Thursday, June 30, 2016

On the incarnational nature of chaplaincy

A.Kumm-Hanson, Iceland 2016
My work as a chaplaincy is intensely incarnational.  By this, I mean I continually encounter God in the flesh.

"Incarnate" has latin origins, "in" mean into and "caro/carn-" meaning flesh.  It has theological connotations in the Christian belief system, but we usually only speak about a God incarnate around the time of Christmas, with Jesus as a newborn baby. It is uncomfortable to think about God as a human body. A body that sweats and eliminates and requires food and water.

As a hospital chaplain, I am never removed from humanity in all its bodily manifestations.  I see what the body is capable of doing to repair itself, and all the ways that it can fail. I smell the sharp metallic smell of fresh blood. I smell bodily odors of every kind.  I smell the earthy smell of birth and the earthy smell of death. I hold the hands of patients who are swollen with IV fluids, with a gentle touch so that I do not exacerbate their edema. I stroke the foreheads of newborn babies, with skin so soft they don't yet seem made for this world. I use my brain, certainly, but chaplaincy is primarily the use of my body.

Walking into a room and meeting another person wherever they are. To show up and shut up and be present. To move through the human desire to say something to make it all okay and just be. To be a reflection of God-in-flesh to those who are suffering.

Also, my patients reflect God to me. People who are dying share visions of angels and whispered messages from the hereafter. Patients who are undergoing intensive rehab therapies after a stroke speak of wrestling with God in the dark hours like Jacob and emerging with a limp, but having touched God.

Chaplaincy is not a cerebral ministry of long hours spent in a pastor's study in preparation for preaching. It is holding hands through bed rails and wearing isolation gowns and being willing to literally stand in suffering with God's beloveds. It is not about translating Hebrew or Greek from ancient texts, but about translating scripture into something now that matters to the mother who is delivering her stillborn child or the son losing his father to cancer.

The theology of the cross is particularly apparent to me in my hospital work. This theology holds that God's love for all of creation is most clearly seen in the act of dying on the cross.  That God did the most human thing of all, which is to die. The theological conviction that shapes my ministry as a chaplain is that God knows what it is to suffer and to die, and there is no place that God is unwilling to go, even death. This is good news for all of us who feel immersed in suffering, our own or that of others.

Because to be human is to be made in God's image and to carry God's likeness.  We are the incarnate God to one another.


Sam Blair said...

Excellent post! I shared it on my blog as well.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your kind words!

2xadopted said...

Thank you for your passionate rendition of what chaplaincy means to you! You spoke to my heart, as I am just beginning my first CPE in a few weeks! However, I have come to this place late in life, entered a graduate seminary program in 2012 at the young age of 59!