To hear this sermon as preached, press play below:
A little after midnight, my pager sang out in the darkness.
I sat up, turned on the bedside light, scrolled to the number that had paged me, picked up the phone and I dialed it.
“Hello, this is Mark, I am the Chaplain on call.”
The voice on the other end got right to the point:
“We need you down here in the ER right away,” she said.
When I was training to become a minister, I interned as a chaplain for a summer at a hospital in central Connecticut.
Every person who wants to become a minister must do an internship like this. It is known by the acronym “CPE,” which is short for Clinical Pastoral Education. A small cohort of students – there were five of us that summer – work with a supervisor, to provide pastoral care for the patients in the hospital. The mornings were dedicated to arduous team building exercises that involved a lot of challenging internal work. Since we would be working with vulnerable people, we were trained in ways that made us vulnerable – helped us understand how high the personal stakes were. Anger and tears were commonplace. In the afternoons we went out to our assigned wards in the hospital where we visited patients. In addition to this, each of us was assigned one overnight shift per week so that someone was always available should the need arise for spiritual care.
It was on one of these overnight shifts, of course, when I got the call from the ER.
I took a deep breath, threw on my clothes, dangled my Chaplain badge around my neck, and headed down to the ER.
I’m not ashamed to say that, as my footsteps echoed in the empty stairwell that led down to the ER,, I was frightened of what I might find.
Of course, there was the fear of blood. I don’t know that I am any more or less prone to being light-headed at the sight of blood than the average person – but finding myself suddenly among the staff in an emergency room (rather than a patient), I knew that it was up to me to project a calm strength in the face of physical suffering.
I wondered if I was capable of such poise.
More to the point, though, I was going to be looked upon as a “spiritual resource” – a person of depth to be leaned on in moments of great need.
That was an expectation that had me badly spooked.
As I headed into the ER, I took refuge in the sturdy memory of my father. As a child I often watched as he stood up and started talking. I observed how, before long, he had the attention of everyone in the room. It was not lost on me, even as a child, that he managed to do this even though English was not his native language. As I got older and I learned about all the history, I understood that when my father spoke to American audiences, he was addressing people who might be inclined to hate him for his Japanese face and accent. The war was still a living memory for many Americans who’d lost fathers and brothers in the Pacific.
What fortitude he must have had!
What singularity of purpose!
Invoking this memory, I say to myself: “Remember where you come from, Mark. Remember where you are going. It’ll be alright. You can do this!”
I say this to myself everytime I step into a pulpit. I say this to myself everytime I chair a meeting. I say this to myself everytime I find myself threatened by the familiar nagging suspicions:
“Am I in over my head?
Can I do this?
Am I a terrible imposter?
That summer, I was plagued by the idea that I was an imposter. It was a strange and unwelcome feeling because one of the very reasons that I was pursuing a new vocation as a Christian minister was because I’d been given a glimpse, for the first time in my life, of a livelihood that I might not involve the constant fear of being recognized as an imposter!
Until that point, I’d worked in University settings as a computer tech. You have known me long enough now to know that the very idea of this is absurd. How on earth did that happen? It was because I was really good at talking people into hiring me. I got excellent jobs, and moved up the ranks in prestigious universities like Columbia and Harvard, but there was a problem – I had to actually do a good job in a field that I really had zero interest in.
So you see, I really was an imposter for most of my professional life!
This all changed on that one fateful Sunday morning when I stepped into a pulpit for the first time, and, LO, all of that feeling of being an irredeemable faker, dropped away in an instant, like water off the feathers of a duck.
It was one of the most extraordinary and unexpected moments of grace that ever happened to me. In the pulpit, I felt I had come home.
So you can imagine, when I began to sense the return of the imposter syndrome that summer when I worked in the hospital – I feared that my new calling might not be the liberation I’d hoped for, after all. It was a bitter pill to swallow. I didn’t want to go back there.
What, you ask, was it about the hospital that made me feel like an imposter again?
I’ll tell you.
It was the prayer.
I did not know how to pray.
People would ask me to pray with them, or for them, and I would be filled with an anxiety that seemed to blot out all of my creative ability.
How could I pray for them? Doing so suggested that I somehow had more of a right to communicate with God than they did. I’d seen people abuse this power, and found it abhorrent. I did not want to be that person.
And yet, if I could not pray with and for people, how was I to become a minister?
I would be like one of those beautiful stone angels that you find in graveyards. Compassionate, but quiet. Silenced by the great mystery beyond the shifting clouds.
When I got down to the Emergency Room, I announced myself.
“Did someone call for a chaplain?”
A nurse came over to me. She pointed to a door.
“Room 23,” she said. “The son is in there. The mother was just pronounced.”
She turned away.
“Wait a sec,” I said. “Does he know?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I don’t think so.”
“Oh My Dear God…” I said, under my breath. “How did she die?”
“I don’t know the details,” she said, “I think she was dead when she got here. I was told to get you down here.” I could see that she had had about enough of my questions. She pointed at the drab institutional door scuffed with the marks left there by all the pain the corridor had seen. “You are needed in there,” she said.
She was right about that. I was needed in there.
But what could I do? I gulped down my fear and went in.
The nurse used the words “son” and “mother” so I thought that I would find a child in the room. You can imagine my relief when I entered and found a middle-aged man. His mother must have been getting old. Maybe he suspected the truth?
“Hello,” I said, “my name is Mark, I am the Chaplain.”
The man looked up at me. He did not bother with ceremony. He’d clearly been left alone in this room for a while. “Do you know anything?” he asked. “How is my mother?”
This is the moment, isn’t it?
For many people, in their daily lives, it is easy to forget all about God… God is on the sidelines… until this moment arrives – the moment when the ultimate is at stake.
But what does God look like in this moment?
I suppose this was the problem I was having that summer.
I could not, in good conscience, lead anyone to believe that God would appear at the crucial moment and perform the miracle that they requested.
And yet, if you read the Bible, this expectation is not without merit. This morning’s story from Exodus seems to lend itself to this interpretation.
If you are in the wilderness, and you are thirsty, God will appear, like a beneficent parent, and provide water for you to drink.
If you are inclined to read stories as literal truth – then this story has a direct cause and effect plot.
Humans are in pain. They ask God for help. God helps.
Dear God! If only it worked that way!
I would have been able to go into that room that night with confidence. I could have said. “Things look bad but don’t worry about it. God will take care of it. Everything will be fine.”
But I could not do that…
because, as far as I can tell, we don’t live in that world, and it won’t do any good to try to tell people that we do. They know better.
when the man asked me about his mother, I hesitated.
The worst moment of this man’s life was about to happen. It was on my tongue.
It was like I was being asked to squeeze the entire universe into a ball and then break it to pieces, right there in that sad windowless room with its stained carpet and unforgiving fluorescent lights.
I couldn’t do it.
I just couldn’t do it.
In my confusion, I acted in fear and said
“I don’t know. I’m not a doctor. I’m a chaplain.”
The man retreated into himself, and I sat there quietly with him, wishing that there was something that I could say.
In college, there were plenty of times that my best friend and I would speculate about death. It was usually at 2 in the morning, and we’d been listening to Pink Floyd all night.
When Medieval notions of human mortality are discussed in a Divinity School classrooms I can be depended on to have something to say.
And when I’m in the pulpit, I can find words to speak about matters of life and death.
But when I am sitting with a man whose mother has just died, I have nothing to say.
Nothing makes sense.
And so I sat there, with him, offering him only my compassionate presence.
I have no idea if it did him any good, but It’s all I had to give.
Now, with you, I ask you to join me in prayer…
we live in a world
that does not bend to our will
And so we come to you in prayer, asking for your help.
And yet, we do not know if you will help us.
All that we know, is that you are present with us
and that even if death comes to us
or to our loved ones,
your presence will not depart from us.
We have faith that, alive or dead, your presence
is dedicated to the flourishing of our nature.
We have faith that your eternal nature is
interested in this flourishing, and that this eternal nature
is what we call love.
We call it love, and we recognize this love
as the reason you became incarnate
in our world, suffered with us, and gave yourself
over to our pain. You can be present with us
because you know our pain. There is something
in this to believe – something to recognize
at the very core of our being.
This something… in life and death…
is you, O God… the eternal