On July 17, during my introduction, Pastor Ben asked me to discuss my Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) experiences. I briefly spoke about the length of my unit – 7 months and the general nature of the experience – staggering and holy. I also promised a little more about CPE in the future, so here we are.
CPE is a requirement for ordination in Word and Sacrament in the ELCA. Each candidate must spend time serving in a traditional (hospital or hospice, for example) or non-traditional setting (social justice organization or something like one). There are as many purposes for CPE as students who go through the process. Some are obvious, developing ministry capabilities in crises, encountering grief and loss (often over more than just loss of health or life), journeying with hurting people, and practicing the art of just being present as God’s representative in the room. Some might tell you the purpose of CPE is to gather a quiver full of sermon stories.
Not so for me. While all of the obvious things are true, one of the most important things about CPE for me was learning to listen and watch for the Holy Spirit. If you ever see a chaplain moving fast, know that her prayers for guidance, wisdom, and words are even faster. When a pager goes off at 3:00 AM, it is a good bet that someone’s night has gone wrong and they, their family, or the staff is looking for a “God person.” In situations like that, the Holy Spirit provided words and prayers that I would never have come up with on my own. I will never forget the 24-hour shift during which four women died of pancreas-related disease, leaving four devastated husbands and one overwhelmed chaplain. (I was the only chaplain on duty for three hospitals that day.) I can still summon the feeling of having my fingers squeezed by a man who prayed so desperately and beautifully for guidance to make the right choices for his dying wife. Words of comfort, prayers, and even a bit of theodicy came from depths I didn’t know were there. Learning to trust the Holy Spirit is the greatest purpose of CPE.
Knowing the Holy Spirit is always alongside, sometimes I just had to ask, “Just what are You up to?” I was the only one in my cohort who was consistently asked to listen to confessions – even after I explained that I was not a priest (obviously) and offered to get one. No. No one wanted a priest. Some folks knew death was near and needed to share some things. Some thought they were successfully hiding their thoughts and behavior from God. It was good that my mask hid my smile when I explained that nothing could be hidden from God, but God loves us anyway and will give us the power and will to do better when we ask. I learned that some of the best things masks do are catch tears and running mascara and provide a subtle way to wipe a runny nose when a patient confessed his relief when his addicted wife finally died. He would die of COVID just 36 hours later. Every time that event comes to mind, I thank God that he allowed me to be one there to proclaim love and forgiveness to that man. He knew, but I think he needed to hear it again.
When I told my spiritual director, Lisa, about all this, she told me about the gift of holy listening. Over the next year, I’ll sit with that and see what God is up to.
In Christ’s Love and Service,