities such as our families, our jobs, our commitments that we are responsible for. A burden is something that is too much for one person to handle, those times in our lives when we can’t manage things on our own. These are the times, times of sickness, grief, and hardships when we need to look out for each other and help one another bear these burdens.
Bearing one another’s burdens is part of what keeps us connected as the family of God, the body of Christ that is the Church. Salvation isn't individualistic, its community. God came to live among us, in community, as one of us in the form of Jesus. Jesus formed his community of disciples and his ministry was directed toward others in compassion and understanding. This is how he taught us to be his church.
Bearing one another’s burdens isn’t just about helping each other. It also requires letting others help us, asking for and accepting help when we need it, allowing other's to bear our burdens. It takes courage and strength to ask for help. But if we refuse to let others help us, even as we willingly help them, we get in the way of our fellow Christians fulfilling the command that Jesus give us.
Typically, it is our own pride that keeps us from asking for help – we don’t want to appear less than others. Paul tells the Galatians to test our own work and not each others, meaning that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to one another with judgment. If I judge my own work simply on the standard of what I know I can do, the load I know I can handle, then there is no reason for me to think of myself as better than, or lesser than, anyone one else. And if no one thinks themself as better than or less than anyone else then we would be a community of equals.
It’s a wonderful ideal, isn’t it, to think of all of God’s children working together for the good of all. A beautiful thing to think about as this weekend we celebrate our nation's independence, our freedom, a freedom that veterans have fought to secure. So I encourage each of you to not give up and to take the opportunities we have to bear one another’s burdens and to let others help bear ours.
God’s peace be with each of you. Amen.
Saturday, July 17, 2010
Well, CPE is almost over, three more weeks and it's done. It's been tough. I'm not one to let my emotions hang out all over the place and this seems to be what is expected in our group sessions and various discussions. I have tried; I've shared some of the tougher parts of my life; I pushed past my comfort zone. I think, though, I pushed too far outside my comfort zone and for safety's sake I've pulled back in. Everyone has noticed, especially my supervisor. She brought it to my attention in our one-on-one this week and I told her just exactly what I've said here. She then informed me that there was a lot of sadness in my life … I corrected her to say that yes there were sad events in my life, but that didn't have to define me as a sad person. I've got lots of reasons to put my feet on the ground every morning – my son, my father, and not least of all, I'm preparing to do what God has been calling me to most of my life. I have the joy of knowing that no matter how tragic things may have gotten, or may yet get, I live knowing the love, grace, and redemption of my Heavenly Father. That is what I want to define who I am.