Sunday, September 09, 2012

When I finally felt like a chaplain

I finally felt like I was a chaplain after I had been about four weeks into my internship.  I was feeling exhausted and that my job was merely tangential to that of the nurses and social workers.  That it was not anything really special, just a nice additional service to make people's lives easier.  I had gotten a page from the medical ICU that a family wanted a Lutheran pastor present at the extubation (withdrawal of life-saving care) of their loved one.  There was not a Lutheran pastor in the hospital, but there was a Lutheran chaplain, so they got me.

I showed up to a room with a ton of family members present, as well as a couple nurses, a social worker, and a respiratory therapist.  The patient was intubated and hooked up to a dozen monitors of various types, he was at the end of a prolonged illness.  The family asked me to spend some time with them because they were not sure how quickly the patient would die after being extubated.  I led the Lutheran Commendation of the Dying, a rite that happens shortly before the time of death.  At this moment, with the nurses, respiratory therapist, social worker and family circled around the bed, their heads bowed, I knew that I was offering something that no one else in that room could.  I finally felt like a chaplain.

An extubation is a brutal thing and this was my first experience with one.  I held hands with the patient's sister who had not spent much time in the hospital until this point of her brother's illness and was not used to this sort of thing.  There is a lot of gasping for breath (not all of it from the patient) and sometimes the patient is immediately peaceful and sometimes they are not.  Sometimes they die within a matter of minutes, sometimes it is hours or days. This particular patient looked immediately peaceful and I spent about 30 more minutes with the family, it was about 7:00pm in the evening.  Before I left, the patient's spouse asked me to offer a blessing for the patient.  I did, and made the sign of the cross on his forehead, his face visibly relaxed.  The patient died early the next morning before I arrived for my shift.

The time spent with this family was an incredible blessing.  I had the opportunity to spend over an hour with them, at one of the most intimate times of their family life.  The family remarked that my being there helped them to hold the presence of God in the room in the midst of uncharted territory. They felt a little less alone.  I believe that is the biggest gift that the chaplain can offer, presence and accompaniment.  Indeed, I think that this is what the pastor can offer in times of need as well.  To show up, walk with others, and tell the truth in the form of the Gospel.

Week 1: Church in the City- Beth Abraham

My spiritual director gave me an assignment about a month ago, to visit other worship communities.  This also aligns nicely with the sociology of religion class that I am taking this fall.  I think the intent is to provide clarity about my own sense of call and ministry.  Out of curiosity, today I visited a church very close to my home, Church in the City-Beth Abraham, because it is incredibly different from any worship community that I have ever attended.  This congregation describes itself as an Evangelical Christian/Messianic Jewish congregation.

As a side note, the idea of Messianic Judaism is troubling to me.  Judaism by its very definition is messianic.  Messianic Jews claim Jesus as the Messiah, which makes almost no sense to me.  They believe in the teaching of the trinity and believe in the equal authority of the Old and New Testaments.  Which essentially makes them Christian.  Although perhaps there is a subtlety that I am missing.

The sanctuary was an extremely large auditorium with a raised stage at the front of the room.  There were two projection screens that were projecting "ways to give" when I arrived, which included a smart phone app and a "secure giving kiosk" in the lobby.  There was also a table in the lobby set up to register people to vote.  There was a band set up on the stage.  There was about 50 minutes of singing of repetitive praise music, followed by an offering, then a section of announcements that included accompanying video.  At this point the service was about an hour and 20 minutes and I had to leave because I had agreed to meet a friend.  There was yet to be a sermon.

My overall impression is that this particular worship service was packaged and intended to be consumed by the "audience." I was given a bulletin that contained only announcements and a parking map by an usher that was talking on her cell phone about today's Broncos game when I arrived, no hymnal or songbook.  The praise band was so loud that you could not hear anyone else singing over the amps, drums, and guitars.  I was distracted by the fact that the words projected onto the screens did not align with what the praise band was singing and based on the fact that no one else around me was singing, I think they were distracted and confused.  As I was leaving the service early, just as the sermon was starting, I noticed that the praise band was having breakfast and chatting very loudly in the fellowship hall.    The "audience" clapped after every song and even after the prayer offered by someone that I later determined to be the pastor (only by looking on the website).  During the announcement time visitors were asked to stand up and receive a special gift.  Because I HATE being called out like that, I did not stand up, so I have no idea what the special gift was.
What I felt was missing most of all (aside from liturgy, the Eucharist, etc) was the fact that there was no theology of the cross whatsoever.  I know this is not a typical feature of evangelical churches, so I am not faulting them that, but the praise music and prayers and overall theology focused only on a theology of glory.  The music contained such phrases as "God will provide you a crown," "God will glorify you," "all you have to do is choose your Savior," etc.  This sort of theology puts the believer directly in the driver's seat and makes them in charge of their own salvation, and implies untold riches if only one makes the decision to follow Christ.

In contrast, a theology of the cross makes it known that God's activity in the world is most clearly seen in Christ on the cross.  God knew that there was absolutely no way that we could save ourselves, and sent His own son to die on the cross, something that we could never do for ourselves, to save a wretched world from the sin and death that we have all been marching towards since the day of our birth.  This morning's worship service focused on how Christians would be "glorified in Christ" and how this is entirely within our control.  It is a message that our sad and broken world loves to hear.  We want to be beautiful and important and in charge.  We are addicted to control. This kind of "mountain top faith" holds out just fine when things are great.  But what about when life is no longer so great?  What about job loss or cancer or struggling with identity or addiction?  Where is God in that?  A theology of glory does not make room for that, because it states that if you just have faith, you will be blessed beyond measure.  But this is not the message that our hurting world needs to hear.  Our world needs to hear that God knows suffering, because God has suffered on the cross, beyond measure and our comprehension, our world needs to know that God walks with us in the midst of unbearable suffering and pain.

So here is what I learned this morning:
1. The people who are assigned to greet visitors need to be able to do that, not be on their cell phones

2. Don't turn your church into an exclusive club.  Make sure your visitors know what is going on.

3. It is really important to me that the congregation be a community of producers and not just consumers.

4. Don't call out your visitors.  It doesn't make them feel welcome.  It makes them feel awkward.

5. I need to have a God who knows the darkness and pain of the world.

Tuesday, September 04, 2012


I learned this summer that a hospital operates in a constant state of preparedness.  Yet, even as you are prepared you will simultaneously never be prepared.  Pages would go out overhead and to your personal pager for the following situations: Level 1 (trauma), T-10 (most severe trauma), code blue (cardiac arrest), STEMI (heart attack), Stroke Alert, and Rapid Response (a dramatic change in patient status).  Each of these things demanded a different sort of preparedness.  An overhead page is accompanied by a chime that I will never forget the sound of in my entire life.  It is a Pavlovian response when that bell is heard, instantly you grab your pager and turn your ear toward the overhead speaker.

The strangest moments I experienced this summer were while waiting at the main Emergency Department desk or upstairs at the T-10 room as we waited for the trauma patient to arrive.  The charge nurse would generally have a vague description of the situation (gender, age, and a brief description of the incident).  However, "motorcycle collision" or "motor vehicle collision" can have varying levels of intensity.  As I waited at that desk, in front of the trauma rooms, there is nothing in my life that could have prepared me for what I would see.  I would wonder, will this person be dead or alive?  Will I see their internal organs today?  No sight really bothered me until the burn patient came in on one of my overnight shifts. That was a sight, smell, and experience that I will never forget.  I had never smelled severely burned flesh, but instantly I knew what it was.  Horrifying.  Yet I still had a job to do.

You can get all the training in the world, carry all the right supplies, yet, you can never really be prepared to do something until you are in the middle of it.  Then, you find a way.  Because you have to do it.  Because everyone in that trauma room has a job, including the chaplain.  I never once froze if I had a job to do, even in the most terrible trauma situations.  It only comes afterwards that you realize how unprepared you actually were.