Good morning. As Kirsten mentioned, my name is Nathan M. and I am a member here at High Plains. As some of you know I serve as a chaplain at Memorial Hospital. I am also a community minister affiliated with this congregation—at least I will be a community minister once I become ordained. Because my life journey has wound around a bit, I have a full-time ministry position, but just now am doing my internship in preparation for ordination. It's all a bit confusing even to me.
Chaplaincy is one of the roles community ministers fill and I want to give you a sense of what I do as a hospital chaplain. I want to give you a sense of what I do and some of what I've learned so far in doing it, both about myself because I think that sharing our individual journeys is part of what binds us together as a community and because I believe that is what ministers especially should do whether they serve inside a parish or outside in the broader community. Before I tell you the what, let's talk about the why.
You see, chaplaincy, and ministry in general for that matter, were not part of the long term plan. For years I was in academia, a professional student, on my way to becoming a college professor. I had the tweed jacket and everything. Before we moved to the Springs I was at Boston University working on my doctorate in Philosophy of Religion. The cultural shift from academic skeptic to empathetic chaplain has been a bit strange—and I know it's given my wife Julia whiplash at times. So there I was at BU, studying away and serving out the indentured servitude that is the PhD. Luckily I got to teach a lot which I loved. The phrase, “I don't know” didn't pass my lips too often and when it did it was part of the phrase, “I don't know, but I'll look it up.” Knowledge was my stock in trade. I was paid to know things, not to not know things. But now I'm a chaplain and I have never said “I don't know” with such frequency or sincerity, and now there is no where to go for the answers. There are no good answers to so many of the questions I get asked. “Why has this happened?”, “where is God?,” “when will she die?” “Am I being punished?” I thought all my years of study in religion, theology, and philosophy would equip me for such questions. After all I could tell you what a dozen medieval theologians or Enlightenment philosophers would say. But one of the first things I learned is that all those answers, all that I had studied, and learned, none of it was actually relevant because these are questions that aren't really asked in hope of an answer. Oh, the person asking may think they want one, but I learned from experience that any answer offered doesn't satisfy. There may not be an answer. Mostly the questions are expressions of pain and confusion not a quest for knowledge. Still, it's very UU and, to me, very Buddhist—the only answers are those that you come to on your own after struggling with the reality.
Strangely enough, I always assumed that my more traditionally religious colleagues would have answers—not ones that would make sense to me perhaps, but at least to themselves. The fact is that the other chaplains that I work with and have met, often have more in common that one might think. Although we come from very different spiritual directions, we all struggle with why these things happen. We struggle with the pain and sorrow we see every day. I at least had very little to lose theologically, a decade of graduate education in religion had already ruined me, but I see some of the student chaplains I help supervise really struggle with what they've always been taught about God's beneficence and justice and the role of prayer.
In my on-going training as a chaplain, I've been asked several times to articulate my pastoral theology—what is the relationship between my faith and my ministry. I struggled for a while, and still do to some extent, to define such a thing. I am nothing resembling a traditional theist. Indeed, if I am completely honest ,I don't have what many would recognize as a “faith.” I tried—I really did. I tried to embrace some theological perspective that would constitute a faith. I tried to get back to my Jewish roots, I tried to massage into a personal theology the subtle definitions of divinity found in esoteric Hindu philosophy. I read about Process Theology where God is not complete, let alone all powerful or all knowing. I drew on years of graduate work in religion and philosophy hunting for some thread that I might weave into however meager a blanket of faith. It didn't work—or at least it hasn't yet. Maybe the years of academic dissection forever spoiled me for “faith.” Maybe it was family history as one very wise Episcopal priest suggested. Faith in God, she told me, is an analogue of faith in a parent—that didn't work so well in my family. Regardless of what brought me to this point, I am still a minister and one that works outside of the “family” context of the Unitarian Universalist parish. Here, a wide variety of ways of being spiritual are not only accepted but expected and indeed cherished. “Out there” a chaplain without a clear theology is a less common entity. This whole question of how my faith informs my ministry just frustrated me.
Then I remembered a Buddhist monk I studied with in Japan. Over some cups of green tea, I asked him about faith. He told me that faith in Buddhism was not, as Paul describes in Hebrews 11:1 “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith in Buddhism he said was predicated, based, upon experience.
Remember back to the reading from the Buddha:
Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. ...when you find anything that agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.
Faith based upon experience. Faith based not upon the unseen and unknown but upon the seen and known. Now that moved me, moves me—quite literally. There is an old African expression that I have tacked up above my desk, “When you pray, move your feet.” Now we're getting closer. I'm describing a process that has taken years and is still very much on-going, but it feels to me like that feeling I get when I am working a cross-word and I start seeing the end in sight, stuff starts falling into place and those hard words are most of what's left, you know 19 letters for a Yugoslavian pudding. All those really tough questions I couldn't figure out start getting filled in by what I already do know. I figure out the unknown part based on my current place, the knowledge I have right now, right here. I finally realized I was working this spiritual equation from the wrong end. I was looking for the faith that would shape and inform my ministry, but the reality, my experience was that my ministry shapes and informs my faith. Indeed, for me, the work of being a chaplain is my faith.
So what is the work of being a chaplain and what faith has it led me to?
Simply put, I provide emotional and spiritual support to patients, families, and staff. And, in some sense, it is just as simple and just as complex as that. Last week was busier than usual, but not atypical. It's important to know that sick people don't go to the hospital much these days. If you're sick, you're usually at home. To be a in a hospital you have to be very sick, or need a procedure that can't be done at an office or as out-patient surgery. To be in one of the critical care wards, you have to be incredibly sick and usually close to death.
A young helmet-less motorcycle rider hit a parked car after drinking too much. It became apparent to his family, who had been at his side for several weeks, that he was never going to make any meaningful recovery. They made the decision to take their loved one off life-support. The daughter of a 78 year old man made a similar choice after doctors told her more surgery wasn't an option for her dad. I spent hours with a woman in her eighties with a delightful German accent who told me wonderful stories about being a war bride and the life she had with her now departed husband. A young, young woman, 23 years old, with a beautiful little girl at home, lay in a bed after she was resuscitated after her heart stopped. She had tried “dusting” inhaling from a “dust-off” can, a bottle of compressed air used to blow dust off computer parts. She didn't get the brief high she was looking for and she didn't know that one of the ingredients used results in sudden death in an astonishingly high number of users including first-timers. Tests were run, treatments tried without much hope, her parents flew in from Alabama, her husband wept. The parents blamed the husband. At one point we had to get security involved because the mother was seriously threatening violence. The young mother died, and in a small saving grace--she became an organ donor. These were, so to speak, the highlights of the week. As always, many got better, some died, but in all cases, no one—families as well as patients, were the same after as before. For each of these families I sat and listened to stories of better times, translated some of the medical-speak the doctors said, helped them think about choices and values, but most of all I tried to provide them three gifts: presence, naming, and acceptance. I think these are gifts we can give to everyone in our lives, even in better times than those I usually deal with.
Three gifts; the gift of presence, the gift of naming, and the gift of acceptance.
I've learned that perhaps the greatest gift we can give someone is to be present to them in their experience. Some might disagree and say that love is the greatest gift, but I see family members all the time who love deeply but in those darkest moments their love lets them go so far, but no farther. To be present to someone is to bear witness to their pain and fear and anger and hope and faith in all the messiness that real tragedy creates. Perhaps above all, being present to someone means accepting that there is a host of things that we can't fix and shouldn't even try. We're such a fix-it culture. When someone brings us a problem or a pain we want to solve it or take it away, but so much of the really serious stuff is beyond our power to fix. Often people don't need a fixer, we either have someone else filling that role or we know the answer already. What we need is someone to be there with us. This is the work of the chaplain, to be a companion to those facing that which no one wants to look at. The chaplain walks with the person and often names their concerns. I say things to people that I never thought I would say. Name fears and hopes that are usually left unsaid, unacknowledged and usually made worse for the silence.
I've learned that to name the emotion or the fear that is present is a gift---not a burden. We so often are afraid to ask the question because we fear that we will make it worse. We're afraid to ask if the doctor said the lump is cancer, or if the baby will die because we have this sense that we might plant the idea and thus cause the fear to grow where none was a moment before. Somehow we don't translate our own experience that tells us that when something scary or bad is happening, we're thinking all the scary thoughts there are to think. Naming doesn't bring the fear into existence, indeed it does the opposite. By creating a space for those concerns to exit the dark interiors of our frightened souls, we allow in a little light. A barrier to presence is the fear that openly acknowledging the elephant in the room will some how make the situation worse.
To say to someone “you must be afraid” or “You must be wondering if she'll die” doesn't make it worse, it makes it better. It gives a kind of permission to explore the feelings, to acknowledge them and the fears associated with them. We have some sense that there is right thing to say to someone in crisis or facing tragedy—there isn't, and we so often lose the good that might be done out of fear of saying the wrong thing. There are wrong things to say, “I know just how you feel” is often less than ideal, but there is no way to take away the pain—which is what we often want to do.
I have also learned about the gift of acceptance. This one is tough and continues to be the most challenging. There have been so many surprises in my time at the hospital. I didn't realize how much I would learn about horrible diseases—and for someone who teeters right on the edge of hypochondria it's been, well let's just say interesting. I hadn't realized how much I would learn about the funeral business. I know more about cremation and embalming than I ever wanted to know. And I hadn't realized how much this ministry would be like living in a foreign country, how what seemed like simple tasks and concepts would take on new complexity and be turned around. It didn't take long to realize that it was easy to develop rapport with the liberal, spiritual but not religious, patients who were originally from the East Coast—that's my mother tongue. It was harder to learn to hear the conservative Southern Baptist from Louisiana, and to pray with her in a language she would recognize and find comforting. It was a foreign tongue to me.
But even feeling “Lost in Translation” as I often do, I've learned to listen beneath the surface and, as needed, to translate into a language that makes more sense to me or in some cases just do my best to appreciate the sound of a language I'll never really become fluent in. Regardless of my fluency or comfort with the language, I've learned to accept and love--even when it is difficult.
I took care of a young man, just turned 18 who had come here from South America to be an exchange student. First week he was here, he got into a car accident and a pretty bad one at that. We weren't at all sure he would make it. His homestay mother was a deeply religion Pentecostal Christian. I had the hardest time listening to her go on and on about how this was all in God's hands. How the doctors didn't really do anything—it was all God. God was going to fix everything. I won't even go into how distracting it was when she would ask me to pray and then start speaking in tongues. She would just repeat these phrases, “God will heal you, God will fix everything, the blood of Jesus will heal you.” Over and over she would say these things. This whole abdication of everything to God makes me a little crazy. If God took care of everything where was he when the kid hit the tree in the first place? I don't know. I don't believe in easy answers to impossible questions. It was very hard to listen to her, but then I started listening to what else was being said behind the words. I'm sure she did believe as she said, but I also started hearing the needs being expressed through the constant expressions of faith. I started hearing her feeling overwhelmed, I started hearing her fear, I started hearing her pain and her need to have someone be in control when she felt so out of control.
But you know I actually get it, I really get it. Just this week has been filled with enough to make my heart cry out for some order in the universe, just the slightest trace that there is someone in control or aware of how my life unfolds and yet I can't believe it. I'm not saying it's not there, I'm just saying at this point in my life, having had the experiences I've had, having learned what I've learned, I can't believe it. But I still need to serve a lot of people who do believe and when the crisis comes need to believe even more, but it is a kind of faith very foreign to me.
The poet Rilke asks us to:
Have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.
I think I'm learning to treat people in this same way—like they were books written in a foreign language. We should always try to understand others, but I think we also have to learn to accept the fact that other people's beliefs may never make sense to us, but we can learn to accept them as they are, trusting that they are doing what we are all doing and part of why we come here—to try and make sense of our experience. I think this is a gift we can give people in our lives—friends, co-workers, family members, anyone struggling with anything which I'm pretty sure is all of us. Sometimes it isn't helpful to try to understand, it can be more powerful to simply accept them as they are.
But all that said, all those mental gymnastics having been done, my ministry as a path leading to my faith rather than vice-versa, the question still stands, what does it mean to me to be a chaplain?
I do not know if there is a God. I do not have that absolute knowledge. Sometimes I think I've seen in the eyes of many faithful people the slight glimmer that they don't know either—but they choose to believe. And so many people I meet have faith like a rock. I however remain without clear knowledge, that is to say, I am an agnostic. I don't know about an afterlife having never, to my recollection, been there. I don't know about God's answering of prayers because although I have prayed and seen those events come to pass, I have also prayed and been seemingly ignored. I don't know anything about the supernatural. I'd like to, I've spent many years of my life trying to understand and gain that knowledge that comes so easily to some. I readily accept the philosopher Kierkegaard's premise that faith is not a project for which the brain is the appropriate tool. How can the finite organ that resides in my skull be capable of perceiving the infinite that we call God? But still I am an intellectual, basing my life in rational thought and I am not ready for that leap of faith. So I've now spent a lot of time telling you what I don't know. As you might imagine I could spend days telling you about the things I don't know. But let me shift to what I do know.
Here I go to back to the reading from Robert Ingersoll, if the naked and hungry are to be clothed and fed, it must be us who provides. In my role, in the world I work in, I see it as whatever healing and comfort is to come, must come through the efforts of humanity—divinely inspired or not. We must act.
I don't know what role a transcendent being may play, but I know I can't rely on any particular response. It might be out of her power or not part of his plan or I might simply be too small to notice.
So I find myself in a bit of a faith vacuum, but not much can survive in a vacuum so I have to fill that space with something. For me, I fill that space with service in the absence of knowledge. I find myself back at that crossword puzzle. Lots of blanks to be filled in, but I take what I know and go from there. What I know is that I can act in the world. I can see needs and help to meet them. I can care, and listen, and hold a hand, and love. So for me, my ministry leads to a faith, a faith in humanity. When you pray, move your feet.
Amen and Blessed Be.