When I headed into CPE, all I had to base my expectations on were the stories of those who had gone before me. Long hours, tough emotional situations, and complex group dynamics usually highlight these tales of CPE past. While these aspects of CPE were certainly present, the thing I will remember most about this experience is discovering my identity as a pastoral caregiver.
From day one in the hospital, I was met with pain, isolation, shock, and grief. One might expect, as I did, that I would attempt to counter such feelings directly with words of comfort and hope (I’m also a preacher after all). Yet when I did my job well, all I did was aid patients, family, and even staff in finding this comfort and hope for themselves. Some might call this self-discovery or soul-searching. I like to think it is the work of the Holy Spirit.
This, I think, is my calling as a pastoral caregiver. I need not try to manufacture love, peace, and hope. God does that. My role as a pastoral caregiver is to quietly walk beside the one in pain and listen with them for that still small voice. CPE gave me the chance to let God teach me that.
Many of us who are working at a Supervised Practice of Ministry during the summer are often involved in Vacation Bible School, a lumbering behemoth in the middle of Ordinary Time that eats up volunteers, time, and resources. Here are some thoughts on why I think this is important:
In the heat of summer, many churches open their doors to the neighborhood children, we teach them Bible stories, sing songs, do crafts and learn about the work of God’s people. Yet often we can see VBS as a series of busy tasks, there’s always so much to do to get ready, decorating, organizing, recruiting, that we might get lost in the real purpose of this important ministry.
It can also be disheartening to think that maybe some of the parents might see VBS as inexpensive childcare, somewhere safe to send the kids for a week between horseback riding camp and robotics camp.
So why do it? Why open up the church in this way to so many children, use up the church’s resources, volunteers and time?
Because it matters, it really matters. Children are not the future of the church; they are a vital part of the church right now. Their delight in Bible stories, their enthusiasm for singing, and simple faith, add vibrant color to the tapestry of the life of this community; we can learn from them as much as they are learning from us. By responding to the call to serve in this way, you are being obedient to the words of Jesus in Mark 10: “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
A spiritual journey is like a chain of many links, each person we encounter along the way forms a link in the chain, so thank your VBS volunteers, for being willing to give up their time, and their energy to these kids, to be a link in their spiritual chains and to contribute to this extremely important part of the church’s ministry.
Imagine a crowd of 5,000-plus gathered on a lush green hillside. This crowd could very easily be one of the many who filled the Judean countryside for a chance to sit and listen to the famous healer and teacher Jesus. This crowd and those of long ago have many things in common: both are full of believers and doubters, of outcasts and the well-liked, all drawn to the hillside to seek the one called Jesus.
The crowd I am referring to is, however, not one of those mentioned in the New Testament, but is a gathering of youth and leaders from all across the United States in an every three-year event we Presbyterians call Triennium. We have gathered on this hillside on the campus of Purdue University for our evening worship.
The scripture is read and we listen to the story of the feeding of the 5,000 with a fresh perspective as we look around at the similar crowd gathered around us. In the sermon we are reminded and challenged with these words, “It only took one youth for Jesus to feed 5,000.” The youth drama team acts out this well-known story and instead of bringing forward the loaves and the fish, bring up the cup and the bread for the celebration of the Eucharist.
We become just like those crowds of early followers as we feed one another and are fed by our Lord Jesus Christ.
A very wise professor taught me that a preacher is someone who is entrusted by the community to walk through the deepest depths of the soul and called to witness to that experience. He stressed the importance of exploring your own theology of death. CPE helped me to journey through these chambers of my heart.
In the early days of the summer, my head was swimming with the overload of information I’d received in orientation. I was walking through the ICU, with “INTERN” printed in red letters on my name badge and certainly written on my face, when a nurse pulled me aside. A man was about to be removed from life support, and his family wanted someone to pray with them. “Ok,” I said to myself, “I guess this is a ‘learn by doing’ kind of moment.”
As I walked in, I could tell that this devout Roman Catholic family was surprised that I wasn’t a priest. Nevertheless, I think they sensed that my desire to help was earnest. I was trying desperately to remember the formula for a collect prayer so that I didn’t end up fumbling my words. Before I began, I gently grabbed the patient’s hand. I felt as if time stopped for a few moments. My brain could not tell you what a collect prayer even was, but my heart knew just what to say: “As the apostle Paul tells us, nothing in life or in death can separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ, our savior. It is in these words that we find strength and hope today…”
A month later, I had a long conversation with another intern. We talked about our own experiences with friends and family, about patients we had visited, and about how we view death through the eyes of our faith. I dropped him off at his dorm and stopped to check my campus mailbox. I uncovered a jumble of random papers. I sifted through the advertisements for commentaries and vestments and found a few graded assignments from the spring semester. One of the papers, though, was dated November 2012. It was an assignment that I had written for K.C. Ptomey’s preaching class—a funeral sermon, in which I was challenged to confront and articulate my theology of death for the first time. I cried tears of grief but also of remembrance and gratitude. Thank you, K.C for helping me to truly believe that nothing can separate us from God.
The theory that there are six degrees of separation between strangers applies in the everyday world. But in the PC(USA), I believe there are only two or three degrees of separation between Presbyterians who have never met! This was my experience at the Big Tent, a gathering that took place this summer in Louisville, Kentucky, that was a concurrence of 10 Presbyterian conferences that organized over 160 workshops and events designed to provide opportunities to worship God in unity and to celebrate the diversity of the PC(USA) and the ways we live as different members of One Body. At Big Tent, I caught up with old friends and colleagues and met new friends and potential future partners in ministry.
More specifically, I was invited to participate in the Seminary Support Network Conference, where several seminary students, including myself, shared our visions and dreams for the church. Former APTS academic dean and current Louisville Seminary president, Michael Jinkins, spoke passionately about the role of theological education in our world today. Rather than evaluating the necessity of seminary-educated pastors, he said what the church needs to ask is, “What quality of ministry best serves the gospel? And how do we best prepare persons for that quality of ministry?” This is something significant to consider as I hope all of us at APTS are people in ministry that best serves the gospel for the glory of God alone.