Tuesday, December 20, 2011

To See Every Bush Afire

After a long and crazy semester, I will be posting a couple stories about my experience in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), a fancy way of saying I have been a student chaplain in a hospital near Drew Theological School, taking classes and working as a chaplain on a geriatric floor and the behavioral health unit, as well as everywhere else in the hospital when I am on-call. It has been a difficult experience for me, but also one in which I have seen God in so many beautiful ways. A reflection from the beginning of my experience is posted here, and in sermon form here.

There is something I find strangely comforting about sitting in the midst of people speaking a foreign language. The quick pace of it, the strange sounds, the occasional familiar word that grabs at your ears and forces you to again try to make sense of these sounds. Okay, maybe that description does not sound comforting at all, but it is to me. It takes me back to places like Bosnia and Herzegovina and Venezuela, where I was able to sit and be in community with others at the same time I could step back and let this foreignness wash over me. I was expected to do nothing but absorb the sounds, watch the way bodies moved to the music of their own words, and in that you find often that words are unnecessary tools of communication.

I found myself again relaxing into this game of uncovering what is said in a foreign language, but this time the setting was far different than smokey kitchens in Bosnia or greenhouses in the side of mountains in Venezuela. This time I sat in the behavioral health unit in the hospital in which I am a chaplain. The unit is really nice, lots of natural light coming in from the windows, more light wood than white walls, and cushy furniture. But for all its attempt at trying to be like home, it is still...not.

I was sitting with three women, one of whom was my roommate and fellow chaplain Lauren, and one man. I had noticed earlier that day that we had at least two people coming to spiritual events on the floor who spoke only Spanish, and I felt it terribly isolating for us not to try and care for their spiritual needs. So I grabbed my roommate, who speaks Spanish, and drug her up the stairs to a floor that generally makes her feel very uncomfortable with the promise that I would stay with her.

Lauren began by asking each person, one a beautiful dynamic mother of three, one a sweet older man who had been taken under the first woman's wing, and a woman who was also older and funny but who also hallucinated, what happened. Trying to get them to share a little of their stories. As I watched, I heard the first woman speak of her babies who were not in the USA yet and give their ages, I heard the man speak of a tumor and a great loneliness, and the third spoke of lost love. And so, they told their stories, but the first woman, the dynamic one who broke into the others' stories to explain something they said, turned the conversation away from their lives. Instead, what concerned them, was another young woman on the unit.

This young woman was one I had met before. She was in a lot of pain, and speaking to her was off-putting as it took her several seconds to respond to you, as though your words had a distance to travel before they got to her. She was certainly a sweet woman, but--- and I made Lauren ask them to double check--- she was not Spanish-speaking at all.

But it was a really beautiful moment for me, the way that these patients were so concerned about another patient. I guess it is even more beautiful because in Spirituality Group we talk about how depression (which is what two of the three were seeking treatment for) is such an inward-focusing disease. That it is so isolating. And here, people were breaking out of that isolation that had wrapped them up so tightly to love a young woman who could not even speak their language.

Throughout scripture there are continually stories of how God chooses to reveal Godself in the "least of these" (to use language from Matthew 25), and yet because I come from a culture that is so hierarchical and oppressive I am always surprised when I see God in these places so clearly. When I hear God in these strange sounds that I do not understand so clearly by looking at the concern on one of the women's faces, concern not for herself but for another young woman, one she saw as needing someone to talk to, someone who had something to say and was not getting the help she needed from doctors.

Burning Bush by Seth Weaver

Earlier last week, I prayed a prayer with some of my classmates:

"now, not next time, now is the occasion to take off my shoes, to see every bush afire"1

This prayer disarmed me when I prayed it, took away from me the to do list I was agonizing over in my head and forced me to see these bushes afire all around me. I sat listening, watching, even though I don't know Spanish, rather than letting my mind wander back to all the things I have to get done before Christmas. Instead I heard Christ in the music of a language I do not know, I saw Christ in the concern for a young woman struggling for healing in the midst of inward struggles for their own healing.

And so I was reminded to take off my shoes and let God in.


1 Ted Loder Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle (Innisfree Press, 1984).

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