Since I’ve noticed that hospital chaplaincy can actually be quite a mysterious vocation, I thought I’d write a bit about why this ministry has so moved my heart.
The first time I encountered a chaplain was when I was twelve years old, six months after my sister Katie suddenly died. After being in a grief program at Little Company of Mary Hospital – facilitated by my now dear friend Peg – I saw how meaningful pastoral care was in my own life. Through several years and many God-ordered opportunities and movements, I know deep in my heart that this is the kind of ministry He has created me to do – the kind of person He’s created me to be: being on a pastoral care team at a hospital.
I’ve been shocked time and time again, when a sterile room filled with monitors blaring and IVs dripping, becomes a sweet sanctuary – a place where God’s presence is thick and almost tangible. How can a hospital room become a sacred space? It’s honestly a mystery to me, I must confess, that a place so unexpected can become a place where God’s glory dwells.
I think about the joy of simply holding one’s hand – perhaps frail or shaky or strong. But still, human connection. Gazing into the eyes of another who is made in the image of God – unique, sweet, and beautiful. Holy conversations over room temperature meatloaf and applesauce – as well as those plastic bottles of chocolate Ensure (the kind that never look like actual chocolate, though I’ve never actually tasted a sip).
In my role, I have seen faithful marriages in their most brilliant light. I’ve seen elderly wives sitting by their husbands’ beds – for hours and hours on end. I’ve seen them faithfully keep watch, sentries of every discomfort they notice in their spouses. “In sickness and in health…” when the sickness is deep and the symptoms distressing. Still present, still faithful. As a chaplain, I observe husbands blessing their spouses, demonstrated by an action as simple as spoon feeding. Still, I offer my presence and echo the love of God, asking Him to strengthen, uphold, and grant His peace.
I’ve encountered the ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ alike, learning from so many what it means to offer the ministry of presence. I distinctly remember a specific visit with an older man whose chart designated him as ‘nonreligious.’ My internal assumption was that surely he wouldn’t want prayer. However, after a ten minute visit with him, I asked if he wanted me to say a prayer before heading out. He very quickly replied, “That won’t be necessary.” Just as I thought. But as I was about to respond with an “Okay” and a quick exit, he continued,
“Your presence has been prayer enough already.”
I was speechless. Absolutely speechless. My constructs of prayer were immediately altered. Could I really embody a prayer simply by being physically present? At least to this man, the answer was a hearty, “Yes.”
In chaplaincy, I’ve had to reconstruct (or perhaps construct for the first time) a robust theology of the body. If I believe with all my heart that Jesus became human in the Incarnation, literally putting on human skin and feeling what we feel – then I must reasonably begin to see that God deeply values the body as being the place from and in which Jesus redeemed humanity – the body literally being part of the redemption of the entire human race. When in the Bible Jesus ministers to individuals around Him, it seems as if He often reaches others’ souls by first affirming that He cares for the whole of who others are: all their messy and earthy humanity. He heals a man born blind, showing him he cared for his entire wholeness. Jesus heals Mary Magdalene by freeing her from demons – freeing her physically so she can be free, including spiritually. Jesus heals lepers and others who are infirmed, helping them physically flourish to aid in their spiritual well-being, ultimately drawing them to Himself.
I believe that because God honors the body, I can honor others and Him by embodying my ministry to others – being present in the most earthy of ways amidst blood draws and physical therapy sessions – knowing that even this work of being present is deeply spiritual and sneakily meaningful.
So, this is my heart for chaplaincy. I’m moved to tears when I think about this ministry, knowing that I’m passionate to live in the intersection of physical and spiritual health. This is exactly where I feel the Holy Spirit has led me and has equipped me to be present with the sick in mind or in body, present with the dying, holding reverence in the presence of those already dead – privileged to share these moments with family members.
As the past two weeks have shown me that my schoolwork is monstrously piling up, I’ve decided to tie up my weekly account of the spiritual disciplines (at least for now). Though I may get back on this road of experimentation in the future, I have chosen to stop and to reflect at this point — to pay attention to how these rhythms have shaped my heart this final semester of seminary.
When I think about what’s happened in my heart the past ten weeks, I narrow in on the following image of a tree’s roots aggressively fighting through the blacktop cement (photo taken on a walk in Cambridge):
For so long before this journey, I felt myself trapped by fear of failing in discipline, lack of motivation in connecting with the Lord, and a general complacency in my spiritual journey. However, living these past several weeks in light of the spiritual disciplines — with a literal expectancy of meeting with God — I’ve seen the roots of my heart begin to fight against the previous tendencies of my heart. I’ve felt new life take root in my heart, a kind of life that will no longer be constrained by the limitations I’ve put on myself or the ones I’ve (quite unsuccessfully) tried to put on God’s work in my life. Yes, the roots are breaking through the concrete. My new creation nature is experiencing regrowth.
As I look back at these spiritual disciplines, I recall such distinct images: sitting on a floral pillow in my seminary’s prayer chapel, praying in front of an icon of Jesus; gazing outside my window at snowflakes steadily falling, remembering the handiwork of God; pacing my room in silence, trying to bear with the strangeness of mute solitude; sipping tea and laughing with my suitemates, celebrating the gift of knowing them; speaking with a spiritual director, vocalizing how the Holy Spirit has been sensitizing my heart to His love and direction.
Through these practices, I’ve begun learning that my delight was not so much in the disciplines themselves — but rather in the fruit of the disciplines — a growing delight in seeing the Lord’s hand in my life.
What has this fruit been (or at least the fruit I’ve perceived growing within myself)?
- A greater responsiveness to the Holy Spirit. I’ve sensed greater conviction in the words I speak, the thoughts I meditate on, and how He’s leading me vocationally.
- Focused attention on the ordinary. I’ve begun to see individuals around me as truer gifts of God, realizing He has placed friends in my life with purpose and intention. I’ve begun greater delighting in the commonplace events of life: studying with friends, sharing a meal in the dorm kitchen, driving to church on a Sunday. I’ve found God nourishes me with His love in these common places.
- Intentionality is carving out space to meet with God. If I truly believe that my identity is found in God as His child, then I must invest time in spending time with Him. I’ve complicated this space, believing it must look a certain way and take a certain amount of time. However, simply showing up and allowing God to speak His love over me — this has changed everything.
So, what does it look like moving forward?
Two spiritual disciplines have especially stood out to me as being beneficial for my soul: Examen and Welcoming Prayer.
With Examen, I’m encouraged to alert myself to God’s presence, choosing to be aware of the ways He has moved beautifully and apparently throughout the day. Additionally, I can be honest with myself and with God about the times I chose to live out of my own efforts instead of His. I can replay the moments of my day, asking the Holy Spirit to reveal aspects of His character to me and to change my heart so I can greater reflect His character in my own life.
With Welcoming Prayer, I’ve learned to ask Jesus to be present in every single part of my day — no matter how small or seemingly insignificant. I’ve experienced the beauty of welcoming Him before running on the treadmill or working on a homework assignment; this practice has refocused me, causing me to consciously remind myself that all I am and have — any strength I muster — must come from Him and Him alone.
These two practices, as well as the others throughout the past ten weeks, have been truly special, challenging me and drawing me into the rhythms of God’s timing — not the limited nature of my own timing.
So, in closing, I want to say:
Thanks, Adele Calhoun, for your informative and special guide. And thank you, my reader, for joining me on this ‘Journey with the Spiritual Disciplines.’ I pray you continue to see the beauty of the rhythms God is leading you into — and how these rhythms can steadily guide you nearer to His loving and precious heart. He loves you so much.