What I learned from chaplaincy

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago on my last day of summer hospital chaplaincy but have taken some time to clean it up. Here you have it - enjoy!

Well, that’s a wrap. My summer chaplaincy (CPE - Clinical Pastoral Education) is finished. In case you haven’t heard, I did the first 6 weeks at a detention center in Reno, NV, and the final 5 weeks at a hospital in Chicago, IL. I’m sure I’ll be processing this for a long time and will come up with far more (or less) to say about it. But for now, here are my thoughts…

I’ve carried a low, humming sense of dread with me all summer long; every time I walk into an inmate’s housing unit or a hospital room, my stomach turns over, at least a little. Because of COVID times, they wouldn’t allow the chaplain interns at my hospital site to serve those in the ER (though I did tag along with our senior chaplain the final day, which was an intense experience, for sure).

Early on in seminary, I wondered... Why do they have us do this? Why do they make us do chaplaincy if we have no interest in being a professional chaplain? I mean, as a parish pastor, sure, I might make the occasional hospital or prison/jail visit when parishioners end up there. But that’s about it, no?

Here’s what CPE ingrained in me, though, and it’s just as important to the vocation of a chancel-prancing preacher as it is for a full-time chaplain...

The role of clergy is not that of a motivational speaker or moralistic disciplinarian whose job it is to tell people to get their stuff together, try harder, and do better.

As a preacher, I’m sure it’s easy to get into that mode. You’re looking out at all of the clean people dressed up in their Sunday bests. You’re like a spiritual football coach looking out at a well-muscled team of spiritually athletic machines. Get out there, team! Do it better! Kick holy ass!

But as pastors who are called by Jesus, this is not our role. Our job is to meet fellow sufferers at the end of themselves. We’re there to witness and speak Christ’s Word of new life directly into suffering and death. For in Christ, all have died and been made alive in God’s eternal Word of grace, mercy, and unconditional love.

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No suffering or sin can out-do this Word that speaks new life into being. This is the Word that sets quarks, molecules, planets, and stars into motion. It is the bringer of the new creation when all hope is lost.

If it weren’t for this Word (which is not my own), I’d have absolutely nothing to offer.

Now, during my CPE journey, this made it tricky for those who wanted nothing to do with Jesus or Christianity. From my perspective, I don’t see them as being outside the bounds of God’s love. No way.

But from their perspective, they saw Jesus as a punisher. It’s unfortunate, but I’ve been in their shoes. There’s a time and place for convincing people otherwise. But as a chaplain, it is not my role to push my faith onto people. So, I’d sit with them and listen to them. Maybe offer them a thought or two to see if anything sticks (only after asking permission). And I trust that God did something through that silence and presence.

When I could relate to the patient or inmate on Christian terms, I really got to witness what God does through that specific lens when it comes to suffering and death. I’ll give you two instances that I encountered this summer. Ethically, I’m not to elaborate too much on my individual conversations or cases, so I’ll keep the details vague.

In one case, I sat in the same room with someone - a young man in his 20s - who had admittedly murdered someone. He has a history of unspeakable trauma in his personal life that traces back far before he pulled the trigger.

In another case, I sat with another young man - in his 30s - who was without a home, family, friends, or church, who was dying of stage 4 lymphoma. And burdened by a history of schizophrenia on top of that.

And here I am, average Jonas, coming to pay them a visit. Me... A white, straight, able-bodied, cisgender male. Yes, I have some trauma and stuff in my past. But seriously. The things I’ve dealt with in my life pale in comparison to what just these two people have experienced (and there were far more than just those two whom I sat with).

When it comes to this acute level of suffering, I have nothing to personally offer either one. There was no, “Heyyyyy, you’re doing great! Here’s what you can do to dampen your suffering and move the needle towards success - hey it worked for me!…”

Nope.

But when I offered the words, directly from Jesus, the Word of God that essentially says…

“I know you, I claim you, I forgive you, and I love you. Whatever schism you believe there is between you and me… Is finished,” I got to see in their tearful eyes just how much freedom, liberation, comfort, and joy this brings to the suffering human soul.

And so, if it’s one thing that CPE has done for me, it’s this…

Chaplaincy has shown me just how, in and of myself, I have nothing to offer. But in the Word of Christ, I have everything to offer.

On a strictly individual level, I am dead broke in the redemption and restoration department. Sure, I have my own individual experience in the world. I have my stories that I can and will share, but only for one reason…

To show how I, too, am in dire need of the same restorative Word that everyone else needs.

CPE has gotten me out of my tidy little comfort zone in the digital classrooms of seminary where I can show how smart I am, how much I understand exegesis, hermeneutics, doctrine, atonement theories, etc. Through CPE, God has picked me up and sat me down at the foot of the cross with other sinners and sufferers, all summer long. It is here that I only have one option… To witness to the death of the individual will and the resurrection that occurs in faith time and time again.

Many thanks, CPE. For you, I’m grateful.