A primary motto of chaplaincy is “Don’t just do something, stand there.” In other words, pay attention. Be present. Watch, listen. Often easier said than done! Chaplaincy is a vocation centered on being, providing so-called non-anxious presence.
Chaplain Karen O’Brien wrote, “Perhaps our most important gift, especially in times of catastrophe and loss, is a presence that refuses to retreat.”
These words encourage my legs and my heart to grow roots in God’s holy ground. They have helped me stay when my impulse is to run; they have brought me back from walking away. No matter what or where or how it happens, they remind me to stay.
As Spiritual Care Coordinator at UH’s Seidman Cancer Center, I accompany patients and their families and friends as they make the cancer journey. Patients and families cannot run away from it. It’s only fair that I stay put with them.
For each person the journey is unique – each step has never been taken before – and the path covers territory that starts out unfamiliar, may get hostile, often scary, usually humbling, occasionally uplifting, and always unknown.
On their way patient and family seek to make sense of the strangeness, the disorientation they experience both on the outside AND within. Disorientation that will yield to reorientation, most of the time, eventually.
A chaplain’s privilege is to ask, “May I be part of the movement from disorientation to reorientation?”
Today’s scriptures are three of my favorites: three whose meanings have been brought into relief time and again by people I’ve had the privilege of working with. I’d like to share a few of their stories in hopes this will prompt your stories and meanings to arise.
Recently I was called to the side of a patient and his wife, Rick and Bonnie (not their real names) who were requesting spiritual care at Rick’s first chemotherapy session. The cancer diagnosis had been an enormous shock to this healthy, vibrant 60-something gentleman, and on this day, following multiple doctor visits and his first radiation session, Rick and Bonnie were nervous and agitated awaiting chemo. Strangers in a strange land, how would they sing the Lord’s song? Too nervous to pray alone, they asked me to pray for them, with them, pray for blessing of that first chemo. They’ve asked for prayer over every bag of chemo since.
Isaiah’s words assured them: When you pass through the waters, and through the chemo, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you… and when you walk through fire, the fire of radiation, you will not be burned and the flame shall not consume you.
For Rick and Bonnie, it was reassuring to be reminded that it’s not a matter of if you pass through the waters” or if you walk through fire. The verse states when: There is no escaping dangers and perils. All of us will encounter hostile elements. But we are assured that we will not go the way alone. Reorientation.
Today’s gospel story is the favorite of a patient named Rob. He sums it up thus: “It’s about when the disciples are on the water during the storm and they panicked, they who were SAILORS, and had to wake up the CARPENTER to find out what to do!” I love his version, but let’s take a closer look.
Jesus has been teaching all day long at the seaside and by evening, was tired. There were crowds on the shore, probably some camping overnight. So to get away, Jesus suggests, “Let us go across to the other side.”
Jesus invited the disciples into the boat, into the night, onto the sea. And the disciples followed, apparently without thinking of the possibility of a storm, which was a common occurrence on the Sea of Galilee. No matter, they boarded the boat and headed out.
Suddenly a gale swept down the lake, the boat filled with water and danger was upon them. Saying yes to Jesus did not ensure calm waters for the disciples then, and does not ensure calm waters on our journeys now. The disciples fear the worst: they’re perishing.
Despite the raging of wind and sea, Jesus remains asleep. That’s what I call a non-anxious presence! After he awakens, the storm ends as quickly as it came on: “There was a calm.”
In Luke’s version of the story Jesus asks the frightened disciples, “Where is your faith?” There’s a lot of mercy and understanding in that little word, where. Jesus assumes disciples have faith, shows he knows faith can grow weak when danger’s upon us or get lost when we get capsized.
Compare the notable differences in the way this story was told in Mark’s and Matthew’s Gospels:
In Matthew’s story, Jesus is depicted as reacting like a stressed parent: before he even stills the storm he asks, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” Ouch! “Why” statements put us on the defensive.
In Mark’s version: after quieting things, he says to the disciples, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Frustration and criticism.
A beloved patient Molly (not her real name) suffered mightily with the fact of a pancreas cancer diagnosis. That diagnosis was for her a daily, terrible reminder of the finitude of life. Her beloved life as mother, wife and grandma had a limit…would end. This wasn’t intellectual, but real, for the first time. Her emotions were her storm — she felt overwhelmed and hopeless. It didn’t matter that the treatment was going well, even that she felt good. “Why can’t I hope like my husband does?” “How do I find my faith?”
What is faith? It’s been defined in Hebrews as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Another way of putting it is found in the Cotton Patch Version of the New Testament by Clarence Jordan, a Georgia farmer and Greek scholar. He translated “faith is betting your life on the unseen realities.”
To Molly it looked like all was lost… To the disciples it looked like all was lost. Sometimes, to us, it looks like all is lost. It can be due to cancer, divorce, betrayal, loneliness, addiction…any number of life’s dangers.
We are to bet our life on an unseen reality. Somehow we need to learn to see beyond present circumstances no matter what they are, to an unseen reality.
An unseen reality where our lives are anchored in God’s providential care…in God who made us fearfully and wonderfully, whose presence we cannot flee. An unseen reality where our lives are anchored in God whose night is as bright as the day, “for darkness is as light to you.”
One day Molly shared an epiphany that she could “borrow” her husband’s hope — this brought her such peace and further allowed her to be buoyed up by the vision of her family who saw life’s glass half full. Reorientation.
On his own life’s journey, Jesus encountered plenty of storms — how can we expect less for ourselves? And still we do, hoping against hope that going with God will somehow diminish the chances of our suffering. No, we can count on storms, which will come up when we least expect them. We just may find that some of our greatest experiences with Jesus will be when it’s dark and stormy and we are lost.
Bill is a 23-year-old who has been undergoing treatment for leukemia for the past three years. Known as an “old soul”, he is a bright, optimistic young man, who loves and is loved, and who is part of a vibrant community of family and friends. Together they have experienced trials and tenterhooks, dashed hopes, renewed resolve, and disappointment leading to this phase of his treatment. He’s been in the hospital for many weeks. There seems to be some pressure on him to remain unflappable and wise through it all — pressure Bill takes on. After still more setbacks recently, Bill allowed himself to feel exactly what he was feeling, no sugar coating or masking. He let loose – truthfulness prevailed and unspeakable sorrow and fear and anger flowed. He didn’t need to be an old soul. Christ awoke. The storm passed. Reorientation. Peace.
We are each on our own unique journey, and we will likely get disoriented and endure storms on the way to the other side. Let us bet our lives on God getting us through…on God hearing our cries. Let us bet our lives on God staying with us, come hell or high water, and equipping us with the ability to face anything that may happen …through disorientation to reorientation.