I want to reflect a bit on why the role of a chaplain is so appealing to me.
When I started my third year of seminary I started to panic. I knew I would more than likely become an army reserve chaplain (I was a chaplain candidate for three-ish years), but what would my full time gig be? Being that I was in seminary I debated becoming a pastor. This didn’t really gel with where I was at (and I watched my buddy Tom apply to like a million churches and that wasn’t appealing – although he does have a better ecclesiology than you because of it!). I thought about going back on Young Life staff, and even started the process only to switch the responsibility to Beth (don’t worry, she wanted the job!)
Then I enrolled in CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education). Typically you love it or you hate it , and I loved it (it really isn’t a binary, I am positive numerous people just think it’s blah). I loved supporting people in their moments of crisis or even in those moments of joy. As the famous Deacon Mike said, “when all others go out, the chaplain goes in.”
This isn’t so much a reflection about what chaplains do (the next person who says we just pray is getting metaphorically punched in the ear!) but about why the chaplaincy. I read two quotes from two books that really struck a chord with me. The first quote is from a book from Robert Dykstra, Images of Pastoral Care in which he is discussing the formation of the field of pastoral care/pastoral theology/spiritual care… and the people who are attracted to this sort of work. He states, “a fragile, sometimes fragmented identity on the margins of church and society…” is attracted to chaplaincy. Now this may sound like a bio for a sociopath, but allow me to discuss what resonated with me. It was the part about the margins. I feel at home in chaplaincy settings because I don’t really care about what is going on in the discussion about the church as a vocation. I love the church, but I am not interested in the discussion around it. Take for instance church research or pew forums (e.g., why the millennial are leaving the church, developing programs, or how to preach with a goatee) and this does not excite me. Committee meetings are akin to water-boarding. Statistics, demographics, Neo-reformed, Emergent, communal living, Acts 29 Network, or specifics on ordination make me throw up a little in my mouth; but if you allow me to walk with a family in their final moments I am on sacred ground – the “take your sandals off” kind of sacred ground. This is what matters to me.
This also flows nicely into the next quote from one of my professors at Claremont, Dr. Kathleen Greider. While discussing interreligious soul care she states, “…those that practice chaplaincy – these colleagues have been on the leading edge of an approaching tidal wave of interreligious encounter in soul care. Especially in chaplaincy, where religious professionals typically are expected both to restrict their care to the dimensions of religion or spirituality and to provide soul care to persons of religious traditions different from their own…” I often tell people that my job is not about my faith. Nobody really wants to know my position on end times (pre-post-“a” millennial), an exegesis of Ephesians 5:20ff, or whether or not Paul wrote each epistle attributed to him while fighting cancer; rather, people want a person who is willing to encounter pain and make meaning with it and in it. By the way, I do have answers to those questions, and that is because my theology does matter, of course it does, and I stand within a tradition with integrity, but this does not mean I cannot make room for the Other. I am secure in my faith. I think because of this I can welcome people who are either secure (or insecure) in their own faith. As a chaplain, I get to practice interreligious care instead of only interreligious dialogue. Working in Long Beach, CA. offers the unique opportunity to meet people from every faith community you can imagine. Now pluralism does not mean I agree with them, but it means I seek to engage, encounter, and understand. I do not just engage for the sake of dialogue but I engage our differences and similarities to connect people to their modes of truth and understanding. Building on that, it is not just relativistic, on the contrary, it is the encountering of differences and particularities. Finally, I seek to understand the other. My work is not merely tolerance, it goes above and beyond that. Tolerance, in my opinion, would prevent me from risking and from vulnerability. Tolerance is at an arm’s length while understanding gets in closer.
Throughout my brief career as a chaplain I think about the myriad of people I have met and learned from. I get to minister as a pediatric chaplain, which might be my next blog, encountering parents, siblings, patients, and staff who trust me to represent something transcendent, and in my theology, immanent. The staff knows I am Christian, but this does not mean I simply visit Christian patients – this would be boring! Whether it was the Muslim family from Pakistan, the Buddhist couple from Vietnam, The Catholic family from Croatia, the Southern Baptists from Cypress, CA, the atheists from Los Angeles, the Imam from Long Beach, the Monks from Hacienda Heights, the Rabbi who walks everywhere and does not use elevators, or the kaleidoscope of Christianities I encounter each as fresh, challenging, and an increasing canvas of humanity. I still have a lot to learn about my own tradition, let alone the traditions I meet, but the chaplaincy is where I feel that I live out Matthew 25, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
Note bene: clearly this post doesn’t mention Driscoll. He is just the figurehead I have in mind concerning conversations that I am not interested in. I don’t know the man, but I do wear pink – and don’t think JC would be an MMA fighter…