grace in a local hospital

Grace is God’s undeserved gift of love, freely given at a great price. How does a hospital turn into a place infused with God’s grace? 

The holy time is quiet as a nun
Breathless with adoration
~William Wordsworth

The day is gray and clammy; the hospital building is unremarkable; its hallways are mostly featureless and forgettable. Yet, as I walk from my car to take in its awkward, bulky shape, I feel as if I am entering a cathedral, a place washed in sacred gifts of time and space defined by God’s presence. I observe the people walking in and out of the building, and my mind shifts from the mundane filtering of events to observing everyone as if I were being given heaven’s eyes to observe them in holy time. I notice this one with a rushed and harried voice, that one with a slow and labored walk. They have needs, and God is watching over them, as I watch them prayerfully. As I wash my hands with the sanitizer that squirts out from a dispenser in the lobby, there is a sense of being cleansed for a holy purpose. I wash my hands thoroughly, as I was taught in the volunteer training, making it a point to rub the sanitizer into my thumbs and the backs of my hands. Next to a small chapel with a backlit stained glass panel, I enter a cubbyhole of an office, with just enough room for a printer, a computer and a small coat rack. I pull my red volunteer coat off of its hanger. I am back. I am a volunteer for hospital Pastoral Services again. Thank you, Lord, for the opportunity to serve others in love, as they fill my life.

The path to hospital grace

grace from clinical pastoral educationAs part of my preparation for ordination in The United Methodist Church, I was asked to find a site for 400 hours of Clinical Pastoral Education learning. CPE is a very intense experience: You spend hundreds of hours visiting hundreds of people with all sorts of medical conditions, and then hundreds more hours analyzing what you have done, getting feedback from a trained supervisor and your classmates, as well as training in specific techniques and analysis. I have “peeled the onion” of my inner thoughts and feelings many times with relative strangers, but CPE brings this process to a whole new level. It exposes your heart to the innermost depths of why we serve people for God’s sake, and how our motivations affect how we serve them. You get frightened, you get angry, you cry, you laugh – and then you grow. It’s a tough process, but a great process.

The hospital where I did a lot of my CPE work is a well-respected, relatively small hospital in Connecticut (I am keeping its identity anonymous and using mostly stock Web photos to protect the privacy of people who work and get services there). Larger hospitals handle many of the state’s trickier medical conditions, but there are always plenty of surprises in this hospital. Often the patients have mental conditions also, even if they are not being treated for them at the time, so you learn how to deal with a complex web of needs, and to present yourself as a healing presence in their lives. “Healing” can mean almost anything on any given day for a given person. Sometimes it’s helping them work out major life issues prayerfully, like someone who “came out” for the first time about being gay, and not having had a lover in thirty years. Sometimes it’s just helping a person to take a sip of water between trembling lips. Sometimes it’s just looking in the eye of a person with dementia, and letting them know that someone knows and cares that they are there. Sometimes it’s just a gentle smile and look of appreciation for a harried nurse or secretary. And, often, “being a healing presence” means much, much more. But, over time, it all became grace for me – a sense of being in the presence of a loving God, learning how to love even people who, by our measure, or their measure, or others’ measure, did not deserve such love.

From the armor of fear to the armor of God

3a224b85497d253121afcc79203e784fAt first, though, it was not much of a place of grace for me. I was very frightened and intimidated by the hospital. I had been in hospitals many times, visiting people in my family and from my church, but as a “red coat,” a hospital volunteer, I found myself being part of something that was in some ways very foreign to who I am. Hospitals provide care, and the staff for the hospital at which I served was excellent and caring in so may ways, but the bottom line is that people come to the hospital to get their bodies fixed. I am not a “fixer” – except, perhaps, for my car and for chores around the house. I am, instead, someone who invites people towards healing.

At first, as I passed through the hospital corridors, I saw seemingly endless halls, and sometimes cramped corridors packed with rolling nurse’s stations and other equipment, as the professional staff peered into computer monitors intently. Everyone is “in the zone” professionally at a hospital. As a volunteer chaplain, you have to learn how to minister to those “in the zone” people as well at the patients. That “spiritual stuff” as your only armor can seem like it’s pretty thin at first.

Gradually, though, I began to put on the “armor of God” that Paul’s letter to the Ephesians encourages Christians to wear. Paul says to the Ephesians:

Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. – Ephesians 6:14-17

Paul’s words are very dramatic, but the “spiritual warfare” inside my heart was letting God do the heavy lifting quietly, so that I could focus on being present, vulnerable, aware, and connected to everyone and everything around me. This was dramatic in a different kind of way. It was letting both another person’s truth and my truth be lovable in the moment – even when these truths didn’t feel so lovable. It was letting the facts be the facts, and being less concerned with being right about the facts, and more concerned about doing the right thing in the middle of them, for God’s sake, and for the sake of others. It was letting faith in God’s everlasting love be my protection in all circumstances – especially when I didn’t feel so safe or loved, finding a comforted and still heart that I could offer others, to help them find faith in whatever way mattered to them. It was knowing that salvation comes in many forms – and that everyone’s story can become a story of hope in God’s hands. “There is hope” were the most common words coming out of my mouth for those who had seemed to have lost all hope. It was allowing God’s Holy Spirit to cut through the sometimes challenging circumstances of helping others in great distress, and finding that the most seemingly hopeless situations were ready for God’s healing presence in a humble “redcoat.”

The joy of being present in grace

emergency rooms as places of graceI wish that I could say that there was a wonderful glow of God’s presence all around me that people couldn’t help but to see, but in general that wasn’t what was really happening. Instead, I think that what developed in me over time was a quiet joy, the joy of being in the presence of God’s love, as I did my best to be present for others. “Doing my best” meant that sometimes I didn’t do it all that well! This intensive experience was sandwiched in with a full semester’s graduate courses and the often equally intense demands of helping a church struggling to reinvent itself in an Elks Lodge. Often I would arrive at the hospital exhausted, and it would take me a while to get my spiritual focus.

One day, as I started my rounds, I was praying deeply and silently for some sleeping patients, and then I began a visit with an awake patient. A doctor came in the room and asked to speak with the patient. It took me a moment to reorient myself to the doctor’s presence, and boy, was he angry – he wanted to speak to his patient right away! I learned from this experience that “being present” meant being both very deeply aware of God’s presence of grace in a place and very aware of the presence of everything in that place in grace. I believe that theologically, but putting it into practice took, well, practice. The next day, when a doctor entered a patient’s room, I practically bounced off of the room’s ceiling as I stood up to offer my exit from the room.

Over time, though, I got the feel for things, and began to grow in my new ministry. Eventually, I was introduced to a patient with some very critical medical needs. When I was introduced to him, I knew that the man was likely to die pretty soon. He was not religious at all, like many people who you meet at the hospital, but I was able to form a strong spiritual bond with him nevertheless, and to help support his loved ones through long treatments that did little to remove him from his painful condition. He left the hospital for a while, but eventually returned to its emergency room, where I visited him one day. He was being readied for transfer to another hospital for what would prove to be his last chance at life.

As I comforted him, his medical team arrived. They asked me, “Who are you?” I paused for a moment, since I had not checked in as a volunteer that afternoon, but instead went directly to the ER at the request of one of his family members. I was a “civilian.” Then, I looked at the doctor and nurses, and said, “I’m his pastor.” It was the first time that I had ever said that – and it was true. With or without this man’s faith, with or without a degree or an ordination, with or without a church, God had called me through grace to be this man’s shepherd at a time when he was a lost sheep, and to provide him the joy of God’s serving, healing presence. And so I did.

Keeping joy in the blood

the joy of serving God's grace is greatI was dragging a bit by the time I finished this semester’s CPE work, but it was so very rewarding to reflect on my growth in grace and on the amazing opportunities to be a joyful healing presence for God for so many people – and to have them help me to find that joy in me. Yes, we help to heal the hearts of others, but often the patients tend to wind up ministering to us, through their own deep faith, or just because they see who we are, and come to understand what it is that we’re seeking in life. We pray earnestly with them and for them when it’s appropriate, but, often, we discover that our prayers for them become their prayers for us.

And, on some wonderful occasions, even sometimes when you’re not talking about anything particularly religious, a patient will ask you, “What is your church?” It is in those moments that you know that God’s armor is fully present, and that they have seen something in you that they want – the peace and joy that comes from faith in a loving, healing, transforming God. They see you as a story in progress, even as you help them to affirm or to change their story, and they want to know how your story came to be.

I hope to complete three more units of CPE at some point so that I can become certified in clinical pastoral services, but the time and money just isn’t there for me to do this right now. So, instead, I decided to volunteer one afternoon each week this summer at the hospital, to keep the joy of the work in my blood. The cathedral of grace opened its doors, I went up to my floors of patients, chart in hand, smiled at the staff and greeted them, chose a room pretty much at random, and walked in the doorway. “Hello, I am a volunteer from Pastoral Services, my name is John. Can I do something for you today?” “No, not really, but thanks.” “Oh, OK…how long have you been here?” And then, the grace unfolds. Thank you, God, for turning hospitals into cathedrals of grace for me.

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