August 12, 2011
Less than three months ago we embarked on this mysterious journey called CPE – Clinical Pastoral Education. We quickly were introduced to a new vocabulary of didactics, IPR’s and verbatims. What concerned us all the most was what were we going to say to these strangers who needed our help? We worried over finding the right words and doing the right things. We knew we couldn’t heal them, but we wanted to try.
And try we did. We encountered people who suffered from dementia and saw their minds fade in and out of awareness. We sat beside people who were undergoing chemotherapy hoping for a cure and listened with compassion to those who revealed they only had a short time left to live. We stood by the beds and in the rooms of those anxious about an upcoming surgery, we read to those who were lonely and felt alone, we sat at the bedsides gently holding the hands of those who were taking their last breaths in this life, and prayed and breathed new life into those who needed to feel the Spirit of the living God.
And through it all we experienced our own personal tragedies. Our pain, ever so close to the surface at times, kept veiled enough to keep those for whom we encountered from feeling our own burdens. Yet laughter and joy somehow found its way in the spaces between. The space between life and death. The space between today’s anxieties and tomorrow’s peace. The space between fear and hope. It’s where we all live and where we do our ministry – in the space between. And our job as ministers is to help people see God in the spaces between.
Henri Nouwen in his book The Wounded Healer, tells a story about fugitive hiding in a small village. The people were kind to him and offered him a place to stay. But when the soldiers who sought the fugitive asked where he was hiding, everyone became afraid. The soldiers threatened to burn the village and kill everyone if they didn’t hand over the fugitive before dawn. The minister didn’t want to hand over the fugitive or see the villagers killed so the minister went to his room and read his Bible hoping to find an answer. He read “It is better that one man dies than that the whole people be lost.” So the minister told the soldiers where the fugitive was hiding. The entire village celebrated because their lives were saved, but the minister was deeply troubled because the fugitive was killed. That night an angel came to him and asked “What have you done?” The minister said, “I handed over the fugitive to the enemy.” Then the angel said, ‘But don’t you know that you have handed over the Messiah?” “How could I know?” the minister asked. Then the angel said “If, instead of reading your Bible, you had visited this young man just once and looked into his eyes, you would have known.”
Ministry is not just about studying theology or searching the Bible for the right answers. It is about meeting people where they are – in the spaces between – and looking them in the eyes and seeing the Messiah. It is seeing the one in whose image we were all created, and revealing to others this image of God through our eyes. We do not need to speak the right words, God speaks through us.
Our eyes have been opened through this journey called CPE and we have been touched by those we have encountered as much as we have touched their lives. We have learned that it is not only in giving that we receive, but that in receiving we give.
We understand now with new minds.
We see now with new eyes.
We feel now with new hands.
And we love one another with new hearts.
We may have begun this journey in the hopes of healing others, but we ourselves have been healed in the process. For those encounters – the ones we prayed with, laughed with, cried with and rejoiced with – were sacred. They were holy encounters because whenever God is present all is made holy. And it is our mission to proclaim that God is always present even when it is not obvious or least expected. It is on this holy journey that we continue forward. Amen.