Twenty years ago now, I was nearing the end of my seminary coursework and preparing to start a semester of practicum, known as CPE, or Clinical Pastoral Education. This is the time where all the concepts and theories and techniques students have learned come to life in full color. With real people, who have real needs. Who may be going through some of the toughest times in their lives. What will we say? What will we do? Will we be able to bring comfort in what seems like a comfortless situation? As you might imagine, it is a time of high stress for baby chaplains, stepping on to the edge of the nest and peering into the big uncertain world beyond.
I had chosen to do my practicum at St. Vincent’s Hospital, one of the largest in Indianapolis and a Level 1 Trauma Center, which means they are equipped to take and provide complete care for the most serious of cases, the most urgent needs. During my time with St. Vincent’s, I would meet with my CPE group three mornings a week, talk one-on-one with my supervisor once a week, and spend 20-25 hours visiting patients in the hospital and doing on-call shifts nights and weekends. The day before my semester of CPE began, I printed a quote from Shakespeare I planned to hang on the wall in my work area. I saw it as a kind of north star for my work as a chaplain, something to steer by. It was,
“I’ll note you in my book of memory.”
I still have that half-sheet of paper, all these years later. It’s now faded and dog-eared, but it still says something true about what I do as a hospice chaplain every day. It reminds me of things I believe deeply, all the way down to my toes: That every life is precious, that being together is a gift—right now, whether time is long or short—and that every single day, no matter what our age or health or current capacity, offers us chances to give and receive love, to give and receive blessing, to really live into the promise and potential of each new breath. I think of a verse from Mary Oliver’s poem, Hum, where she writes,
“The little worker bee lives, I have read, about three weeks.
Is that long?
Long enough, I suppose, to understand
that life is a blessing.”
I loved my time at St. Vincent’s and even though I had so much to learn—and I’m still learning, every day—I discovered that God is in a very real way already present everywhere, loving everyone involved in every situation I am ever called to. Over time I learned to trust that and began to see and then feel the sacred in my encounters with people. It’s hard to put that into words, but it has something to do with, “I’ll note you in my book of memory.” If we’re paying attention, there is a sweetness that comes as we recognize “that of God” in each other. It is happening for each of us, every day, whether we recognize it or not, because God is present, and that of God in us knows the truth of being, forgives, sets free, and loves.
At first I kept all my chaplain notebooks, those little spiral bound books where you jot names and details and room numbers and such. I kept all my patient lists—a big box of them, after years first as a hospital and then a hospice chaplain. I remember the young mom in the ER who almost didn’t make it; the mad-as-anything construction worker who just wanted to be released from the hospital. I can still see the woman who tripped in a parking lot and knew that fall had changed the rest of her life; I feel the broken hearts of the devastated parents of still-born twins. I remember the Lebanon bus driver with leukemia who was fighting hard to get back to his bus route because he knew the kids were missing him; the woman who was absolutely joyful and felt great after a bone marrow transplant gave her her life back. I’ve noted them all—and hundreds more—in my book of memory. They’re still there. I imagine they always will be.
More recently, I’ve started something new to remember and honor and say something small and true—something clear and real—about the lives that grace mine for a time. I’ve been capturing tiny truthful moments in haiku. You may remember writing haiku in school—it is a short form of poetry, originally from Japan. Haiku is very simple in style, usually just three lines, with five syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and five in the last.
Here are a few of the haiku patients have inspired for me in the last few weeks:
Third grade spelling bee
Girl meets boy, handsome and smart,
He won her heart, too.
A Miles Davis fan,
Music lifts his heart—and mine--
Peace in every note.
Medic in the war,
He stands in the quiet room,
“I know death,” he says.
She loves all kittens.
The picture-book, so thumb-worn,
Brings a simple joy.
We are living through a time when it is hard for any of us to know what’s real, what’s true, and what isn’t. We have learned that the things we see online and on television—even people who look real and videos we watch—can be so artfully constructed that we truly can’t tell, perhaps there’s no way to tell, whether they are who and what they say they are or not. Truth seems to mean wildly different things to different people. Spammers and spoofers fill our voicemail and our inboxes. Where is the line between fact and fiction? It’s definitely not clear anymore, if we’re looking at the outer world for proof.
This week I read a fascinating newsletter written by a professor of marketing about the guardrails we don’t have when it comes to technology. He makes the point that many things in the real world are regulated for our safety. Wearing seatbelts, for example, dramatically reduced the number of deaths from traffic accidents. And food preparation practices approved by the FDA set standards that help ensure the quality and safety of the food we buy and eat. But in the online world—as opposed to the real, touch-it-and-feel-it world, anything goes. Fact or fiction, it’s all anybody’s guess. And unfortunately, that’s likely to get worse as tech companies begin producing content generated by artificial intelligence. Will we know who’s creating the things we see and read and share? Perhaps it’s all generated by a computer program somewhere. It’s possible that one day in the not-too-distant future, we just won’t have any way of knowing for sure anymore.
And that makes it that much more important to ask ourselves—and really know, reliably and consistently, where we turn for Truth in our lives. The kind of Truth I’m talking about doesn’t change with the latest fads or outrage; it isn’t for some people and against others; it is fully, steadfastly, eternally true for every beloved child, every living creation we encounter. We won’t find that deeper spiritual truth—the truth of the gift and goodness of life–on the internet or hear it from pundits or experts “out there.” It’s much, much closer than that, and that indelible truth has no agenda beyond helping us find the sacred in our ordinary, everyday lives so that we might live more fully and then share what we’ve found with each other, kindly, respectfully, with feeling.
In our Old Testament reading today, we can hear that the psalmist has found this source of truth in his own life. He knows Truth’s way of working with him, bringing security and protection, gladness and rejoicing. He says, “I will praise the Lord, who counsels me; even at night my heart instructs me.” He also recognizes that there are others he could be listening to and tells us his choice: “I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” He has learned where the wisdom comes from that guides his life—and it’s not “out there” in the events and circumstances that keep everyone churned up all the time. He writes,
“You make known to me the path of life;
you…fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”
The psalmist finds truth in the immediate presence, the joyful companionship of God. He has learned not to stray from that or place his trust in untrustworthy things. It reminds me of a quote attributed to the poet Kabir, “The essence of life is in remembering God.” If only we could remember that! And listen, and watch, and feel, and begin to recognize when God is close. It’s like a muscle—the more we watch for God, the more God we’ll see.
And that of course is the subject of the wonderful story we have in our New Testament scripture today. It’s one of my favorites—The Walk to Emmaus. Two of Jesus’s larger group of disciples were walking together on the road, on their way to the small town about seven miles outside of Jerusalem. They were talking about the tragic events of the last few days when a stranger walked up and joined them and asked them what they were discussing. They tell the man the story—about how Jesus was crucified, how their hopes were dashed, how the women found the empty tomb earlier that morning.
The stranger—who of course we know is Jesus, although they don’t yet recognize him—says, “How foolish you are, and slow to believe!” and as they walk along together, he tells them the whole story, beginning with Moses and the prophets, and explains all the scripture that foretold the life and resurrection of the Christ.
When they reached their destination, the stranger acted like he was going to continue on, but the two men convinced him to stay for supper. And then—as Jesus took the bread, gave thanks, broke it, and handed it to them—their eyes were opened, the story says, and they recognized him, and in that instant, he vanished from their sight. What a moment! A moment of truth revealed. Suddenly everything was clear. It all made sense. They looked at each other incredulously. “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road?” they asked each other.
For us, too, Christ is revealed in a thousand ordinary ways every single day, if we have developed our capacity to see the sacred in every day, to hear the music behind the mayhem, to watch for order in the midst of chaos. If we’re watching for the spiritual truth of what’s unfolding around us, we will know it because our hearts will tell us what is true. We all know these moments: The tender warmth we feel when one person does something kind for another. The ache and upset we feel for someone who is hurt or struggling. The joy and gratitude that washes over us when we are uplifted by beauty in nature. The peace that comes from simply waiting, listening, leaning on, looking for God in the most ordinary tasks of life.
Wherever in our days we feel touched by something, when our hearts are stirred, when we feel a leaning toward, a yearning to help, a wish that things were better or different or easier for another–right there, in that feeling (did not our hearts burn within us?) is God, showing us something important, something truthful, something real about life in that precise moment. And God is right there in it with us, teaching us to love, showing us how to help, enabling us to carry a little of God’s light into a dark or hurting place. That’s not a feeling a scam artist can take from us, or an experience that can be faked by artificial intelligence or packaged on social media. It’s the living, loving presence of Christ-with-us, the traveling companion on the road of every precious life.
I’ll note you in my book of memory, Shakespeare wrote. And that’s what my notes are all about—how Christ shows up, as grace, humor, love, compassion, even grief–as we spend a little time together. It’s a kind of communion, when we sit and chat about nothing and everything, and the sacred is right there, tucked away in all those tiny, ordinary moments. Once we begin to look for it, it’s not hard to see—in fact, we’ll see it everywhere. There’s no mistaking the truth of it, then: That of God is present—with us, in us, as us. We know it to be true. Not because someone told us so. Not because a video showed us how. But because we can feel it, that warming glow of eternity, living here and now in the peaceful, reassured quiet of our own hearts.
Wherever we value and seek and find the truth, Christ is present, offering us a changeless view of life set firmly on the foundations of love and grace, the reality of God’s presence. We can choose each day to follow the psalmist’s lead, turning down the volume on the entertaining, upsetting, and sometimes outlandish stories the wider world offers. We can and will continue to serve and help and care as opportunities arise but it’s vitally important—especially now–that we keep our hearts clear about what’s true. Nothing can replace the sweet and holy moment when we discover we are in the presence of pure and living Love. It’s an experience worth watching for, and practicing, and sharing, and it will change everything if we let it—one tiny, truthful moment at a time.
- OT Psalm 16: 5-11
- NT Luke 24:13-35
- Galloway, Scott. April 2023. “Guardrails.” Accessed at: https://post.news/@/ProfG/2OkISq7jn2rmkBaYqnENwQbdCiH