Work in Progress

[A sermon on Matthew 16:13-20 and Romans 12: 1-8 preached at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church.]

“How long does she have?” Without a doubt, it’s one of the top five questions that hospice clinicians hear on a daily basis, and it’s fairly understandable why. Families want to know when to book plane tickets or if they should call in a co-worker to cover for them or whether to hold-off on that vacation they’d planned. Despite all their responsibilities and commitments, death had the boldness to show up at this family’s doorstep unannounced and the audacity to withhold its date of departure, so naturally, they want to know how best to accommodate such an unruly guest. Though they know, on some level, that the end of life process is individual and varied, they hold onto hope that we can predict that which is ultimately unknowable, that we can help them map the mysterious.

“How long does she have?” Well, we hem and we haw. We acknowledge how difficult it is for them to not know. We explore their methods of coping with uncertainty. We might reference experiences with previous patients or give a general range that’s vague enough to be both honest and unsatisfying. We remind them that they know their loved one better than anyone and that even our best guess is never a guarantee. We pray. And despite these reassurances, it’s still hard. There are just some questions that defy easy explanations, and if I’ve learned anything about hospice or anything about discipleship, it’s that we have to carry those questions along with us as we live our way into the answers.

I think Jesus must have known this when he asked his disciples “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” It’s a doozy of a question. Who is Jesus? What does it mean to be the Christ? Volumes upon volumes would eventually be written on the subject. For centuries, church councils would duke it out over the nuances of this controversy. Jesus isn’t just handing out a little pop quiz; his question merits a doctoral dissertation.

It’s not like we can blame the disciples for their stammering. True, their responses aren’t fully developed, but they’re still in the ballpark. “Some people say you’re John the Baptist,” they posit. “I wonder if you might be Elijah,” another muses. “If you squint really hard and tilt your head a certain direction, maybe you could be something else entirely,” they laugh. (At least that’s the direction the conversation seems to be going – lots of speculation, not a lot of definitive answers.) They might as well admit what they don’t yet know, what they’re still in the process of coming to believe.

I find a lot of encouragement in the fact that even the disciples, those hand-picked by Jesus to be his companions and students, are sometimes so slow to comprehend all that’s been revealed to them. They’ve walked alongside Jesus for some time now, bearing witness to his miraculous healings, listening with rapt attention as his teachings and parables challenge them in new ways, marveling at his boundless compassion for those on the margins of society. They’ve come to know him intimately, not just through word of mouth, but through powerful personal encounters. And still, they hesitate to affirm what it is that they believe, what God has revealed to them.

Like any of us, they’re a work in progress. Their answers remind us that faith formation looks a little different at different ages and stages of discipleship. Sometimes relying upon the words of others or what we’ve been taught is a necessary precursor to claiming one’s own faith or developing a deepening perspective. So, when Jesus presses, “Who do you say that I am?” I imagine he’s not castigating them for parroting back other people’s theories so much as inviting them to stay with the difficulty of the question a little longer.

Like any good question, it yields unexpected blessings when we let it do its work on us. For the disciples, it offers an opportunity to check in with themselves, to take stock of how following Christ all this time has shaped their faith, how it’s deepened their understanding of God, how it’s built a theological foundation that they’ll need as their time together draws shorter. It opens up opportunities for rich conversation and earnest reflection because it affirms the role of spiritual inquiry in the life of discipleship. Jesus offers them a gift, yet only one of his followers musters enough courage to unclench his hands to receive it.

Peter, the only one bold enough to hazard his own viewpoint, declares his belief that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. He takes the risk, he dares to take the conversation to a more intimate level of personal sharing, and not only that, but his answer really seems to resonate. Jesus is effusive in his praise for him, and I wonder if Jesus’ reaction betrays his own sense of relief in knowing that, by the grace of God, at least someone is making the connections. Peter, for one, seems to be getting it. And so, in one fell swoop, Jesus blesses him, appoints him to play a foundational role in the early church, and entrusts him with the authority and responsibility of leadership within the community of faith.

It’s interesting to me that we don’t get to hear Peter’s response to all of this. Part of me wonders if it’s because his jaw is on the floor. Sure, Peter has now become the keeper of the keys, but the humble fisherman is far from perfect. Immediately after Jesus entrusts this great responsibility to Peter, Jesus turns right around and rebukes him a mere five verses later, saying, “Get behind me, Satan!” It turns out, Peter hadn’t been able to bear the foretelling of Christ’s suffering and death, and after hearing this first prediction, he cried out “God, forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you!” All of a sudden, the very rock on which Christ builds his Church has become a stumbling stone on the journey to the Cross. And truth be told, this isn’t Peter’s first offense.

Over and over again throughout the Gospel narrative, he says the wrong thing or asks the wrong question or misses the point or fails to do the right thing.

  • You’ll recall Peter sinking in fear when trying to walk on water, requiring Christ to come to his rescue.
  • We overhear Peter asking Jesus how many times faithful people ought to extend forgiveness and suggesting a measly seven times should be sufficient. I think we all let out a sigh of relief when Jesus multiplies this figure exponentially, affirming the extravagance of grace in response to Peter’s stinginess.
  • We groan as Peter asks what special reward the disciples will get in heaven since they gave up everything to follow Christ, and Jesus has to remind him that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Another teachable moment in this series of missteps.

And that’s not to mention the blunders and betrayals during the week leading up to Christ’s Passion. He botches the foot washing, misunderstands all the predictions and goodbyes, and ultimately denies Christ three times before all is said and done. He fails again and again and again. Yet, if we’re inclined to take Paul’s word for it, Peter is the first person that Christ visits after Easter morning. The Gospel of John records their final conversation in which our living Lord, the Good Shepherd, instructs Peter to care for his sheep.

Clearly, the ministries of the church don’t require perfect people. The foundation upon which Christ builds his church is nothing more and nothing less than folks willing to sit with difficult questions, to risk offering their perspective, to engage thoughtfully in theological reflection, and to follow Christ even when we feel like we’ve messed everything up. And the good news is that every single one of us fits that bill. We’re all works in progress, but each of us still has a vital role to play. To borrow some of Paul’s lingo, we are one body with many members, each with gifts that differ according to the grace given to them. And for God’s healing, transforming, justice-seeking, truth-telling work to fully flourish, we need each other, warts and all.

When our faith feels shaky, we need people like Peter to offer an affirmation for the both of us while we focus on finding our footing. When we’re overwhelmed by the suffering of this world, unmoored by violence, injustice, or loss, we need people who can fan the flames of our hope and reignite our sense of compassion. When worries and fears and unanswerable questions keep us up at night, we need people willing to walk alongside us, holding our concerns close to their hearts. Mostly, we need a community that can hang in there with us through the tough stuff as we each offer whatever grace we’ve been given to help one another make it through. Maybe that’s the key to the kingdom, and maybe Christ issues each of us our own particular copy. Amen.

 

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Unexpected Mercies

[A sermon preached on Matthew 10: 40-42 and Genesis 22: 1-14 at Blacksburg Presbyterian Church.]

I know the way you can get
When you have not had a drink of Love:
Your face hardens,
Your sweet muscles cramp.
Children become concerned
About a strange look that appears in your eyes
Which even begins to worry your own mirror
And nose.
Squirrels and birds sense your sadness
And call an important conference in a tall tree.
They decide which secret code to chant
To help your mind and soul.
Even angels fear that brand of madness
That arrays itself against the world
And throws sharp stones and spears into
The innocent
And into one’s self.

 
O I know the way you can get
If you have not been drinking Love:
You might rip apart
Every sentence your friends and teachers say,
Looking for hidden clauses.
You might weigh every word on a scale
Like a dead fish.
You might pull out a ruler to measure
From every angle in your darkness
The beautiful dimensions of a heart you once
Trusted.

 
I know the way you can get
If you have not had a drink from Love’s
Hands.
That is why all the Great Ones speak of
The vital need
To keep remembering God,
So you will come to know and see [God]
As being so Playful
And Wanting,
Just Wanting to help.
That is why [the Poet] says:
Bring your cup near me.
For all I care about
Is quenching your thirst for freedom!
All a Sane [person] can ever care about
Is giving Love!

There are some poems that stick with you – words that you find yourself coming back to again and again because they touch a tender spot deep inside you, turns of phrase that hold you close, refusing to let you go until they’ve left your heart a little bigger and your spirit a little more buoyant. This poem, by the ancient Sufi mystic Hafiz, fits that bill, at least for me. I find myself drawn to these words over and over again because they capture something very true, yet often overlooked.

After all, it’s not like I notice the guy riding my tail up I-81 and muse to myself, “I know the way you can get when you haven’t had a drink of love.” It’s not like I hang in there during a dull, never-ending conversation with a loquacious extended family member thinking, “Oh, I know the way you can get if you have not been drinking Love.” It’s not like I scroll past the friend picking a fight on social media and coo, “I know the way you can get if you have not had a drink from Love’s Hands.”

My go- to responses, my gut reactions, aren’t usually that generous. That guy on the interstate? He’s just a jerk, he’s being stupid and unsafe. That chatty Cathy? She’s irritating and socially inept. That Twitter troll? He gets his kicks by riling people up and causing trouble. If you’re anything like me, your inner commentary is quick to label and slow to understand.

It’s far easier to see that other driver as a menace than to see him as someone who’s rushing to the hospital or running late for his kid’s first dance recital or simply suffering the consequences of never learning to manage his rage any other way. There’s something self-protective in rolling our eyes and gritting our teeth while grandma gabs away, something that prefers to keep an arms’ length between us and the profound loneliness she feels and her longing for companionship. It’s safer to deem that Facebook friend a hothead looking to ruffle feathers than to see the magnitude of their insecurity and their need for external validation of their perspective. I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t surprise me that we label and stereotype and judge in order to avoid asking the more difficult question, “Where are there unmet needs here? Where might this person need a drink of love? How could I offer a cup?”

In our Gospel reading this morning, we overhear Jesus giving his disciples a snack for the road – advice and warnings that will sustain them on the journey as they’re sent out as messengers of God’s Kingdom. It’ll be hard, he tells them. Earlier in this chapter, he reminds them of all the perils that await them: persecution, beatings, betrayal, alienation from friends and family, and all for little to no pay. And yet, even in the midst of this very real danger and even though there is great cause for fear, he assures them that there will be unexpected mercies along the way. People will open their homes. Strangers will offer the cup of refreshment. Hospitality will come in astonishing ways, often from the least likely people. Challenge and hardship are non-negotiables in the life of discipleship, but Christ assures us that grace, sufficient unto our deepest needs, will meet us on the way.

And as we read just a few minutes ago, in the unsettling story of Abraham and Isaac, sometimes that grace comes at the eleventh hour. With dagger poised and ready to strike, sometimes Grace says, “Hold on a minute! I’m right here with you. Let’s look around and broaden our view of the situation. Maybe together we can find a different solution.” When our cursor hovers over the send button, sometimes Wisdom reminds us, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Maybe we shouldn’t send that email while we’re still angry. Let’s call a friend to vent and decide how to respond when we’re a little calmer.” When the lunch bell rings and your growling stomach reminds you that you left your lunch bag on the kitchen counter, sometimes Mercy calls to us from down the hall, “Hey, wait up! I packed extra. Do you want to share?”

With his Twelve beloved students gathered around him, Jesus discerns that what they most need to hear before they’re launched into the throes of ministry is a gentle reminder that they are both the ones who give the cup of water to the little ones in need and equally so the parched ones who stretch out their hands to receive. I am sending you out to be a blessing to a world in need, Christ tells them. But part of that very work is allowing yourself to receive the blessings of others along the way.

Many of us like to think of ourselves as giving people – we volunteer in the community, we give to the church, we shovel snow for our elderly neighbor or bring a meal to a friend who’s been sick. Oftentimes, we’re so attached to this view of ourselves as competent, capable, independent helpers that we really struggle to open ourselves to the unexpected mercies that are right there waiting for us, if only we had eyes to see them.

A few years ago, when I was first getting my start as a chaplain, I had just a few minutes left before heading home for the day, and I thought it’d be a great time to pop in to see one last patient, an elderly woman at the end of the hall, whom the nurses told me was deeply faithful and would really enjoy a visit. I’d be in and out, twenty minutes tops, one of those hit and run prayer visits with someone who’d probably be drowsy and eager to go back to sleep. (Isn’t it funny how the Spirit seizes upon moments like these to offer us a heaping helping of humility?) I certainly found myself in need.

Well, we talked and talked as she told me about her life and the role that faith had played over so many years. She spoke about her illness in hopeful terms and had only kind things to say about the hospital staff. She asked what drew me to this work and shared about her own sense of vocation and how it had changed as she’d entered her senior years. But the joyful surprise, the moment that had me blinking back tears, was when I concluded my prayer for her, and she reached out to grab my hand, offering a prayer for my ministry, that God’s presence would sustain me on the journey.

It was a humble gift, yet profoundly nourishing and more needed than either of us probably knew. A lifetime of faithful discipleship had taught this woman the art of blessing and the intimacy of both giving and receiving. It was an unexpected mercy, but I suspect that no one left her hospital room without being offered a drink of Love.

The poet William Blake says it best, I think, when he writes that “we are put on earth . . . that we may learn to bear the beams of love.” And part of that learning process happens right here, in community with one another, as we gather at Christ’s table. Here we are offered the bread of life and the cup of refreshment, and we practice opening our hands wide to receive grace for the journey. Here we find a Host whose hospitality knows no end, who bids us come just as we are, who sees and sanctifies even the parts of us that we struggle to welcome in ourselves. At Christ’s holy feast, we are invited to take a long, deep drink of Love, to taste mercies unexpected, and to practice tending to the hungers buried within our own hearts so that we can offer our gifts to a world that is incredibly malnourished. This is the ministry to which Jesus calls us as those who seek to follow him. This is the inner foundation upon which God builds the Kingdom. This is the soul work that the Spirit has already begun in us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Deep Roots and Home Cookin’

[A Maundy Thursday reflection written for New York Avenue Presbyterian Church based on 1 Corinthians 11:23-26 and John 13:1-15.]

grandparents

As I stared out the backseat window of my family’s old Plymouth Voyager, watching the highway wind its way through Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, I sometimes felt as if these trips to my grandparents’ house were an adventure in time travel. For a Pokémon-obsessed, Nickelodeon-watching, Tamagotchi-toting 90s kid, my grandparents’ Mennonite community, nestled quaintly in the Shenandoah Valley, was something of a culture shock to say the least. Weekends like these meant playing checkers rather than Nintendo, singing hymns around the piano rather than cranking up the volume on my Walkman, and enjoying Sunday supper compliments of Granddad’s garden rather than a McDonald’s drive-thru. But even as I dreaded the slower pace and the “old-fashioned fun” my parents always promised, I inevitably found that the values of simplicity and hospitality struck a chord with me even as a youngster. No place was this clearer for me than my grandparents’ kitchen table. I never knew how she did it, but no matter what she was cooking or who came vistin’, Grandma always managed to have room for one more. She’d welcome you in with a smile and a glass of sweet tea, quickly setting another place without so much as a sigh or a raised eyebrow. After a long car ride, we knew we’d always be greeted with her specialty: meatloaf, scalloped potatoes, green bean casserole, and shoo-fly pie. It was a meal my great-grandmother would often make for her guests — beloved recipes passed down from generation to generation, a family’s story recorded in flour and egg, potato peels and pie crust.

 
I like to think that Jesus was doing something akin to this when he gathered with his disciples on the night before his arrest. Sitting around a table, he shared not just any meal with them, but a recipe with deep roots – one that connected them to their family history through the foundational story of the Passover feast and the liberation of God’s chosen people. Stooping down to wash their feet, he extended radical hospitality, and in doing so, opened their eyes to a wholly unexpected though profoundly sacred way of living in the world. Christ knew that they would need these gifts to sustain them through the days ahead. In the Gospel of John we read that “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world” and “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). Out of this great love, Christ offers them bread for the journey and a ritual of remembrance to nourish their grieving hearts. He tells them that these gifts of bread, water, and wine are not just for them, but for those who come after them, the community of saints whom this ancient yet ongoing story has claimed as its own. “So, if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet,” he tells them. “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). Reflecting on this ritual, this feast passed down through the Church in every age, Paul also writes, “For I have received from the Lord what I also handed on to you” (1 Cor. 11:23). In other words, this holy meal, this undeserved hospitality, these final moments with Christ’s most intimate companions, they’re part of us, part of our Christian story, part of what holds us all together and reminds us who we are. This, Christ tells us, is the recipe which nourished our past and sustains our future.

 

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These days my grandparents’ home looks a little different. Years ago they traded in their ranch and its mountain view for a spot in a senior care facility. As Grandma’s multiple sclerosis progressed, standing at the kitchen counter started to become too much, and Granddad, likewise, found that the ache in his back and the shuffle in his steps began to overshadow even the joy-filled perfection of biting into one of his homegrown tomatoes. Each of these little losses felt like a crack in the foundation of our family and an assurance that things will never be as they once were. And yet, as I stand in my own tiny kitchen, in a fast-paced city far from the silent gaze of those mountains which hold such deep history, I don’t have to pull out my cookbook. Four generations later, these recipes are etched indelibly on my heart. As it turns out, grief, seasoned with teardrops and paired with sides of ritual, legacy, and nostalgia, tastes a whole lot like meatloaf, scalloped potatoes, green bean casserole, and shoo-fly pie. But then again, at least I know what to take with me when I go to visit next time.

 

Encountering Miracle

[A sermon on Ezekiel 37: 1-14 and John 11:1-44 preached at Berwyn Presbyterian Church for the Fifth Sunday in Lent.]

As one might expect, I’ve seen my fair share of illness and loss through my experience as a chaplain in both intensive care and hospice settings. People don’t tend to call a chaplain when something really great happens to them. We’re called to the bedside when someone’s just received a terminal diagnosis or when family and friends have gathered to say goodbye to someone who doesn’t have much time left in this world. We’re called to the emergency department when a car accident means someone will be lucky if they walk again or when someone felt like their life was too painful to keep on living. We’re called to sit with parents whose little ones might not make it out of the NICU and to counsel families meeting to decide whether or not to remove life support. So, when my pager goes off, I can pretty reasonably assume that the people I’m about to encounter are having one of the worst days of their lives.

When I think about our Gospel reading this morning, I imagine we could probably say the same about Martha and Mary, sisters frantically seeking a miraculous cure and then grieving a loss they feel could have been prevented. It’s safe to say that this passage gives us a window into the worst few days of their lives. From the very beginning, John tells us that Jesus knows how this story is going to end. But that’s small comfort to Martha and Mary, who feel that Jesus’ delayed arrival, his unwillingness to drop everything and come to them immediately, has cost their brother his life. They’re angry and indignant, and each goes to confront Jesus, saying, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died.” “Jesus, how could you? How dare you?” they demand. “Hasn’t our friendship meant anything to you? You stop in the middle of a crowd to heal strangers and outcasts, but you abandon us when we need you most?”

Their reaction is understandable. We can’t help but feel for them as we bear witness to this heart-wrenching moment of accusation. Many of us share similar feelings when a sudden heart attack sends shockwaves through our family or routine test results reveal a cancer diagnosis. When faced with illness and loss, we often ask tough questions about God’s role in our suffering as we examine what we believe in the wake of some of the most difficult experiences of our lives. As we confront our own mortality, we search for a hope outside ourselves – for some people it’s the newest, cutting-edge treatment or the clinical trial that boasts incredible outcomes despite major risks, for others it’s the second or third or fourth opinion from specialist after specialist, and sometimes it’s simply hoping for a miracle, the chance that God may intervene at the eleventh hour.

In fact, I’ll never forget the day when a patient’s husband, I’ll call him Bill* asked me, hopefully, if I’d ever seen a miracle recovery in my time as a chaplain. Bill had been married to his wife for forty-some years, they had a small but close-knit family, and he loved his wife even more than the day he’d married her. She’d been a patient in my ICU for almost a month with sepsis, a respirator breathing for her, medications keeping her blood pressure artificially elevated, feeding tubes, IVs, and catheters managing her bodily needs, unable to talk or interact. As her organs began to fail, and the medical team began to talk about withdrawing life support, Bill wanted to hold onto hope. Whenever I’d walk by her room, there he’d be, faithfully by her side, often reading Scripture or offering a prayer or just sitting silently beside her while holding her hand. A new grandbaby was on the way, and she needed to be around to welcome him or her, he told me. “Chaplain, have you ever seen a miracle in a situation like this?” he asked me, earnestly.

I thought about it for a minute, feeling deeply for him, and wanting to be both honest and compassionate in my response. “Yes, I’ve seen miracles,” I told him. “I’ve seen them in this hospital, this ICU, this very room even.” He looked skeptical. “I’ve seen families brought closer together despite years of conflict. I’ve witnessed people discover how the love and support of their community can hold them up even on the most difficult days. I’ve watched people smile and laugh, even in the face of death, as they told stories and shared memories at the beside of a loved one who’s reached the sunset of their life. I’ve met nurses who stay long past their shift to sit with someone who never gets a visitor. I’ve been with families donating lifesaving organs, finding the strength to think of others even in the midst of their grief. I’ve noticed strangers praying together in waiting rooms. I’ve looked on as clinicians double checked a calculation which ended up saving a life. I’ve seen the healing that comes through tears and the love that is stronger than death. Bill, I see miracles every day.”

Friends, this story of Lazarus is so much more than a divine resuscitation. There’s miracle in the fact that we can come before Christ fully ourselves, sharing all of who we are, all of our emotions – our tears and our sadness, our anger and our accusations, our hopes and our doubts. There’s miracle in the outpouring of support that we receive in times of crisis, those who come to console us, to cry with us, to share in our grief and sorrow without the need to fix it. There’s miracle in the fact that a transcendent, all-powerful God, would come among us, feeling our pain, experiencing our losses, and shedding tears of grief for the ones he loved.

And just like I’ve seen miracles in intensive care units and the homes of hospice patients, I’ve also seen miracles here at Berwyn Presbyterian Church. I’ve seen the way you rally around one another in times of need. I’ve seen your resilience in the midst of transition. I’ve seen flexibility and grace when you encounter bumps along the road. I’ve seen people from all different cultures and backgrounds come together to worship and to serve. These are the miracles through which God breathes new life into dry bones and renews us as we author this new chapter in ministry. The miracle of resurrection is the promise of God’s abiding presence made known through these simple, everyday moments of faithfulness.

Rather than notions of a transactional, vending machine God, who steps in and intervenes to save the innocent, cure the cancer, or stop the unthinkable from happening, we claim a God that walks alongside us in our suffering, a God whose tears were the first to fall, a God that knows what it’s like to journey unto death. And so, we hold fast to the assurance that in life and in death, we belong to God, that we are cradled close to God’s heart, and eternally wrapped in Gods loving embrace. And that’s the greatest miracle of this story. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Amen.

A Chaplain’s Hospital Holiday

[Based on Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem: “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”]

Christmas

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the hospital,
our patients were struggling with things theological.
The pager was hung on my lab coat with care
in hopes that the number of calls would be spare.
As patients tossed and turned in their beds,
spiritual crises played through their heads.
The evening drew on with nary a mishap,
and I longed to relax and grab a quick catnap.
When, suddenly, the pager went off with a beep,
it startled me out of a momentary sleep.
Springing out of the plush chair, I flew like a flash,
flipped open the log book and recorded the night’s first car-crash.
As I ran to the ED, I uttered a prayer
for God’s presence to be felt in the midst of despair.
When what to my wondering eyes did appear,
but a patient whose injuries would soon prove severe.
With x-rays, CT scans, and of course, needle sticks,
I knew that this visit would not be too quick.
But rapidly, then, the pages they came
and summoned me elsewhere (in a ten minute time-frame).
To STICU and CICU! CSICU! MRICU!
From TCU right down to trauma bay two!
From a death to a code to another crisis call,
I dashed frantically down nearly every hall.
After sitting with patients and offering support,
I scurried away to make my report.
So, on to my spiritual assessment I flew,
and this one was charted a crisis of faith, too.
And then, in a twinkling, I came up with a plan,
I’d call in my backup to lend me a hand!
As my energy faded and I started to tire,
I turned toward a power eternally higher.
“My God,” I said, “I am so overwhelmed,
but to this ministry I’ve been compelled.
So fill me with strength from my head to my toe,
that your grace I may always continually show.
Help me to listen, to hear with intention,
so that I can provide the right intervention.
Remind me again that what patients most need
isn’t for me to take over the lead.
So, instead, let’s walk alongside them in love
as your Holy Spirit descends from above.”
With a whispered “Amen,” I grinned like an elf,
knowing I could rely on much more than myself.
So with a deep breath and a promise of coffee ahead,
I soon realized that I had nothing to dread.
Without another word, I went to my work,
not even an advance directive did I shirk.
As morning descended, the next chaplain arrived,
and I shouted, “Oh, wow, praise God, I survived!”
My one last remark as I drove out of sight:
“Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!”

Engaging Mystery

There are days, O God, when your ways elude me.
Moments when your Advent promise to make straight paths for your people
is so obstructed by hairpin turns and hazardous road conditions that I cannot see beyond my own two feet.
Just when I think I know where I’m going, you detour my course.
But the signage on this new route is woefully inadequate,
and I quickly find myself lost and bewildered,
far from home in a foreign land.
No maps in-hand to guide me home.
No compass to steer me in the way that you would have me go.

There are days, O God, when “I don’t know” is the most authentic confession of faith I can muster.
I don’t know the way forward.
I don’t know where you’re calling me next.
I don’t know how this world you say you love keeps on spinning amidst all this violence.
I don’t know. I can’t fathom. I won’t even hazard a guess.

O Mysterious God,
I believe.
Help my unbelief.

On Paris

The grief of our world overwhelms me.
Its heaviness pulls at my heart and hunches my shoulders.
The weight of our human desolation wears me down.
I look to the news, and I despair.
The onslaught of violence steals my hope,
and I wonder if we can ever find joy again.
Gloom descends around us.
Thankfulness eludes us.
The smoke of bombs and the cries of warfare encircle us in fear.
We cry out to the God whose silence confounds us:
“How long, O Lord?”
How long will hatred and bloodshed trample our peace?
How long will pain plague our hearts and tragedy reverberate in our souls?
How long will the iron-clad grip of terror seize our spirits?
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow us.
Surely peace will pursue us.
Surely God’s grace will hunt us down and swallow up all our tears.
Surely . . . Possibly . . . Maybe . . .
O Sure God, we are so uncertain.
Show us?