Of Churches and Chapels, Of Priests and Chaplains

The truth, if I’m honest, is that I went to work at the hospital kicking and screaming (or at least kicking and crying). It began as a journey of necessity, a means to an end, a way to start the life that I knew was waiting for me. Yet how quickly it morphed into a pilgrimage of discovery about who I am and who God is and how God continues to create, restore and redeem in the strangest and most wonderful of places. 

And again, if I’m truthful, I left my work as a chaplain in a Level 1 Pediatric Trauma Center with teary eyes and a full heart. I loved my work. God knows I loved the people I worked with–they made me laugh, taught me the art of walking slowly, made me work harder than I’ve ever worked, and pushed me in the most profound and gentle ways. 

I struggled at the hospital in two distinct ways.

The first was the leaving of the church. My identity was (and can still be) so wrapped up in the little strip of white wrapped around my neck. Who am I if not a parish priest? (Pssst: the answer? Beloved child of God…but it took me awhile to get that one.) The journey to integrate both parish priest and Emergency Department chaplain was one that I will forever treasure and one that has made an immense difference on my ability to do both jobs.

The second was the on-call shifts. Y’all–I’m just too old. Weekday on call shifts last 28 hours. Of those 28 hours, 16 are alone. In those 16 hours you babysit the whole hospital, the only chaplain in the place. My last super busy on-call had me on my feet baptizing the dying, consoling the bereaved, praying for the coding, and bringing water to people who couldn’t understand the language the doctor was speaking. I was up until 5:17AM and I remember struggling to keep my eyes open.

But more than the tiredness, I found those 16 hours to be so lonely. There were times it was better–dinner with a Child Life Specialist, praying with the Environmental Services crew, there were moments when I knew I wasn’t alone. But overall, I’ll remember it as loneliness. 

But oh, how I learned from the loneliness. In those hours, I learned to live with the anxiety of not knowing, the anxiety of loneliness itself and the anxiety of walking into a place not knowing what’s to come, but trusting that with God’s help (and the humans nearby), I will be able to bring my gifts to bear. And those long, lonely nights gave me one other gift. They taught me that no matter how long the night, morning always comes, that the dark night, the lonely night always comes to an end–usually with coffee, conversation and joyful laughter.

When I took my new job, returning to the world that is church, I put my announcement on Facebook. And someone quite earnestly wrote something about how I was a good pastor and not to worry, I’d get the hang of ministry again once I got back in the saddle. It was a honest attempt to congratulate me and I appreciate it. 

But what I can now admit, is that I came into hospital chaplaincy assuming that hospital chaplains are folks who couldn’t cut it in the church. That, I now know with perfect clarity, is a fallacy. The work I did as a hospital chaplain is some of the most important ministry work I will ever do. Learning to stop doing, to stop controlling, to stop expecting and to simple be, to simply love, to simply listen–these are the hallmarks of chaplaincy ministry. And these are the hallmarks I pray I take with me to parish ministry. Because this is what people want and need. Not the busy. Not the reports. Not the ASA. People want and need relationship–with God, with each other. 

This morning I gathered with five women from my new parish. We prayed, we laughed, we anointed with oil, we laid hands, we broke bread, we shared wine. With stories that are theirs and not mine to share, I felt my eyes well with tears at the love they had to share, the ways their hearts, brimful with love, had broken and been mended, and sometimes were breaking again a new, as the human heart is apt to do. I saw and heard and felt the beauty with which they held each other up, reminding me once again that the morning always comes. 

I joined my prayers with theirs. I lifted my joys and sorrows with theirs. And for a moment, I heard with absolute clarity that still small voice that is God. That still small voice, making itself abundantly known in this small community of faithful women. And in that moment I added one more prayer, one of thanks, for my ability to hear, to stop, to pray, to embody compassion and to listen–gifts I’ve always had with me, but gifts that having been honed in the fire of the hospital, gifts that are undeniably better after my year sojourn as a chaplain. It was a year I didn’t know I needed, a year that, by grace, was given to me. 

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