Starting at the End of the Door.

Each week, part of my chaplaincy training is to write a reflection on how it’s going. Here’s week number one. Some identities may be altered for privacy. All the writings are here.

I had a very romanticized expectation of chaplaincy, as if I should have a divine epiphany complete with a vision of singing cherubim and filtered lights through the slits of the curtain. I could say something like, This is what I was made for. Sometimes I pretend to be a pessimist because it’s much more vogue and relevant, the whole cynical stoic thing, but I’m always hoping for those Hollywood moments when I have the meaningful conversation with some desperate guy on the last lap of his faith. 

I really had little idea what to expect in my first week of chaplaincy training. Certainly I had spoken with other chaplains about their experience — “You’ll love it, really” or “You’ll regret it, really”— but no one can really know about a thing until they’re on the other side of the door, like marriage, or like changing a flat tire. I’ve only just seen the door open. 

The first day of orientation fired up those old memories of college. I’ve been to four of them: two community colleges, my undergrad (twice, I had dropped out once), and my seminary. I forgot how disorienting it would be to enter an environment where I knew no one, starting from the bottom up, relying on the knowledge of others, hoping I wouldn’t have to do too much before I got to learn about the thing first. I had previously been in a place — pastoral ministry — where I was beginning to find a comfortable competence. I had even mastered the mighty art of church politics; oh, such ugly necessities.

In orientation, I wondered about six months later, if I would know my way around the hospital by then and if I would be jaded to the weekly round of patients, and all the names and faces I would come to love (or try to love). My mind is always doing this hologram daydream thing that superimposes different futures across a room, and I try to reverse-engineer which one I would like best, even though being a squishy ordinary human, I fail at that sometimes and have to recalculate the navigation. It’s exciting stuff.

The second day, we were tasked to tour the hospital. I like being alone. I like walking. I’m flatfooted and bowlegged and my knees make these ghost noises, but I still like to walk. I went up to the oncology floor, to the ER, and back to admissions. I saw a screaming woman on the floor who had jumped off her wheelchair. She was yelling, “I want to sleep, just let me sleep.” A cop was there but no one knew what to do; it’s hard to know how to help someone who keeps pushing your hand away. I saw a very elderly patient laying flat on a bed, wrapped in a blanket up to the neck, with all kinds of tubes going everywhere. It seemed to be the end.  I saw a female patient being strolled by a male nurse; the woman was holding twins, and I think she must’ve just had them that day. It seemed to be the beginning.

Our first didactic was about the power of story and experience, and how these things can affect theology, and the other way around. I love stories. I love the people who live them and tell them. I loved our head chaplain’s story about how as a child he prayed over his bleeding thumb, but when he removed the band-aid, the cut was still there. Maybe the most helpful thing was when he said, “You can believe a certain thing about faith, and something can happen to undercut it.” Our experience informs our theology much more than we think. It can reinforce, or contradict, and we need both. A dogmatic kind of religion stays stubborn in the face of pain and evil, always “trusting” it’ll work out, but that tends to get passive and dismissive. A faith that has faced hurt in the furnace of honesty and asked the hard questions: that’s the kind of faith that has a chance of standing, inside the tension of what we see and what we believe.

I’m looking forward to clinicals, and more stories, and maybe an epiphany or two, and seeing which future comes around. It was a good start, and I’m rooting for a good end. 

— J.S.

One thought on “Starting at the End of the Door.

  1. Thank you so much for this post. I just finished seminary in Aug 15 and feel drawn towards chaplaincy. I was so excited to hear you were just beginning in this area. I am 51 years old and have a 25 year career with the government behind me. I am still working, but would love to retire earlier than the five years I have left. Several of my seminary classmates were hospital and military chaplains. My current pastor is a retired Army chaplain. Part of me feels too old to start over, but most of me is too excited to do anything but look forward to serving in full time ministry with how ever many years I have left. I look forward to future posts.


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