My chaplaincy was spent at a “trauma 1” center. I watched summer nights yield knife fights and gunfire. I caught a burly, tatoo'ed man in my arms as his wife was wheeled into the ER. She lost control of her motorcycle while trying to avoid a truck. I sat with a widow whose husband fell off a ladder affixing Christmas lights.
The definition of trauma is any situation or event that distresses or disrupts. In other words, if we are traveling one way and something stops us in our tracks – that's trauma. I hit someone; I stop them from whatever they were doing – that's trauma. Trauma doesn't necessarily have to be a damaging physical event but usually our physical bodies are involved.
But the trauma that continues to inform much of my understanding of our ability to control life happened when two teenagers made a suicide pact.
My beeper went off – Code 40, Trauma, 5 minutes by ambulance.
One boy, dead on arrival. I never saw him or his family. But his friends were surrounded by dozens of hands, each in control of one portion of this young man's treatment. The chaplain reports to a trauma call. I typically stood right outside the room and the door was often left open. I held the space as sacred – I whispered prayers. I watched; I breathed. In a frenzy of doing everything within our power, I represented what is beyond our power.
I wasn't alone outside the room. Other physicians waited their turn, patient advocates looked for contact information while security guards cataloged the patient's belongings. The guard found a note, began reading it and looked up – his eyes searched for me.
“Are you the chaplain?” “mh hm,” shaking my head. He handed me the paper.
I began to read a scratched out note that laid clear intentions of a suicide pact. I took a deep breath,looked up from the note to find four physicians standing over my shoulders reading the note. I touched them lightly on the shoulder, the arm, “Hey, you ok?”
At first they didn't say anything. They didn't want to look at me. As the chaplain, I represent all of the things that are out of their control. Again doctors and nurses are trained to do everything in their power to heal. My presence reminds them that not everything is within our power. And when trauma happens, we find so little within our control.
I tried to get their attention again, “Seriously, everyone, how are we doing?”
One finally spoke, “It pisses me off.”
Another spoke up, “Stupid kid, he writes the damn note and he survives while his friend dies. What's he gonna do now?”
“He wanted to die. Look at all that's going on to save him right now.”
Our eyes glanced up to see all of those hands working diligently in the trauma room.
Before you think “doctor's aren't supposed to talk like that,” I want to make sure I say I learned about courage and diligence from hospital physicians. I learned to do the job in front of me, with all that I've got until my shift is up. Then I learned to trust your colleagues to take over for you. I learned to take small breaks in between crisis.
After talking through frustration and making sure they were heard, I folded the note and handed it back to the officer on duty. With a sad smile, I asked the patient advocate to call me when the young man's parents arrive.
I found a seat in the hotel lobby where there is a water fountain and a gas fireplace. I caught my breath and tried to imagine this family's next 48 hours. I whispered prayers and cultivated a spirit of peace and acceptance, preparing myself to look into the eyes of his parents.
A couple hours later, after the psychologists and social workers had seen the parents, I knocked on the door, both parents stood beside the bed, a physician checking his vitals.
I'm Beth, I was the chaplain on call when your son arrived.
“Did you see the note? I nodded.
“Did you?” I asked.
“Yes.” And after a pause, she said, “We don't understand.”
“I imagine you wouldn't.”
Tears were dripping on her cheek forming a continual streak her right cheek while her left eye was being blotted with a tissue.
After a period of silence together, holding the sacredness of this space,I touched her shoulder and said, “Be kind to yourself.”
He was to be moved to a facility soon. I told her that she would remain in my prayers – for strength and wisdom and that she would extend kindness to herself.
I packed my stuff and prepared to leave my shift, passing on information to the next chaplain on call.
I remember the drive home. It was not quite gray. The sun shone through the wispy clouds here and there. There was a slight breeze. I watched as the world began to wake up – a woman walking on the sidewalk, a guy putting out a rack of shirts at a storefront. When I arrived home, I made coffee and found a place on the couch to stare out the window for awhile.
What just happened? A person tried to take his own life; a person was unsuccessful in trying to take his own life. Unlike the majority of the people who enter the emergency room by ambulance, this one didn't want to be saved. He had planned for death. He had tried to take control and failed.
It would take me another 3 months to realize that my struggle with this specific instance was about “control” and our lack of it. As a chaplain and as a pastor, I have developed a relationship with the fragility of life, the randomness of illness, the frightening reality of the world around us. But those things happen to us and we have no control. This young man had tried to take control – and even that was out of his control.
When I told my mother that we lost the lease, I became the proud recipient of a biblical pep talk. It began with, “”When I pray for you, I just know that God is in this.” My dad did the same thing. His pep talk began with, “honey. God has another plan.” I had the courage to tell my dad, “you're going to have to believe that for me today.” There was a pause and he said, “well, I can do that.”
The housing option on the table that day was a one year lease. My friend thinks that my life is filled with unpredictability and therefore I should not introduce a known upheaval. I tried to say that maybe the lesson in it for me is to learn to live one day at a time. She cut me off to say that she would not agree that the Holy Spirit has that lesson for me in this. “You're already living that lesson,” she said. Note that she and my dad and my mom all believe that God is somehow in this. God has some “hand” in my next home.
My mother wants me to rely on the Lord. “You've gotta simply trust the Lord for this. God is in this. I'm sure of it. She told me to go home, take Pete's hand and then quoting a scripture says, “present your requests to God with thanksgiving.” I didn't have the heart to tell her that I simply no longer think that finding me a place to live is on God's job description. In fact, if it is we all have much bigger problems.
Multiple Choice: One of the tasks on God's job description is:
A. Protecting children from the sex trade
B. Feeding the hungry
C. Preventing tsunamis
D. Finding Beth and Pete a new home within their time frame and price range
E. None of the above
Answer – in my humble opinion or IMHO – E. None of the Above. Why do I choose E? Because it doesn't seem as though A-C is getting done and they are more important than D – IMHO.
True of False: If any of A-D are on God's job description, God needs to be fired for gross negligence. My answer: T. Let's be honest, what's God doing? If there be a God, it's safe to say that God is not doing the things that we think should be on God's job description. Protecting widows and orphans, creating peaceful activity among humanity, keeping women from being abused, preventing wars based on religious ideology, preventing super powers from controlling the little people of the world.
And so I go back to the original question and my original answer. Perhaps “none of the above” is on God's job description. First, isn't that great?! I can stop being angry at God for slacking on the job! If providing a new home for Pete and I is not on God's job description, then when it doesn't happen, I can stop blaming God. Not blaming God for things that God wasn't supposed to do is a good first step toward establishing an appropriate relationship with God. The next step might be getting to know God.
If this were a possibility, I'd want to meet at a diner for breakfast. I imagine God already sitting in a booth and drinking coffee. I begin, “So God, where you from?” If I were writing the script, God would say, “I come from before.” I'd nod and wonder, “What the hell does that mean?” And then I'd wonder, “What the hell do I say to that?” I continue because I am tenacious. “So, what's your favorite color? Oh no, let me guess. It's green, right?” God responds, “I can see why you would think that. But have you considered that the way that you see green is not the way that I see green.” I'm thrilled that my tea has arrived and I look God right in the face (not quite sure what God's face is like) and I say, “In fact, I have considered that.”
Clearly, I don't think that God is a great conversationalist. And so asking God to help me understand God's job description is probably not going to get me very far. And so I'm still left with considering what is on God's job description because I've ruled out the sex trade, hunger, tsunamis and my new home. To ask the question of God's job description begs the question of ours. What is our job description? The prophet Micah wrote the words, “What does the Lord require of you? But to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly.”
Job Title: Human Being
Objective: Do justice, Love kindness, Walk humbly with God
Turns out that some of the things that we thought were on God's job description are actually on ours. Protecting widows and orphans, creating peaceful activity among humanity, keeping women from being abused, preventing wars based on religious ideology, preventing super powers from controlling the little people of the world... uh oh.
Mercy! What are we to do? Maybe that's where the conversation begins with God. What are we to do? And not What are you going to do? It seems that talking to God about the things that concern us helps. But how? Well, my mom was onto something. The full scripture that she was quoting is, “Present your requests to God with thanksgiving and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds.”
Our job: Talk to God and to one another - and be thankful.
God's job: Offer peace.
I confess that I didn't go home and take Pete's hand and say a prayer. Instead I snuggled on the couch and asked, “What is it that you really want in a house?” And we talked. And I believed that God was with us. Pete and I don't always understand each other and we still have no idea what color green the other sees – let alone what color green God sees. I said my piece. Pete said his piece. God offered peace. That's on God's job description.
What is this blog about?
These are some of the reflections that I am fashioning into a memoir about coming to peace with my husband's diagnosis of multiple sclerosis.