In honor of K.R., B.L., D.C., R.R. & R.F.
I had been inpatient all of three days. In three days Jesus died, was buried, and raised again. In three days I came to appreciate why Jesus often withdrew to solitary places. And in three days I felt like the exasperated Jesus in an Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera; “[There’s] too many of you” and “[There’s] too little of me.” (Jesus Christ Superstar) It was my fault; I choose to share on my first full day in the unit what I had done for a living. Shortly after sharing this I decided to never again tell people I was a minister unless I was able to be their minister. I blame professional muscle memory in the form of knee-jerk introductions where I said, “I’m Pastor Chris.” A slender woman with a dual-diagnosis asked, “For real? You really a preacher? How ’n the hell you end up ‘n here?” A recently retired man on an involuntary hold asked, “Preacher man, I’ve been reading the word every day. I pray all the time. What am I doing wrong?” A life-long Catholic and fellow depressive asked if I would hear her confession. “Ma’am, I’m a Methodist.” She persisted, “So? You’re still a priest; aren’t you?” By the end of my third day in the unit, I had written a long list of prayer concerns and was worrying about making “pastoral visits” during my free time. By the third day, I tore up their prayer concerns and in full view of the entire unit threw them in the trash. I couldn’t manage “[There’s] too many of you,” and “[There’s] too little of me.” So, I went with “piss off.” “Piss off” is short for “I can’t explain how the hell I ended up here.” “Piss off” means, “I have no idea what I did to anger G-d.” “Piss off” comes from, “I can’t answer your questions because I can’t answer them myself.” “Piss off” is when you see someone struggling and want more than anything to come alongside them but are helpless to move. Eventually, G-d joined the piss-off audience.
The person that cursed G-d is still here. The minister who wanted to care for fellow patients is here too. It’s hard to be, at times, furious for ever believing in G-d only to later have a genuine experience with the Divine. The experiences of burn-out and blessedness are overwhelming. Rev. Piss Off now volunteers at a local hospital. He’s also a pastor at UNC Greensboro. He’s active in a church. He coauthors a blog and podcast. And he’s about to be a chaplain where he was once a patient.
This would be the spot to share that I figured out what to say to myself and to others, but I still haven’t a clue. My cluelessness comes from assuming that words alone are the most faithful response. I accept that words, like their speakers, are flawed and insufficient. But what about when G-d speaks? G-d hasn’t spoken from a burning bush (Exodus 3:2) in some time. And yet from that bush G-d called a people to convey G-d’s love. The same people who would be as insufficient and flawed as their words. G-d still speaks. G-d, and not surprisingly, still speaks through people. Insufficient and flawed people who refuse to piss off.
I still have moments where I can dismiss G-d with little effort; saying, “it’s not G-d, it’s coincidence.” Or, “It’s not G-d, it’s my imagination.” What is hard to dismiss are the beautifully insufficient and flawed people who visited me in the name of the Word who became flesh and dwelt amongst us. In hindsight, it’s as clear as Christmas. “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18: 20) Even when your two or three show up during midday visiting hours. I was fortunate to have such visits for nearly two months; even over a Thanksgiving holiday. G-d remained present even after I told them, “Y’all ain’t got to do this” and they, to a person, said, “We know.” “Y’all got work to do, I just know it.” Again, to a person, they said, “We know.” “This has got to be weird for you? Aren’t y’all nervous.” And each poker-faced pastor responded with, “Nah, not really.” When visitors were most scarce I enjoyed an abundance. We could socialize so long as we avoided talking “shop.” They offered prayers that I cannot remember a word of, but can still recall the sincerity in their trembling voices and the weight of their hands that once rested upon me. Do not neglect to accept ministers during midday visiting hours, for by doing that some have entertained angels only later figuring it out. (Hebrews 13:2) Over time I became convinced that neither depression, nor limited visiting hours, nor nagging doubts, nor anger, nor bitterness, nor sickness that was then present, nor sickness that may return, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, can separate me from the love of G-d. (Romans 8:38-39) May my ministry be more often dumbfounded for words but doggedly present