A note on “Calling”; or, why Mark Driscoll made me a chaplain

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…

“Hey Jude”

You know how whenever Paul McCartney plays live he plays Beatles songs? Well, I am taking my own “Hey Jude” from the Recontextualize blog and posting it here.

Here are some thoughts that I compiled for a competency essay to (hopefully) meet APC Board Certification. (Disclaimer: I realize that my reading of Žižek would not be compatible with Žižek, so I am taking some liberties. However, I think his example is apt, and especially in comparison with Myra Bluebond-Langner’s theory of mutual pretense.)

Incorporate the spiritual and emotional dimensions of human development into the practice of pastoral care

I want to explore the topic of human development with a question a nurse asked: I wonder if “Adam” knows he is dying but is waiting for mom and dad to let him go.

Contemporary philosopher and cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek is helpful here as he draws on this level of disavowal and uses it as a lens to explore a contemporary example with our belief in Santa Claus.[1] Žižek’s critique is that, at some point, the child knows that Santa Claus is not real, but a creation of their parents, but they play along in order to uphold a level of belief to keep their parents happy; or, as Žižek said:

“In short, they transfer their belief onto another. We do the same with our children. We go through the ritual of Santa Claus, since our children are supposed to believe in him and we do not want to disappoint them. They pretend to believe so as not to disappoint us and our belief in their naivety.”[2]

There is a disavowal working on two levels: First, the child knows the reality but doesn’t want the parents to know that they know, and second the parents know but don’t want the children to know that they know. This creates a fantasy level in which both parties are working with an ideology.[3] Žižek offers ways to confront ideology and correct them, but this falls outside the scope of this essay; what I am concerned with, however, is how the chaplain stands in the gap created by the ideology; in other words, how can we talk to a child about his/her death – while honoring the parent’s wishes as guardians – all the while taking the patient’s developmental progress into account and upholding the integrity of the family system?

First, it is vital for a chaplain to address a person’s capacity for understanding. In terms of pediatrics, the cognitive level of development is much higher than I think we give children credit for. Research has shown multiple answers to this question,[4] but, as I hope my attention to the dignity of humanity mentioned above revealed [not included in this blog – sorry it’s boring theory], I view children as “purposeful, willful individuals capable of organizing their own behavior towards others.”[5] I think this is the case for a number of reasons, specifically their interpretation of parent’s emotions, receiving of gifts, and previously punished behavior not receiving punishment. These may appear as superficial examples but they reveal that children are interpreters of their environments and are incredibly cognizant of their reality. So although patients may not completely comprehend the medical realities of care they do interpret their experiences and draw conclusions based on this data. There is a spectrum here: on one end, a patient may know every aspect of each medication, while at the other end a patient just knows that when this doctor shows up I get a shot! Therefore, yes, at some level, I do think “Adam” knew he was dying. Out of respect for Adam’s mom and dad I was never able to discuss this with him at length – nor with mom and dad as they were clear that they did not want to talk about it.

Once again I think this reveals that the disavowal is at the level of the parents not the child. This makes sense though. In my experience, parents are helpless and powerless in the face of a terminal disease. The parents get stripped of some traditional parental roles. So, although I am always ready to help families make meaning out of a circumstance I often fail to acknowledge the importance of upholding social order. Myra Bluebond-Langner describes this social order is akin to the moral order, so although it doesn’t make sense per se for a parent to act the way they do it makes less sense for them to abandon traditional parental responsibilities.[7]

The best way to relate this back to Žižek’s Santa Claus analogy and real life chaplaincy is what Bluebond-Langner defines as “mutual pretense” where, “each party defines the patient as dying but acts otherwise.”[8] I am a chaplain to this family during a small window of their overall journey. I am an invited pilgrim who meets them where they are and responds to their clues as to how we are to proceed. I cannot replace their myths if this will destroy their way of making meaning. Just like any myth encountered in patient care, a chaplain has to take multiple factors into account. An important factor in assessing each visit is socialization. Each visit is layered and multi-dimensional. I can begin a conversation with a family, but if the family is not ready to go there I cannot force the conversation (This, in my opinion, is spiritual abuse). Just as I mentioned above, the care team is witnessing an already existing family system and therefore cannot project and take a family to a place they are not ready to go.

Dealing with death and children is incredibly complex. We perceive children as images of a future which adults will never visit. In other words, children represent the future. Children represent innocence. Therefore, talking about death is not just talking about death; we are talking about a failure of the future and possibly the God who allowed it. Chaplains, therefore, are pilgrims on an already existing journey; hopefully adding wisdom while removing layers of myths.

[1] Developed in Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York, N.Y.: Picador, 2008); and The Puppet and the Dwarf: The Perverse Core of Christianity (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2003).

[2] Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, 96-97.

[3] Which Žižek describes as the set of ideas by which people make sense of their social world by covering over certain unwanted features of their governed social existence; or as Karl Marx described ideology, “they do not know it, but they are doing it.”

[4] Myra Bluebond-Langner, The Private World of Dying Children.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Ibid., 216-217.

[7] Ibid., 230.

[8] Ibid., 199.

Another New Blog

I think this is the fourth blog I have “started,” and I believe my grand total of posts is somewhere shy of 7.

I had a blog when I started my MDiv at Fuller and I posted once… about something;

Then I started a football (soccer) blog, which was actually a lot of fun – ask the three people who commented;

Then Beth (my wife) and I started a blog that we blogged on twice;

Then my buddies Tom, Matt, and I started a blog called Recontextualize. We forgot to renew it – it expired (Did you know that if you let a blog expire on WordPress it costs $106 to renew it?! There is an $80 late fee. WordPress should open a credit card, or a library with those rates). It was fun, but the three of us were/are crazy busy (if I can speak for “us”).

So, how will this be different? Well, it probably won’t. Real-Time-Bloggers have serious commitment and something interesting to write about  (As I look above I really just want a place to write two sentence paragraphs a la Rob Bell.).

In all seriousness, I need to force myself to step out and write and process and reflect what I am thinking on a daily basis. I do not gravitate to Blogging or having a “public profile” (although I do love a good humble brag or employing some FOMO envy on Instagram), but it is something that Dr. Monica Coleman is challenging her students to do in her public activism and scholarship course. I am fascinated by the course because I am in roles in which I need to speak up. I am a chaplain in both the healthcare and military contexts. I need to advocate for my patients at the hospital and for my Soldiers. I hope to research and write my dissertation about a chaplain’s role in PTSD or moral injury. The suicide rate among veterans is staggering, and I hope to stand up and address this with something new or add to the existing conversation.

How can I integrate my passions publicly. In other words, I am hoping to unite the via activa and the via contemplativa

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the focus of the blog will be on theology. I am especially interested in practical theology. How is theology actually lived out in communities. In my work as a chaplain I am constantly amazed at how patients make meaning out of the gravest circumstances. My main focus as a hospital chaplain is with our pediatric population. I constantly wonder how parents make meaning out of their children’s suffering. How do I provide an extra layer of support in these situations? I don’t ask the theodicy question that much anymore, but I am still challenged daily to deepen my faith and understanding of God in the midst of such pain, suffering, and death. These are some of my questions and “learning goals” for my doctoral program.