One of my colleagues likes to remark, tongue in cheek, about clinical pastoral education (CPE) as “a bunch of pastor types, trying to use psychology, to unearth your deepest secrets.” I just recently (thursday actually) finished my first unit of CPE, and figured I’d take some time to publicly reflect on the experience and the beauty/ugliness within chaplaincy, since I think it has a lot to offer a broken world, but also contains within its very core some trouble.

Chaplaincy, for many of us, is a required four-hundred hour adventure of critical self-reflection, peer group processing, and occasional ministry in hospitals (or other chaplaincy settings, i.e. hospice). This process is often traumatic due to the traumas found in hospitals, the critical care we are required to provide (many of us in our early twenties), and, not least of which, the depths of our own humanity that our supervisors deign to explore as a resource for ministry. For some, the experience is eye-opening, life-giving, and is a time of “kitchen work”, the kind of work done in the depths of our suffering, our mortality, and our grief. For others, the experience is painful, horrifying, and hardening for their pastoral identities and their openness to critical reflection on their identities in relationship to God. For me, as the child of a cancer victim, the process opened my faith identity up for the sort of reflection, processing, and grieving that is the continuation of this long-and-ongoing resurrection experience that began for me in college, at a church that liked to kick me in the gut.

The beautiful part of chaplaincy, is that it is, in many ways, concerned with being Jesus’ presence in the midst of occupied territory. Our hospitals, many of them founded on a holistic understanding of healing, have become sterile rooms of poking and prodding where we experience the full cultural anxiety and fear of death, and our attempts to defeat it on our own.

As Dr. Cox likes to say, hospitals are mainly about keeping the game going. And often, this means treating the human person like a mechanized repair at the auto shop, when there is so much more going on inside the whole person. (an interesting read on this note is this book)

One of the most troubling parts about chaplaincy, is to me, how quickly the lack of a concrete pastoral identity in Jesus fades into the sterility of the hospital, where the expectation is often that we are dispensers of spiritual care, meeting the spiritual and emotional needs of others, and having our spiritual platitudes and wisdom consumed in that moment. (sort of like the expectation for pastors in many places) Sometimes this is talking about Jesus, but often its “general spiritual wisdom.” I think most of the time, it’s just our way of trying. Trying to make people suffer less. To make them, just like the doctors:

feel better.

But here’s the thing: Jesus wasn’t interested in making people “feel better.”

Or maybe more importantly, Jesus wasn’t interested in keeping the game going, his whole being pointed towards bringing a whole new game to town. 

Often, we would discuss the hospital as a place not to challenge people on their spiritual convictions. That’s fine. It’s probably true, it’d be weird. But one of the things that I have learned during this time is that chaplaincy offers an opportunity to provide a different kind of care. Call it a “chaplaincy of the cross.”

I spent most of my time in our CPE class, and my time with patients, playing around with this. Instead of helping them “feel better”, or avoid the reality of their suffering, I viewed my role as participating with the holy spirit in being one who can journey with them into the darkness, the grief, the pain, the endless pit where no one wants to venture.

Ironically, that pit…it’s the only place you find life.

My theory is that, just maybe, chaplaincy is less about making people feel less of their pain, and more about helping them, in a place where the mortality, grief, and pain of life is often acutely visible, descend to the dead.

And that only in that place where we seek not to go, the places that terrify us, the places where we expect Jesus to not be found, like the cross, is where we actually find God hiding, and remarkably present. Jesus in the rooms where families are deciding to end never-ending treatment. Jesus in the fear of diagnosis. The Holy Spirit sent to the families of the dying.

It isn’t in feeling less suffering that we find God, but in the exact sort of suffering that has already been taken into the life of God.

Which means chaplaincy, in the end, is about helping others find their way to the cross, to God, to life abundant, in the exact sort of place you wouldn’t find it.

Because in the midst of doing that, (and this is the whole point of the CPE process for eventual pastors), we find that cross for ourselves, in our own darkness, grief and suffering.

So guess what? I’m going to do three more units next year, and see if God can’t keep screwing me up for the sake of my work in the Kingdom.

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