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Hoosier Musings on the Road to Emmaus

Sunday, July 06, 2003

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Ezekiel 2:1-7
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
Psalm 123
Mark 6:1-6

I’m spending a lot of time in the hospital this summer-- almost 11 weeks, to be precise. Fortunately, this is not due to health issues. I’m working as a chaplain intern, enrolled in a program called Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE for short). It’s a requirement for my seminary degree-- and not just mine, but for many seminaries in the U.S., of many faith traditions. I’m one of six students doing CPE at the University of Chicago Hospitals, on the city’s south side. Two Episcopalian, two Roman Catholic, and two Unitarian Universalist seminarians, each spending our days (and occasional nights) in Hyde Park.

Part of each day is taken up by work within this group: we share questions and concerns; we listen to presentations on various pastoral issues; and we discuss different approaches to our interactions with patients, family and hospital staff.

That’s how we spend the rest of our time: interacting. We visit patients and their families, sitting and listening to what is on their minds and hearts. We pray with them, if they so desire, and for them as well; and we try to provide a measure of emotional and spiritual support in what is often a hard and stressful time.

Sometimes, this is an easy thing to do, and fun. On weekdays we have specific units to which we’ve been assigned. Mine include the surgical waiting area, a general/surgical floor, the transplant floor, and the ICU burn unit; I make regular rounds through these areas. I was a little nervous about how I would be received, a stranger knocking uninvited on a patient’s door; but I’ve been pleased to find that most people are receptive to an unexpected visit. Folks for whom belief in God is a vital part of their lives are glad to have someone share that-- to talk and pray with them-- and those who are not particularly religious still appreciate a little company.

The other part of my summer work includes taking call. The U of C, like many hospitals, provides for chaplaincy services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week; and we interns all have our turn on the rotation. This means we carry a separate, on-call pager for 24 hours, and stay at the hospital, to respond as needed. In theory, this could be anywhere, any floor. In practice, it’s mostly one of the ICU units, if a patient suddenly arrests, or in the Emergency Room, if an ambulance brings in a critical case. U of C is a Level I Pediatric Trauma Center, so usually these are injured children, and frightened parents.

I’ve been on call three times, so far. My first two were relatively easy-- only a few ER pages, and all for what turned out to be minor injuries: a broken bone, a minor concussion. In each case, I spent time with the family, listening and praying, until they could be sure that things were going to be all right. Between these events and my daily rounds, I was beginning to feel-- well, certainly not expert, but capable-- more sure that I could cope with the demands of the job.

My third on call was Thursday night, and this, my friends, was different. The following article about the events of that night is taken from the Chicago Tribune.

An impaired driver ran a stop sign and crashed into a front stoop of a building, killing three young boys and a woman.

The crash happened Thursday night in the city's Englewood neighborhood. The victims were sitting on the stoop when the car ran the stop sign and crashed into them.

Killed were two 10-year-old boys, an 8-year-old boy and a 52-year-old woman, police said. A 4-year-old female passenger of the car was treated for a broken leg.

Police said they cited the driver with 10 traffic violations, including reckless and impaired driving. He remained in custody Friday as an investigation into other charges continued. His blood-alcohol level was 0.27 percent in a field test, police said-- more than three times the state's 0.08 legal standard for intoxication.

Police did not release the names of the victims.

Some of these unnamed victims were brought into our Emergency Room. I stood next to a mother as she was told her son was dead., and as she sobbed out the news to her husband, who came running in a few minutes later. I escorted them down to view his body -- a 10-year-old boy who had been chasing fireflies only an hour or two before. I was also present when other family members arrived, from other hospitals, and they all realized the magnitude of their loss-- a grandmother, and grandsons from 3 different families-- sons, and nephews, beloved children. They did not need police to release names.

Brothers and sisters, I have never felt so woefully inadequate in my entire life. I was hearing in my own mind the same sorts of questions the villagers in today’s gospel were asking about Jesus, and with far more reason. Who am I to be standing here? A middle-aged suburban housewife, with one year of seminary under her belt, and three weeks spent wandering through this hospital as a rookie intern. What can I possibly have to offer in the face of such overwhelming grief?

The only answer, of course, is: not much. So I did the only thing I could do-- stay with them, and pray, desperately, for God’s grace and guidance.

And I found, as Paul did, the truth in God’s words as we heard them this morning: "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." Through God's grace and mercy, we were able to cry together, and pray together, and the family began to find the strength to stand up under the tragedy of this night.

That’s the lesson we can take from the scriptures we’ve heard this morning. Paul’s seemingly contradictory statement: “whenever I am weak, then I am strong,” is a lifeline to grasp. If we try to do for ourselves the work of God in this world, we’re going to fail. We can’t help it; as scripture says, “all fall short of the glory of God.” None of us measure up in every way, all the time. It’s only when we let go, when we lean on God’s strength instead of our own, that we are able to stand up and do the work set before us as children of the living God, and disciples of His Son.

Last year, I got an e-mail from Carolyn Jones, that I’ve hung onto, because she expresses this sentiment so well. The note was actually regarding the issue of women in the priesthood, but I think her words are equally applicable to the work and focus of any ministry, lay or ordained.

“The wonderful thing about... ministry is that it is not about me ... or you ... or anyone [else]. It is about God, and what he has done for us in Jesus. My role... is to proclaim that through my words and actions. If I do that faithfully,... then only one vision is present: the vision which God and Jesus bring.

It is this vision of ministry to which we are all called, this Independence Day weekend. Not one of depending on our own strength and power, but one of continual commitment to seeking and sharing with others the power and mercy of our Lord and Savior. For “whenever we are weak, then we are strong.”

Thanks be to God.


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