My family moved to Colorado in 1971. My father was called to serve as chaplain to the cadets at the Air Force Academy. The eight of us squeezed into a small home on the base and worshiped each week in the grandeur of the Air Force Academy Chapel. The beauty of the mountains beckoned us to explore so we shifted from some tent camping we had done when we were very young into hauling a pop-up camper into the mountains. We would time ourselves when we set up camp! We learned how to work together with precision to crank up the roof, slide the two ends out of the box, rest them on poles that affix to the base, and pull the outdoor furniture from the small camper into our “yard.” A good time would be under three minutes. My mom would open several cans of Dinty Moore stew which she cooked over a small gas burner in the cabin. It tasted gourmet to the six of us hungry children. We spent the day hiking with backpacks of snacks and swimming in the KOA pool. At night, we slept in pairs in small spaces with an invigorating circulation of fresh mountain air.
For the past several years I feel as if I have been hiking between campsites vocationally. I wondered what I would like to do after parish ministry as a capstone to my career. Pastoral care has always been foundational to my ministry so I pursued spiritual direction through Marywood at the Dominican Center. I became a certified Spiritual Director in the Spring of 2020. I had considered CPE—Clinical Pastoral Education–for many years but didn’t know how I could take a unit while serving this church full-time. I learned my sixteen hours of clinical work weekly could be done in my congregation! So my dream of pursuing chaplaincy as a continuation of offering pastoral care moved forward in earnest.
When I learned of the year-long residency, I had a deep sense of calling that this might be the right next move for me. I had a lot of questions. What would it be like to minister in a Christian Mental Health Hospital? What aspects to my career in the Church would carry over into this new form of ministry? How would I establish a pastoral relationship with folks I might meet with only once? How would I serve Christ in a setting where staff and patients have a variety of belief structures? When I was accepted to the residency program, I began to look for answers to those questions. I found myself loving patients in a way I could not have anticipated. I am amazed at the strength with which they face challenges that are unimaginable to me. “Trauma” is an everyday word on the units where I serve yet these patients hang on to hope when I would have given up long ago.
Even as I have begun to find my way in this new expression of ministry, I have felt mounting grief, anticipating my departure from my beloved congregation. In fact, my supervisor helped me identify a learning goal for this second unit: “To attend to grief as I transition from parish ministry to chaplaincy.” The First Congregational Church of Rockford, United Church of Christ has been so remarkably hospitable toward me and my ministry for a quarter of a century! The thought of moving away from these relationships is unfathomable to me. I know I won’t understand the impact of leaving this congregation until I begin to live it. Because I am convicted that my call into chaplaincy is from God, I am obedient.
The image I have for this time of transition is of me hiking between two appealing campsites. There’s beloved community at each one. The way is navigable but it requires loading my supplies in a backpack. Some items are in common with both settings but some are unique to only one of those campsites. I have needed to ponder what my experience is on this journey from one form of ministry to another? Hiking from one beautiful campsite to another, what gifts do I take, leave, or add to my ‘backpack’?”
Last summer, after announcing this professional shift, I preached about the image one of the Pine Rest chaplains developed. It was the image of a TIPI. In trying to imagine how I would use my pastoral gifts in locked units of a psychiatric hospital, it was instructive to me to consider that I carry my pastoral identity within me. Just as our camper in my youth was staked and mobile, my ministry has shifted likewise after 37 years in parish ministry. It is staked in my belief that God has called me to this new chapter and that God will equip me whatever the next stop along the way. I can’t know the future but I do have the present moment. Initially I struggled to understand how I carry Jesus with me into settings where He is neither sought after or understood. The TIPI image reminds me that Christ is always within me whether I reference Him by name or not. His light shines through me in all settings of staff and patients. One favorite translation of John 1:14 comes to mind: The Word took on flesh and pitched a tent among us. Whatever campsite is home, I preach and teach Jesus, whether I use spoken words or not. Jesus is firmly settled in my soul, offering me love that I share readily with others in each precious moment of my pilgrimage. One family in my church was struck by that image of the TIPI I shared last August and gave me a little tent ornament that has been on my desk at Pine Rest. It is a reminder of the journey I have been making between two different campsites, carrying Jesus in my heart at all times.
Amidst the tears I have–and will continue–to shed as the time of my departure from the church approaches, I draw on my belief that God calls us to lives of celebration. We share such good news that Christ walks with us that it would be unfaithful of me to only dwell in sadness. My parents taught me to watch for opportunities to rejoice. My father called himself the “minister of fun.” He and my mother led people on trips around the world with the one stipulation that they had to abide by “the pleasant rule.” They intentionally created communities of contentment and peace wherever they went. They knew how to seize the moment and make memories with friends and family. After my mother died, we divided up her belongings. I took home with me her wind breaker. The first time I wore it, months after my mother had died, I felt something in one of the pockets. I reached in and drew out an unopened pack of birthday candles. This represented her perfectly. No matter where she went, she was mindful of what celebration to honor. In her “backpack” she had candles so that someone would know they were special. I bring into my ministry a desire to celebrate the marking points in people’s lives. We have had church retreats in Grand Haven that have been marked by tears and laughter. Traveling between two campsites this year, I have looked for ways to bring joy to my patients and to my dear congregation.
Most of us live fairly stable lives. However, they do not remain stationary. Our families lose and added members. Vows are spoken and broken. We move between houses and careers. We fight illness and run races. We feel close to God and, at other times, feel bogged down in a spiritual wilderness. The change I have been experiencing has been challenging but I have learned anew that God shows up with greater clarity in the uncertainty of traveling between campsites. God has gently taught me what is still needed in my backpack and what can be retired. God has reminded me that celebration of each moment is a necessary component of Biblical living. I have learned to advocate for patients as I have sought to spiritually nourish my parishioners in three congregations. I have had to leave behind an assumption that my co-workers will share my Christian beliefs and have dipped deep into the well of Christ’s Living Water to discern ways to shine His light on those not seeking Him. I have new visions of who God is, based on a wide variety of folks who sit around the campfire: staff who have differing belief systems and manifest the fruit of the Spirit in their respective roles; patients who hang on to hope in spite of unimaginable suffering they have experienced. These individuals have surprised me with their teaching of wisdom and mercy. I have stretched in my ability to carry my pastoral authority within me. I have realized that I am nourished by stories that are shared around the campfire no matter where my tent is pitched. I am witnessing, with the unwelcome buzz of the alarm clock each morning, that God will guide—and sometimes carry—me on this vocational journey.
Today we stand with Jesus while palms of victory herald Him as King. Hosanna means, “Save us.” Jesus continually traveled between His home territory of Galilee and the center of the Jewish faith in Jerusalem. It would have taken a couple long days of walking to cover that distance. He and His disciples would have had to find a place to rest each evening, probably warming themselves by a fire. They may not have had cans of Dinty Moore stew but they would have broken bread together. Jesus warned the disciples, before they signed on to His movement, that it was not going to be a cushy position. They traveled between campsites from the moment their revival tour began. They were welcomed in some places as celebrities and chased out of other towns. Jesus was able to speak a word of judgment or extend grace. He hit up against the demonic that destroyed lives. Other times he was hosted in the homes of merciful individuals who knew, somehow, that He came from God. He scooped up children in His arms to bless them. He also held the frail hands of town elders whose strength was waning. Whatever campsite was Jesus’ temporary home, He welcomed others with the glorious love of His Father.
Today we are aware that we will travel from the sidelines of a parade to the foot of the cross. It is a journey we would rather not make. If we allow ourselves to really feel the impact of Jesus final journey, we will weep. We will grieve the loss of what was. Even as we worship together on Good Friday, looking in on His disciples as they abandon Him on His darkest day, leaving Him alone, we know that our journey is not over. Somehow, in the dark of a rock-hewn tomb, behind the tonnage of a boulder, in spite of a guard charged with securing the grave, we know that Jesus found His way out! Jesus defeated death! We will find our way to Easter where there will be great rejoicing, one journey at a time, one campsite to another, collecting wood for a fire that lights our path to the way of God.
So put on your hiking boots and grab your walking sticks. We’re about to set out on the final leg of our Lenten journey. There’s good news! Wherever we go, we carry Christ within us. His light will guide us. His love binds our hearts together—in this moment and forever!