On a quest to discover my calling in life, I enrolled in a clinical pastoral education program to learn something about the world, but more importantly about myself. I had no clue what I was in for.
I had graduated early from college, still living in the fraternity house as I played soccer and worked as a bouncer at night at a hot club in Atlanta. Trying to weigh my options for grad school, I enrolled in the Spring for CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education, an intensive praxis education experience for those training for ministry. I still don’t know how I got in, but I’m betting it had something to do with tuition dollars.
The setting was Gerogia Baptist Hospital, the very hospital where I was born twenty years earlier. I was assigned to the Five East, a neurological floor, and Four North, a floor for gerontology. Perfect. Just what a twenty year old needs.
The program consisted of serving as a chaplain to the patients and staff in the hospital. You would meet every day with a peer group of other chaplains in training and present a written account of your encounters on the floors of the hospital. Those verbatims were intended to give you insight into how you interact with others, as well as giving you the opportunity to look inside yourself at what’s going on with you. What is driving you, what are you hoping to accomplish, what are you afraid of?
My group were all pretty seasoned folks. A Navy chaplain who had seen war, a Baptist middle aged woman who wanted to be a chaplain, a young Methodist woman who was completing her seminary training at Candler, and a freshly minted Southern Baptist minister who served a church in Zebulon, Georgia who was most interested in putting notches on his Bible with the folks he saved while in extremis. Take a moment to guess who I got along best with and who I did not. I was so predictable.
The time as a CPE student meant you were on the floor every day, along with educational seminars, interpersonal groups, and clinical reviews. You also were”on call” once every two weeks, spending the night there in the hospital, responding to any critical need, and particular, any death that occurred during the evening hours. Just for the record, I led the league for the number of deaths covered in that quarter. The Henry Aaron of Hospitals.
Let me pause the story to just reflect on the fact that I was completely inexperienced, unprepared to meet the spiritual needs of these poor souls facing life and death in this place called Georgia Baptist. But there I was. So much happened to me in those compressed three months, but I want to focus on one story surrounding Easter.
I had been on-call when I was paged to get my young self to the Emergency Room. There had been an accident as a young pregnant woman drove into the back of a large truck on the highway. The front of her car went under the back end of the truck, basically taking off the top of her car. In the process of this massive accident, the in utero fetus did not survive while the young woman suffered severe brain injuries. She had been initially tended to at a rural hospital but then transported to Baptist for the more complicated care she required.
When I got to the Emergency Room, I met her husband, a guy who was a couple of years older than me. They had been married for three years, had gotten pregnant recently, as they were planning for a family.. He worked construction but had his life turned upside down that afternoon. He was in a daze, literally in shock. So, I didn’t know much, but I did know to stay close to him and not offer any glib comments in the face of this tragedy. I’m good at that, that is, not being glib….my mama taught me that.
She was moved to the Intensive Care Unit where she received state-of-the-art care but there was really nothing to do. I continued to go by and spend time with him in the waiting room for the next few days as he hoped for a miracle. I remember going with him into the ICU, looking at her with her face basically scooped off, with tubes coming from every where, a constant bubbling of oxygen, along with the gurgling sound from her throat, I tried to employ my perspective-taking skills, imagining what was going on with this young man, with his young wife at death’s door,
All this was happening in the week prior to Easter, Holy Week, which had little meaning to be at the time. As the low man on the organizational totem pole, I had been assigned Easter Sunday duty so that the other chaplains could be with their families. This meant I would be called on to preach the first sermon of my life on Easter Sunday in the small chapel at the hospital. It was sparsely attended on Sundays, so folks told me, sensing my anxiety. I could just follow the order of service, make a few remarks of about ten minutes, and then dismiss the service. No problem, I thought. One hundred percent for the team.
I went on call Saturday prior to Easter and would conclude my shift after lunch on Easter, When I got to the hospital, I went to check in on the woman in ICU and her husband. As usual, he was sitting by himself in the ICU waiting room. He informed me that the doctors had run repeated tests and determined there was no brain activity. She was on life-support, keeping her alive physically, but with no possibility of recovery. They had given him their recommendation to take his wife off life-support and allow her to die. I remember him, bent over, clasping his hands looking down at the floor, as he told me the news. I just sat, putting my hand on his shoulder instinctively, but fighting back my deep need to say something helpful. If this training had taught me anything it was that PRESENCE is the most important thing i could bring. We did talk about his feelings of helplessness, of being out of control, and yet now the doctors needed his signature, a decision, to allow them to stop extraordinary means to keep his wife alive.
To make a long afternoon short, I stayed with him as he made this decision, something I had wrestled with in a philosophy class in an ivy covered building. But here, it is in flesh, blood, bone, and heart. He eventually made the decision to let her go, arguing with himself, back and forth as I listened and tried to clarity.
The doctors turned off the ventilator and left us. He and I stood there together by her side, watching her shallow breathing subside until it was no more. I remember offering a prayer, with no idea what the hell I prayed. And then, after the obligatory papers were signed, I walked with him to his truck, parked in the towers beside the hospital. I hugged him and somehow felt a mirror was being held up to me and my Self.
As I walked back to the hospital, the overwhelming pathos of the moment seemed to hang over me. There was a depth of sadness I had never known. While I had experienced the up-close death of my grandfather, it sort of felt like it was his time to die, and he did it fishing….I knew that he loved that.
But this. Out of season, a young woman, fresh to her life, her marriage, about to begin her life as a mother, And this poor bastard, who was off doing what he was supposed to do, working to support his family, and his life is destroyed in seconds. His pain, his helplessness, his suffering was overwhelming to me. Particularly at this moment of optimism in my life, ready to embark on a great adventure, the world just waiting for me…and then this. What the hell.
What happened next, I can’t explain. I do not remember consciously thinking about what to do next, I just knew the next morning I was going to have to lead an Easter worship experience. How in the world would I be able to do this in the wake of this tragedy?
Now, I am not one for spooky stuff. I am a scientist by training, and a poet at heart, But something, a spirit or the Spirit, prompted me to get my young ass to Labor and Delivery. I stood outside for a while, watching the new babies in their plastic containers. Kicking,.Screaming. Sleeping. Smiling, at what? The joke just beginning.
And then, I went into the nurse, and asked if I could hold a few babies. She smiled at me in a way that seemed to be knowing. And I spent the next hour or so in a rocking chair, cradling those babies in my arms, talking to each one, calling them by name if they had one at that point.
That existential moment got me ready to do the Easter service, my first sermon. Caught between death and life, the ultimate polarity. Only in the shadow of death does Easter offer any real shred of hope. It was an early lesson for me, one I have had to learn again and again, because, as I have told you, I suffer from spiritual amnesia. The Cross casts a shadow over the morning of Easter. If not, it’s simply a day invented by Hallmark to sell chocolate, bunnies, and cards.
Easter came this year in an odd way. Like the revolution that was to be televised, this Easter was on the air from my favorite parish on this planet. It dared to proclaim hope in the face of overwhelming suffering and death. It whispered hope in the face of anxiety and fear. It was probably closer in resembling the original Easter morning than any other time, other than the one I just told you about.
How did Easter go for you this year? Were you more aware at what’s at stake when we proclaim Alleluia on Easter? Did Easter feel more real to you in the shadows?