The rector’s All Saints Day sermon yesterday has me contemplating, contemplation being one of many possible good effects of a bright sermon. In this case contemplating what may have been the ten most memorable events of my ministry. As a human being, as a priest. Contemplating too the ten most memorable events of my life, assuming I can get it down to ten. What will they have been? Kissing someone? Looking on as someone in white held a newborn infant out for me to fall in love with? Bishop and priests mashing my head and chanting, "... and make him a priest in your church."? And/or perhaps the ten most memorable, or significant, decisions of my life, where Frost is not gloating but indicting. What? Start counting. Or leave it alone.
+Time is never, as Barbara Crafton’s Geranium Farm is, a spiritual, intellectual, and life inspiration for readers. +Time is never for readers at all, but my own musing for, of and about my own self alone. Life goes personal on me and I internalize, assimilate too much from love and ministry with others, death, illness, marriage, heartbreaks and heartaches, pain and fear. It comes down heavy on one. Am I used to it? A purpose of the clinical pastoral education program I suffered at Hershey Medical Center what? thirty-five years ago, was to help me learn experientially to leave the problems of others at the door when I left their room, much more so walking through the lobby and out the door, getting in my car and heading home. It hasn’t worked all that well for me, if you’re hurting and I love you, or even just met you, I’m hurting; what’s wrong with me then? I didn’t learn. CPE taught me everything they know, and still I know nothing. Two moments come to mind, not highlights but lowlights I reckon.
Night Call. I’m the overnight chaplain in a large teaching hospital that is also a university’s medical school. It’s wee hours. Phone rings and I answer groggily. A tiny girl is dying and I’m summoned first to the pediatric OR. Two-year-old Crystal lies spread-eagled on a stainless steel table, cut wide open from sternum to pubis as the medical team work frantically. Tears in her eyes a nurse shakes her head at me, and a doctor tells me Crystal’s mother is in the waiting room I need to be with her and wait till he comes. I rush to the waiting room, where Crystal’s mother waits alone, bent over looking at the floor, frozen with fear and dread. I take her hand and begin prayer, which she wants. Quarter hour later the surgeon comes in with words that stick in my mind more than three decades on. “Mrs. Xxxxx, Crystal didn’t make it.” As if she needs to assure the surgeon, she says calmly to him, “I know you did all you could.” And then collapses in racking sobs, “Oh my God my baby.” I’ve written this here before, but it’s back in my mind this morning for nevermind reasons plus yesterday’s sermon summons to remember and count blessings, highlights of ministry. After the doctor leaves, I stay there with her. Her husband, Crystal’s father, is on his way to the hospital. She talks and cries. This is the third child they have lost, two little boys with the same congenital defect passed from the father, who had lost a child to the same defect in his first marriage. In a while, maybe half hour, Crystal’s father arrives. Broken beyond words, he looks at my hospital badge Chaplain Weller and lights into me like a man possessed, that My God as he spits it out, allows such horror to come upon little children and unspeakable grief into the lives of parents. I listen and absorb. This is why I am required to take CPE before ordination. I do not defend My God who, in my view of Him as Pantokrator, is either big enough to wage His own defense or is not worth defending at all. A few minutes into his rage, Crystal’s father orders me out of his sight, out of the room, and I leave, shaken. For life. But not surprised. Later that day, Night Call is the subject of my Verbatim with the other student chaplains in my CPE group. No pats on the back, CPE is not a group who assure and defend each other, but who tear you to shreds and reduce you to tears for what you did wrong that surely hurt the people with whom you were trying to minister. Astonishingly for this group, they listen and pronounce I handled my night call competently, and so does the supervisor. What did I do. Listened, I guess; I guess I listened and took it, that’s all.
Beautiful Wife. The other that’s in mind this morning. Same hospital, another day, different week, month, oncology ward. I am working through my dozen 3x5 cards telling me which rooms to visit that morning, patient’s name, DOB, a sentence about medical condition. Checking the name on the door, I enter. In the bed, cranked sitting up, a frail, gaunt, bald woman who looks to be in her seventies, but my card says she’s twenty-something. I don’t remember her name. She turns to greet me, I begin “Good morning, I’m Chaplain Weller.” Her eye catches my chaplain badge and she dissolves into a gritted, tearful fury as she orders me out of her room and not to pray for her now or ever, just leave, look at what My God has done to her life and to her husband and to her two little children who will never remember their mother who loved them so. I stand and listen as long as she rages at me, until she pauses and again orders me out of the room. Shaken is the word, I go quietly and on to another floor or section of the hospital with my deck of 3x5 cards. Later that day a young man comes up to me, it was more than thirty years ago, I don’t remember, but he was late twenties or possibly thirty. He is the woman’s husband. He charges angrily, how dare I “so upset his wife who is dying ravaged with cancer that in two years has destroyed her, broken his heart and taken their children’s mother. He hates My God and will not have him spoken of in her presence. Here, and taking her drivers license from his pocket he shows me a picture of a beautiful, blond young woman, smiling as she was two years ago, and today you saw what your God has done to her. Don’t you dare go back into her room and upset her further.” And of course, I did not. I never saw them again. She died the next morning. For my vicious little CPE group, another Verbatim to share with them.
Neither scenario would rank among the ten most blessed moments of my life and ministry, but Luke in his version of the Beatitudes of Christ counters each with a Woe. “Woe to you …” and in Christian ministry I’ve been there. Congregation long ago thrilled and happy and blessed with what I brought to their church, fellowship, worship and community years ago. But heads of two families taking them out in seething anger because everything was no longer as it used to be, as it was supposed to be, and running me down all over a small town. Woe is me.
What am I, Lord, that thou art mindful of me? What is today, Monday, that I am still here wondering how the hell I got to be eighty-one years old and still loving your people. No question mark, it’s a rhetorical question anyway. Maybe drive, a trip? Maybe sit here at 7H and think as the sun creeps across the porch and so bright drives me inside. Maybe start on my lists of blessings and woes in ministry and in life. Some of those roads not taken, the places I missed in life for taking other roads as just as fair. They are where my memories are. All the rest is vapor.
Pics: thanks PB407