Walking back to my car after a day at work, I am tired and gratified. I was the chaplain on duty to lead worship at the psychiatric hospital where I have been working for nearly a year. Worship leadership is different here than in a church building. I travel between locked units, with bulletins and blue tooth speaker in tow. My accompanist for hymn singing is YouTube amplified on a 3” x 3” speaker that fits securely in my pocket. My chaplain badge identifies me as the one who will gather willing patients into the proper room on their unit so that we can attune our hearts to God.
The service I have prepared plays out differently on each unit, depending on how many show up and their level of mental health acuity. Two younger women made up the “congregation” at one of the services, one of whom overshared because of her mania. Her reflections where generously sprinkled with four-letter words for which she apologized halfway through our 45- minute worship window. She explained that she likes to be straightforward with her thoughts. I assured her that I was glad to have her authentic participation. At another service, an older gentleman didn’t want to commit to sitting for the service. He stayed just outside the door, particularly seeming to enjoy the music. I took a bulletin to him which he referenced occasionally. He disappeared without explanation after thirty minutes. A couple of months ago, the staff decided to allow a patient to join the service, something her behavior had prevented her from doing up until that point. Immediately following a responsive call to worship, she grilled me on a cruel God’s justice and how bad things will be for us if we…mess up…our lives.( Her language was a bit more colorful.) After the fourth angry inquiry into my theology on “sinners in the hands of an angry God…”, I suggested kindly that I didn’t wish to use time in corporate worship for theological debate. She wadded up the bulletin, throwing it out as she stormed out of the room. The experiment to include her in groups failed.
It has been a different experience to serve as a chaplain in this setting. The “congregation” continually changes. What inspires on one unit doesn’t work in another. The liturgy and sermon are unpredictably interactive and raw emotions run the gamut from tearful sadness when singing a hymn to fury over broken promises at home. The show must go on. My very first service here, a patient managed to kick their way out to freedom before we could grasp what was happening. Staff were stunned as those windows had not been breached by anyone in more than 40 years. I learned to keep any “equipment” that I carry onto a locked unit small and by my side. I don’t wear dangly earrings that could be yanked or necklaces that could be used to choke. Even my pen, if left on a unit, could be used for harm. While these possibilities are relatively slim, it could happen and I would be the fool for ignoring precautions. After 37 years leading services in congregations, it is safe to say that I have been stretched this past year!
You might think that I dread going into each of these five units on a Sunday. But I don’t! What a privilege it has been for me to bring a Word through the scriptures to folks who are at one of their lowest points in life. (Those who are homeless or who have spent time in jail would argue that those settings could certainly be more confining.) I am moved when I look around the room at those who are mustering the energy to sing the hymns while others wipe tears from their eyes as Alan Jackson sings, “Amazing Grace.” I give God thanks as patients recite the 23rd Psalm by memory, many using the words of the King James version of the Bible.
A couple of weeks ago I led worship on a unit that had several COVID+ patients. Only the healthy residents could attend the service but I still had to wear an N-95 mask, shield, medical gown and plastic gloves. I might as well have been leading a service on the moon! Yet the women who sat with me sang the hymns I had chosen and spoke earnestly of their desire to serve Jesus. I am blessed by the transparency with which these patients speak of their hardships, any one of which could lead to my admission onto one of these units. Our church congregations would do well to mimic the willingness of these patients to share the raw elements of their life that have left them disappointed, angry, or betrayed. I have been surprised so many times when someone who seems particularly psychotic offers to read a scripture and does so beautifully. I was moved as one patient voiced her prayer that those gathered in a circle this Sunday morning would find peace. “We’ve all become so close,” she exclaimed with a smile. She looked around the circle at others who nodded their agreement. These “congregations” may be transient but their sharing is deep. There is no “My life is just fine, thank you” façade. Their prayers are unapologetically from the gut. Jesus is clearly present in the lives of these hospitalized congregants.
I had to set the alarm to get to work on time to begin my sabbath duties. Thanks to coffee and a shower, I felt ready for the day. I played my chosen hymns for today’s service over our sound system so that my husband could hear organ, guitar and voice on surround sound at 7AM. I sang along, even pausing in my kitchen at one point to lift my hands in worship of the One whose glory I seek to carry into weary corners of our world. As I left, my husband reminded me that today would be my last time of serving as a regularly scheduled worship leader. I retired from parish ministry in April and will conclude my Chaplaincy Residency in three weeks. I will not be leading worship at the hospital again. While I may do supply preaching on occasion, I am done leading worship on any kind of a regular basis. My Sunday mornings will be strangely free.
Singing “Amazing Grace” at the last of five services today, I felt a mix of emotions as I reflected on the privilege it has been to craft worship services that have given a variety of congregations an opportunity to attune ourselves—once again—to the work of the Spirit in our lives. One of my scripture passages for this last service was from Ecclesiastes 3: “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens…”
What a wonderful season it has been for nearly four decades, praising God alongside my brothers and sisters in Christ. “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!” I wonder what will mark the next season? I choose to trust the One who has guided me faithfully. Walking to my car, I place my badge in my briefcase. For this pastor and chaplain, it’s a wrap!