summer vacation (a dialogue about questionable life choices)

I’ve been kinda quiet here lately. In real life, too, unless you’re one of My People.  Then I’ve been rather chattery. Nerves, you see.

We here at Raising Faith are dealing with Many Big Events In the Formation Process.

Mostly, I’ve been taking lots of deep breaths. I’m getting very good at that. Someday you might not even be able to tell that I’m breathing.

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Then I’ll be like this rock. Only smaller. And slightly more responsive.

In one month and one week, I start CPE (that stands for Clinical Pastoral Education) at a medium-sized metropolitan hospital.

 

I haven’t done it yet, so I can’t tell you much about how it will be. But, thanks to numerous versions of this very conversation, I can tell you what you’re likely to ask me—in order, even.

Those exchanges generally end with you looking astonished and slightly horrified.  Which in my head I translate as, “I do not understand . . . and Wow.”  Or, maybe, “You really have made some terrible life choices.”

Maybe so.  Sometimes I wonder.  I’ll keep you posted.  In the meantime, though, I realized I can use printed words to really answer the questions.  We have time here, and space, and  . . . . it’s just easier.

So: here goes.

What’s CPE?

Clinical Pastoral Education.  It means chaplain rotations at a hospital.  It’s like a full time job, time-wise; I’ll be at the hospital through the workweek, and work an overnight shift once every six days.  Since I won’t be in my hometown, but in a nearby city, it’s fortunate that the hospital has an on-call room where I can stay during the night shifts.

That commute sounds rough. Why don’t you just be a chaplain at our local hospital?

For a CPE program, you need a hospital that has not just chaplains on staff, but resources for training and supervising new chaplains. This is like the difference between a hospital that trains and teaches doctors and a hospital that merely employs them. Facilities with the capacity for chaplain training can, in general, be found here: Like most areas of health care, programs for chaplain education are concentrated in large metropolitan areas.

Fortunately, I live near just such an area. Also fortunately, the hospital consortium I’ll be serving with is working on a deal with my smaller community hospital that would allow me to do some shifts locally.  This is probably obvious, but I am a big fan of that idea. We’ll see if it works out.

Do you get paid?

No.  In fact, it costs money.  There are several sources of potential financial aid available to help defray the costs, but completing a unit of CPE means paying fees to both the hospital and my seminary.

Hmm. And do you know what you’re doing?

Not really. I did take a required class at my seminary this spring. It was fine. But I wouldn’t say I feel prepared.

How is that ok?

I can’t really answer that. I will tell you that I have talked with at least 40 people about their experiences going through CPE and that not one of them has said “I knew what I was doing.” At all.

“First Day of CPE,” via EverydayImPastorin’

I was going to add, “and nobody died!” but probably, that’s not true. That’s, you know, one of the reasons you might need a chaplain.

 

You don’t sound very excited. Isn’t this what  you wanted to do in the first place?

Yeah, about that. So back when I first acknowledged to myself that I was discerning a call to ministry, a primary point of terror was that it made no sense. None. I had a whole life, which I mostly loved, and none of it pointed this way.

Except. I spent five years volunteering and then working at a crisis counseling center with a particular focus on suicide prevention and grief support. Then three more years assisting a complicated grief group at a family support center. Then I got a grant to do some research around grief and the legal process. Later, in the education field, I did my masters project around supporting families of young children in grief.

So you see, I had this beautiful aha moment, one I clung to as I jumped off what felt like a very tall cliff: I’m not interested in ministry, per se. I just want to find an authentic way to be present to families who have experienced a loss. I could be a chaplain. And better still: I could be a pediatric chaplain!

Eureka. Insanity explained.

And now, 18 months later, that pediatric chaplain vision still lives in a corner of my mind. She’s increasingly cramped, though, by things like radical hospitality in congregational life, the intersection of the sacred and the secular in our voluntary organizations, the opportunities every day to recognize the humanity in another and, quoting Wendell Berry, to practice resurrection. So I don’t think about her much these days. And also, there’s the reality that she might actually need a chaplain herself.

Trigger warning: this is a very sad story. And it’s not mine. And for that reason, details have been changed.  The thing is, last month I rode home from Chicago on the train, returning from my last set of seminary intensives for this year. I ate in the dining car with my friend and colleague.  During that meal, we shared a table and talked love and life with the two women across from us. They were a generation older than we, one already a grandmother several times over, and the other excited to greet, this month, her first grandchild. It was a story of joy and expectation.

Until, over dessert, we began to talk ministry. And then the second woman told me a different story. Of another first grandchild. A beautiful baby boy, Evan—the pregnancy was perfect. His birth went fine. And Evan went home to his loving and overjoyed family . . . but he failed to thrive.

Eventually, he was scheduled for exploratory surgery. It revealed a hidden heart defect. And, during that that surgery, one which the family has been told was merely a routine step in a longer diagnostic process, Evan died.

This woman, this grandmother of loss, and grandmother-to-be—her faith and her grace, her openness and hope— she was luminous. I hold her in my heart. And Evan. And his new baby sister. Lord, let her grow.

I, on the other hand, was a mess. I was physically present, don’t get me wrong, and I managed to keep the tears mostly in my eyes. But friends, my heart is not the heart I had when I did those other things. The griefy things.

I have a mama heart now, and it throbs frequently and breaks easily and just is probably not cut out for this chaplain stuff. 

I spent that conversation listening through the treacherous haze of a mental battle, one that went something like, “OMG, I Cannot. Handle. This./Seriously woman Keep Your Shit Together/ How are you ever going to be a minister if you can’t even be present with Random Lady on a Train?

And that, friends, is when my pre-CPE crisis began in earnest. You know, the what the hell was I thinking, this is an awful way to spend a summer and maybe also my life crisis.

My casual observations indicate that we all get to this realization at some point. That we really are not enough for what is being asked of us. How could we be? No one is.

And yet—and here is that maddening ministry piece again

Then we do it anyway. You wake up, one morning in your bed, or one evening on a train in the face of hope and loss sitting across from you and your chocolate mousse, and you know you cannot do it, there’s no way you can do it, no one could do it . . .

And then you do it.

All of that said though, that experience on the train was a dash of cold water in the face of my pediatric chaplain vision. Because, you know, no one comes to the children’s hospital because they’re having a really great day.

And yep, someone needs to be there with those families. To be there with each of us, when it is our turn.

I’m just not sure I’m made of tough enough stuff for that to be me.

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You’re right; that sounds terrible. Why would anyone do this thing?

The immediately available answer is: we do it because we have to.

If you know a minister in a denomination that requires an M.Div., ask her about her CPE experience. She had one.

But why do you have to do that?

Everyone I have talked to—you know, the ones who did not say they knew what they were doing—has given me the same answer about this. It’s very short. And totally predictable.  It’s like it comes to you in a personal fortune cookie at a closing CPE banquet.

That answer is: CPE breaks you open. You hold and hurt for and walk with other people’s pain—and your own—until you break. And then, eventually, with help, you put yourself back together. As a person who can be at peace amid pain.

There’s variation on the amount of collegial support or competitive torture that people report experiencing with their cohorts, or their supervisors, or the nursing staff . . . and some people have 5 minutes to answer a page and some have 30 . . . but the process and its effects sound pretty standard.

 

That sounds really, impossibly hard.

I agree with you.

Seminarians do it anyway.

Yay.

let sleeping dragons lie

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“You know, Hobbes, some days even my lucky rocket ship underpants don’t help.”

One of my seminary classmates posted this Calvin & Hobbes quote yesterday morning.  And it’s true– sometimes even our most faithfully held talismans fail us.  Our magic pebbles lose their magic.  We are left, staring down our fears, armed with nothing more than what is within us.

Frankly, some days it doesn’t feel like that could possibly be enough.  It’s been dark, and cold, and there is much that feels undone and overwhelming.  Whatever I consider, from my growing list of uncompleted tasks (a side effect of Refusing To Do It All, it must be noted, is that some things don’t get done) to the tangled knots inside my head and heart–my body registers an anxious warning: Danger.  Here Be Dragons.  And sometimes, friends, I just don’t have the tools or the energy to take on one more scaly beast.

This is hard.  The work is hard.  The ongoing time crunch is hard.  The change and the losses it brings are hard.  And in the midst of these hard things, life keeps happening.  Which means, in some of our families, that death is what’s happening.  Or illness.  Marital difficulties.  Financial troubles.  The list goes on.

And thinking about this larger process, the truth is that even the supportive parts are challenging.  Almost everyone I know is working with a therapist, a spiritual director, or both—and seriously, put the emphasis on “working.”  For myself, I’ve stopped wearing makeup on spiritual direction days.  That may seem like some sort of deep personal metaphor; it’s actually because from a practical standpoint it’s just pointless–why spend valuable time applying something you’ll be mopping off your face an hour later?

In short, with one semester almost in the bag, our first year class is showing decided signs of wear.  We are growing, but it costs.  We are excited, but we feel grief.  We are strong, but know fear.  And we’re tired.

I’m tired.  This is true physically, but even moreso psychologically and emotionally.  It’s the relentless schedule, in part, but it’s also that there’s a “front” involved in doing this work, and in preparing for it.   This means “make some mistakes, but be very selective when you show your struggles.”  (Or, alternately, “Show them to everyone, via your blog.”  I’ll let you know how that works out.)  In “public,” which is virtually everywhere, remember that your presence–the calm kind–is what counts.  These are critical lessons for the leadership of our movement, but cultivating them isn’t free–we pay in time, in energy, and, if we’re not careful, in personal integrity as well.

And of course there are other, procedural costs: already, we are preparing to leave our home congregations.  In my case, that’s a very formal process; for some others it’s simply an awareness of transition in the coming months.  I think most of my classmates, weary as we are right now, feel excited about this.  For my own reluctant-to-adjust self, the knowledge of looming change feels like the slow drip of water torture.

Realistically, I imagine I’ll be prepared for the move to my intern congregation right around the time that I’m scheduled to leave that community.  For now, I literally want to dig a hole underneath my current church building, curl up inside it and stay there for a very long time.  People could come visit–bringing snacks would be good—and I’d come out for worship.  (In fact, there used to be a joke among my friends in lay leadership that we needed to have cots in the sanctuary in light of the amount of time, day and night, we spent at church.  I wonder if on some level I thought that’s what seminary would mean—I could just live at church!  I’m starting to see how without clear boundaries and constant attention to work-life balance, that could someday be horrifyingly true, but not here.  Never here.)

Instead, inevitably, I put one foot in front of the other and take one more step.  We all do, leaning on one another, following those who’ve gone before . . . and wishing, lately, for a place to rest.

And I realize that I have been waiting for someone to say it’s time to wait without planning, time to reflect without acting, time to stop, survey the landscape, and take a breath.

But no one does.  Not to me.  At least, not out loud.

Meanwhile, this happened at church—the same church where I’d like to live in the wall or the floor, but apparently can’t be bothered to engage with what’s going on during the service.  (This is not our choir, but you get the idea.)

I remember that it was pretty, but I was distracted (what’s coming next?  And what’s coming after that?), so I didn’t really listen.  Frankly, I’m not sure I would have thought about this song again, EVER, had someone not mentioned the next day how the performance touched them—the sound, the words, the spirit.

So I looked it up.  I played the song.  And hearing it, I remembered the moment I heard it in our sanctuary—but this time, I truly listened.

When the song ended, I played it again.  And I’ve been playing it since, because it speaks truth to me now.

That same service included a meditation on the importance of quiet in this season, culminating in Richard Gilbert’s observation that

“In the darkness we rest our bodies and our souls;
We escape that which distracts and confuses.
We come face to face with ourselves.
We come into the deep places of our being.”

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And so, I now wonder, what more official invitation to rest is needed than this interlude of darkness and quiet?  The growing season will come soon enough.

What I need now is some space in which I might simply be.

For a brief time, I will rest my mind and my feet.  For this quiet interval, I will leave those sleeping dragons where they lie.

For a short season, let me be still.

-j

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