July 13, 2014
Some of you may know that I graduated from seminary a few months ago. I didn’t start out wanting to go to seminary; it just kind of worked out that way as the journey unfolded. It started as a change in careers from being a chiropractor to being a chaplain, and it just continued as I discerned the will of God working in my life. Things we learn on the journey.
Let me tell you a little bit about my seminary education. First, let me tell you about all the things I didn’t know. It may be that I just haven’t paid attention during the first 50 years of my life, but I seemed to know very little about religion. One of our first assignments was to write a paper about our beliefs about Jesus, sort of a creed about the second person of the Trinity. In that paper, I talked a lot about what Jesus was doing before he was born as a human and I learned, when I got my paper back, that Jesus did not exist until he was born. That the second person of the Trinity is referred to as the Logos before the Incarnation . In Christology, the concept that Christ is the Logos has been important in establishing the doctrine of the divinity of Jesus Christ and comes from the opening of the Gospel of John, which reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” I didn’t know any of this and I panicked when I realized how little I knew. I told my professor, “I just have to drop this class.” Thankfully, the professor said to me, “Terese, you have an eighth-grade theology and a postgraduate level science mind. Just hang in there in the first will catch up with the second.” On the journey, as we study and listen and read, we learn more about the wonders of our God and our relationship with the Trinity.
Other things I knew nothing about (and you all probably do because you paid attention) is what the lectionary is. I just assumed we read the preacher’s favorite passages from the Bible and they preached on whatever they felt like talking about that day. I had no idea there was such a thing as the Common Lectionary. It is a three-year graph so to speak of the readings from the Bible, laid out so that we cover the major points of our Christian faith throughout that period of time. Each week has readings from the Old Testament, a Psalm, and the gospel reading that are thematically related and that the preacher may use of the topic for the homily for that week.
So when we learned that pastor Kathy was to be gone sabbatical, several folks were asked to preach. My assignment is today.I dutifully looked up the lectionary for this week, July 13, and started thinking about what I would preach. I spoke to Jack a few weeks later and she said, “You can do that if you want, but Pamela Middlefeldt preached about the corresponding story from Mark just a few weeks ago so you might want to pick a new Scripture passageabout which to preach. Here’s where another sideline of instruction might be helpful. There’s this book called the Synopsis of the Four Gospels. I have it here and when you open the book, it will tell you where else in the Gospels you might find a pericope (fancy word for bible passage) from another of the gospel writers that tells the same story. So the Gospel reading for July 13, today, is from Matthew 13:1-9, the parable of the Sower and the Seed and almost exactly the same story appears in Mark 3:31-35. Now maybe you all knew that, but it was news to me at one point. Jackie told me that Pamela preached a beautiful homily about storytelling that covered same parable a few weeks ago and that I may want to choose another passage. This left me dumbfounded. Now I not only had to think of something edifying to say, I had to choose some passage from the Bible to go with that. There is a lot of pressure on people who have graduated from seminary. People just automatically assume that they know the Bible really well. And I still don’t. I studied a lot of Christian social ethics, morality, some of the Old Testament and some of the New Testament, but I am by no means an expert. What I did learn from this is that you either have to go in and grab which passage you want early, or you have to be really flexible! That is another one of the lessons we may learn on the journey.
So seminary was a journey for me that lasted 4 years, 40 thousand miles and covered countless snowstorms because I commuted from here to St. John’s in Collegeville. It wasn’t the only journey I have been on recently. Five days after graduation, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Spain to hike the last 100 miles of the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage popularized in the film The Way. I traveled with two other chaplains and a friend who is an artist. I had thought I would have wonderful religious experiences on the Camino and time to really synthesize what I thought about God and my relationship with God. Another of the terms that I learned about in seminary (and had not come across before in my regular life) was KENOSIS, meaning an emptying out. Jesus went through kenosis many times in his life, totally emptying himself in order to take on the suffering and dying on the cross providing for our salvation and eternal life. I thought of Jesus and his escape to the desert for 40 days and 40 nights after he was baptized by John the Baptist, to clear his head and prepare himself for the journey that lay ahead of him. Being divine, he knew what lay ahead and the suffering it would involve. Being human, he must’ve dreaded the physical suffering that he would go through. Jesus also went through a night of deep kenosis in the garden of Gethsemane, when he stayed up all night and prayed to the Father, emptying himself of his human desire not to have to suffer like he knew he would, and finally accepting the path that he must follow.
In a less dramatic way, I had hoped for that time of kenosis, to empty out of my head all the facts that were so important during each individual class in seminary, but which probably would not be needed in my career as a chaplain, either at the hospital or in my new role as chaplain at Woodland Hills Treatment Center, Yes, I am the new Bob Stevens!
As we began this long journey, following the paths that have been traveled by countless pilgrims since the Middle Ages, it became very apparent to me that one of my friends was really struggling. She’s been working three jobs because of a personal and financial crisis that upended their family a few years ago so she didn’t have much time to train. My choice at that time became whether I would continue on my planned path of much solitude while I walked, allowing that emptying of my head and hopefully filling up with the presence of the Holy Spirit, or whether I would stay back and help my friend cover that ground at a much slower pace of walking. I felt at the time that I was making a sacrifice and I did so somewhat grudgingly at first. But as time went by, I had the opportunity to watch how she interacted with people and experience the grace that she brought to those encounters. People didn’t walk with her because they felt sorry for her; people genuinely wanted to be with her and experience the grace that she shared with her slow and steady walk. She claims that I helped her by suggesting her poles be taller, by taping up an arch in her foot, and by offering words of encouragement along the way. But I am the one who was blessed by her presence, learning to slow down and listen to the lessons she had to offer.
Listening is a key aspect of this journey of ours here on earth. In my last year at seminary, I participated in the first year of a two-year spiritual direction program. We learned how to deeply and intimately listen to a person coming to seek our guidance. We also learned a tricky thing about questions. Sometimes we ask questions much more out of our own personal curiosity, than to really gather important information from the person speaking. I decided to incorporate that deep listening into my work as a chaplain at the hospital. It surprises me now how little I speak in my work and how much we can learn from that.
One night at the hospital, my pager went off about 11:30 at night and I went in to meet with the family on the hospice unit. An older woman was nearing death, but her family said that she seemed to be afraid of dying. I prayed for the patient with her family and we went back to quietly talking with them. They told me how gracious their mother was, how private she was, and they again reiterated that she seemed to be having a difficult time dying. Suddenly, because of that deep listening, I said, “Excuse me, I have to talk to your mother alone.” I went to the head of the bed and whispered to her, “We as Lutherans believe that Jesus died for our sins. No matter what we did or didn’t do in our lives, it is okay. Christ died for our sins and we are assured of eternal life.” (Now, you and I know that I am not Lutheran, but we are in communion with the ELCA and I thought it would give me more credibility.) The family and I talked a bit more, and I left with the assurance that I would return if they needed me. An hour later, I was called back to the room, and the patient had died shortly after I left. What I learned on that night of the journey is that we need to listen for what people need and remind them of Christ’s saving grace.
My greatest concern about seminary was that I would have more questions when I finished seminary than when I began. Over the four years, I came to see that as not a bad thing, but as a difficult one. People EXPECT you to have some answers when you have done that much work. Like what do you believe about God? My favorite person to refer to on this topic is Paul Ricouer. He was a 20th century French philosopher who, in 2000, was awarded the Kyoto Prize in Arts and Philosophy for having “revolutionized the methods of hermeneutic phenomenology, expanding the study of textual interpretation to include the broad yet concrete domains of mythology, biblical exegesis, psychoanalysis, theory of metaphor, and narrative theory.” Yes, they actually talk like that in seminary! He has a concept called “secondary naivete.” He believes that we have a stage of primary naivete wherein we believe in the literal meaning of all things, including the Bible. As we go through years of deep study and thought and analysis, we come to a synthesis of our own beliefs, based on the Bible, but which we have worked out for ourselves through much struggle and soul searching. It was this kind of work that I had hoped to do on the Camino. What I think about God and his role in our lives was made more poignant when I attended a suicide death in the hospital four years ago. A young man had shot himself in the head during a domestic fight which involved a lot of alcohol and a gun. His two young girls were there and witnessed the whole thing. It was the most difficult situation I could ever have imagined. I spent most of that awful night with the patient’s father, watching his son die a horrific death. At the end, as I walked the family to the door of the hospital, the father turned to me and asked, “What would your God say about this? I was totally speechless—nothing came to my mind to comfort this man and assure him of God’s love for his son, and for him. I felt I had really let him down. After many long moments of silence, I simply said, “I’m sorry.”
I vowed to learn how to be a better chaplain in difficult situations such as this. Working on this topic of training chaplains to better minister to families dealing with suicide became the focus of my senior year. I researched what has been done in the past (very little) and theories of faith development, and exegesis of scriptural passages that would apply. I presented a 25 page paper and my senior integration seminar on all this research. At the end of my presentation, a fellow student asked, “What would you say to that father now that you have studied all this?” It was the best question asked. It took me a minute to think of what I would say. And then I knew the answer. I would say the same thing. Meaning, “I am sorry this happened, sorry I don’t have sufficient words of comfort, sorry for our crazy society that allows easy access to guns, sorry for your grandkids who will deal with this tragedy for their whole lives.” I would have some back up words of how God walks with all of us, Christ died for us, the Holy Spirit gives us strength and grace to get through. But that deep silence of empathy may be enough to share the grief. That’s what I have learned so far on my chaplaincy journey.
In summary, I want to tell you my list of things I have learned so far on the journey. They are:
- What is a lectionary?
- What is the Synopsis of the Four Gospels?
- Either get in there and grab what you want or be flexible!
- The greatest gift we can give to others is to LISTEN to them.
- Even an “expert” will not know more than you about your relationship with God.
- You need some quiet time to listen for/to God.
- Listen for the Word of God/ Will of God (with an open heart.)
As a postscript, I want to tell you that every homily is supposed to be directly tied to the scripture reading. Since I did not rely on the lectionary, I chose my favorite scripture passage, one which I have struggled with the meaning of for my life for years, Mark 1:16-20. Can you imagine the journey Jesus was calling those disciples to begin? Would they ever have put down their nets and followed him if they had even an inkling of what was to come? What does this passage call us to do?
My advice is: Be still. Listen deeply. Be love. Amen.