But Even If He Doesn’t

In the book of Daniel chapter 3 there is a famous tale of three men who are thrown into a furnace because they refuse to worship an image of King Nebuchadnezzar. Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (better known as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) stand firm against the king of Babylon because their faith forbids them to worship any god or man other than Yahweh. There is a particularly intriguing exchange in verses 16 through 18 as the three men declare their faith.

“We do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter,” they say, “if we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from your hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

But even if he does not!” What a powerful proclamation of faith! Even if God did not move to rescue the three, they knew that God is still good. As the story unfolds, the three are indeed delivered, even after being thrown into the furnace. In fact, an additional figure is seen in the fire with them.

In the hospital I hear bold proclamations of faith every day. There are times that even I have had a difficult time trusting when the outlook is so poor. Early in my ministry I sometimes struggled to pray for miracles because I thought God would look bad if things didn’t turn out how we thought they should. I have learned time and time again that healing is not synonymous with cure and that God does not need my human defenses. Nor do others need my hesitation. God can and indeed does move in all our lives, but even if God didn’t, we can rest assured that our prayers do not fall on deaf ears. Furthermore, if in the end we must enter the furnace, may each of us know that we will not be alone.

The Courage to Ask

Somewhere along the way we seem to have lost the art of questioning. Whether in religion, business, or medicine, we only want answers. More specifically, we only want the answer. Don’t get me wrong, I think that our scientific advancements and ability to tackle complex problems is nothing short of remarkable. There was a time however, before the Age of Enlightenment and Modernism, when humanity was comfortable wondering. We could question and debate, but more importantly, we had the patience to just sit with our uncertainty.

Answers can be useful, of course. We have created beautiful things, cured countless diseases, and overcome seemingly impossible situations with them. And yet there is a crisis in our souls because we are collectively realizing that we don’t have all the answers. With our machines and medicine and all of our experience, not one of us can answer with certainty the question, “will my loved one survive this?” And I don’t dare attempt to explain why I think “God let this happen.”

Deep down we know that not all questions have satisfactory answers. In fact, the greatest questions produce more questions. We would do well to remember that best practice is not the best we’ll ever have; it’s merely the best we have right now. In other words, it is an evolution of thought. If we took an honest look, we would see that we grow stagnant when we reach final conclusions and think that there is nothing left to ask.

Therefore, if we want to flourish as an institution, as providers, as worshipers, as people, then we might consider embracing a culture of questioning. Even if we have a good answer, we can ask more questions. If the answer is love, we can ask, “How do we love deeper?” If the answer is grace, we can ask, “Who else can we forgive?” If the answer is peace, we can ask, “How can we include more?” May we be a people who are not afraid to ask. May we be leaders who are not afraid to be asked. And may we have the courage to inquire, “How can we do better?”

The Road to Chaplaincy

Chaplains come from all walks of life. We represent a wide variety of faith traditions and perspectives. Some of us began the journey as ministers of local faith communities, but others came from different disciplines and careers. Some chaplains are also trained as physicians, nurses, lawyers, businesspersons, or soldiers just to name a few. As for me, I began in social work. I realized quickly that many clients interpreted their experience through their spiritual lens and this sparked my interest in religious studies. Not really knowing what would be on the other side, I enrolled in a 90 credit hour Master of Divinity program with a care and counseling concentration. This afforded me the opportunity to do a clinical rotation (CPE) at Mountain Home VA Medical Center as a chaplain. In that first CPE unit, I learned what all goes into becoming a professional, board certified chaplain. I also learned quickly that chaplains do more than pray with patients and offer sacraments (a common misconception).

In order to obtain board certification as a chaplain, one must first earn a MDiv or equivalent (typically 3-4 years of graduate work), be ordained and endorsed by his or her faith community, complete a minimum of 4 CPE units (1600 hours), work as a chaplain for an additional 2,000 hours in a clinical setting, and then apply to sit with a committee for approval. This rigorous process usually takes around six years. In that time, chaplains learn the importance of interdisciplinary conversations so that we are better equipped to translate our work into medical language. We learn how to assess the emotional and spiritual health of others, develop and implement treatment plans, and chart these interventions and outcomes in an EMR. In short, professional chaplains are held to the same evidence-based, best practice standards as any other professional discipline.

I am pleased to share with you that I recently completed all of the aforementioned requirements. In March I met with my professional committee and they approved me for board certification. I appreciate all of the love and support given from my family here at The Path. It is an honor and a privilege to walk with this community providing some of the absolute best care to the families of this region.

The Courage To Be

One of the most difficult parables to swallow appears in Matthew 25. In this story, which is also known as “The Parable of the Talents,” a master punishes his servant for burying his gold instead of investing it so that it might increase. In the final verse of the story, the master even goes so far as to command that the servant be cast into the darkness where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (a description of hell). This is an unsettling story to say the least. After all, the man’s transgression seems harmless enough. In fact, all he does is nothing. Perhaps the key can be found in verse 25 of the story. Here, we find that it is the man’s fear that kept him from action. He states that he was afraid and that is why he hid the gold. But, going to hell for being afraid? That seems a bit harsh. But, the truth is, this is not the only place we can read about fear having this outcome. In Revelation 21:8 cowards are listed alongside murderers and idolaters as those who will suffer a second death. This is downright shocking.

However, the more I dwell on these passages, the clearer it all becomes. In The Courage To Be, Paul Tillich describes three major fears (or anxieties) that every person must face; fate, guilt, and emptiness. The first is about coming to terms with our mortality and the second is about answering for our misdeeds, but the last one is about our failure to step into our purpose. When I think about which is the worst of the three, I’d have to say that it’s the last one. The first we have no control over and the second sometimes produces harsh consequences, but the last truly is hell because it is shame. When we hide from our calling, the outcome is devastating. We’ve all heard that at the end, one’s biggest regret is often not what he did, but what he failed to do. This sort of regret is indeed a dark place.

In the ancient world, it makes sense that one would be terrified. The first recipients of these stories faced torture and crucifixion if they stood up and walked in their calling. If they professed their faith or challenged Rome, it could mean certain death, but the authors make it clear that this is better than burying their talents or running away. In short, we only have one life and we are asked to take a risk with it. Don’t let fear consume you for “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-discipline” (2 Tim 1:7). It is my prayer for all of us that we can escape the darkness of shame and regret and that each of us has the confidence to act and the courage to be.

Look Around

I write this in the week we honor Rev Martin Luther King Jr. You will read it during the course of Black History Month. Each year at this time I re-read King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. In this 1963 letter, he responds to a public statement of concern and caution written by eight white ministers in the South. If you have never read this letter, I urge you to do so as it is a remarkable piece that contains deep, prophetic wisdom and I cannot convey its weight in a simple reflection.

I am fully cognizant that the discussion of racial matters might cause discomfort for some readers. After all, creating tension was one of King’s stated goals when he first penned the letter. He challenged readers then and now to press into this discomfort with the hope that it would motivate us to become agents of change. He unapologetically calls upon moderates to take action and stop living by the myth that time alone will fix everything. In short, he challenges us to pick a side: we are either for justice or we are against it.

It has been more than fifty years since Rev Martin Luther King Jr.’s oppressors confined him in Birmingham for taking action. The landscape of the United States has changed in some ways and remained the same in others. We mustn’t ignore the progress that we have made, but we cannot allow ourselves to become complacent either. As King so elegantly put it, as long as there is injustice anywhere there will be a threat to justice everywhere. This is not a political matter, but a human matter. It goes well beyond a conversation about skin tones and policies. It appears here, as a spiritual reflection because peace is a spiritual ambition.

My hope for us is that February is more than a history month. This implies that we are only looking back, as if everything has been accomplished. We can improve things by looking forward too, but if we stop there we will fall into the trap of compliancy. Therefore, this month let us also look around. May we have eyes to see the work that is left to be done. May we have the courage to act in transformative, loving ways toward our neighbor and be transformed ourselves. And may our colleagues, patients, and communities experience a divine hospitality that can only be recognized as an inclusive Kingdom of grace and peace.

Dust

Proverbs 11:14 “Where there is no counsel, the people fall; But in the multitude of counselors there is safety.”

The last time I had an opportunity to speak with you, I shared about what it means to be the People of The Path. Today I wanted to flesh this out even more. And I want to offer you a challenge. I want to encourage you to think about who you follow on the path and who might be behind you. Whether you have been here for 40 days or 40 years, you are called to have both. If you are not being mentored or you do not mentor another, my challenge is that you find these.

I have heard several really good sermons about a blessing from the Mishnah and other Jewish teachings that goes something like this: “May you be covered in the dust of your Rabbi.” Basically, what they were saying to disciples was “follow your teacher close enough that the dust from their sandals kicks up all over you.” IF you don’t have one, find a mentor and get up close so that you can learn.

And then ask yourself, who is covered with my dust and what does that dust look like? Everyone in this room is a leader. It is the leader’s job to ensure that there is a student behind them. If you find yourself always blaming the student for not being behind you, then you are not a very effective leader. If your dust is heavy and bitter than the student will not follow. It is your job to encourage them through the tough obstacles along The Path. After all, you are out in front and will recognize many of the barriers.

One last thing: Team Members are not their function. While leading certainly has an element of insuring that people are equipped with the right tools and training, I am talking more about the human aspect of leadership. Your mentor is surly someone you respect because of his or her character. I would bet that you follow the person you do not only because of their skill, but also because he or she has certain qualities that you want. Beyond their competency, you are likely impressed by their integrity, their humility, and their grit. If you want others to be covered in your dust, you have to display these things as well. And that is my prayer for you as you lead others on The Path.

Bumping Stories

I’d like to share a story with you.

I am in the grief business. I sojourn alongside others as they wonder the wilderness and encourage them to keep going. Sometimes our stories bump up against one another.

I have lived 2500 miles away from where I was born and raised for going on six years now. In that time, many from home have died. Grief from a distance is a strange matter, especially for someone in the grief business. Every once in a while, I get “hooked” to a family and find myself processing a little more of my own grief.

Maybe it was because he was born the same year as my own grandfather. Maybe it was because he passed on the anniversary of my grandfather’s death a couple days ago. He had spunk. I liked that about him. I laughed with his family a lot. They are beautiful people. I was there as he took his last breath. I prayed that God would guide his steps and that he would have peace. When I said “amen” he took one last breath and then was gone. It was a sacred moment in time. They wept. I wept.

When they invited me to speak at the graveside this afternoon I was honored. It was a powerful service with full military honor. I have never kept my cheek dry for the 21-gun salute and taps… I thought about their father. I thought about my own grandfathers. I thought about all those boys who went off to fight that war and then came home to our mothers and grandmothers. When they folded the flag and handed it to his wife of over seven decades I thought of my grandmothers who both received their flags not so long ago.

I shared with them about thin places and how grateful I was to be a part of their sacred story. I gave hugs and condolences.

At that exact same time this morning my own grandmother collapsed 2500 miles away and went to be with the Lord. When I received the phone call I was not shocked at all. My heart was prepared. My mind was open. And now I am ready to walk down into the wilderness for myself, with my own family, and our own sojourners.

I cannt explain how it happens, but suffering is absorbed by community.

At the very moment God was using me to lean into their pain, God was using them to lean into mine. So I say to you, never doubt for one second if your story matters. We are all in this thing together, my friends.