I was heading into one of the units with a person’s name in my head. This person had asked to speak with a chaplain so I headed into the unit with conviction and purpose. I was going to find them and take care of their spiritual needs. We try to get to folks within 48 hours of asking to speak with one of us and it’s gratifying to be able to check their name off the list—especially if you’re a list person, like me! So as I’m walking through the large open communal area, looking for my victim, I mean patient, I catch the eye of someone who is throwing her trash away. She looks at me—actually, she looks at my badge. We are known by our professionalism in the hospital. So she looks at the badge, then up at me and we have this exchange:
So….you’re a chaplain?
I’m a chaplain.
Like…. …..for God?
I am a chaplain for God! I’ve never said it that way but, yes, I am a chaplain for God.
Do you have a moment?
And off we went to a quiet part of the unit to talk. The person for whom I came wasn’t the one I saw that day. I was re-routed to someone who told me she wasn’t very religious but had some questions. I was honored to be able to sit with her and hear her story. I didn’t even get a check mark for that interaction—but that didn’t matter. That was the appointment I was meant to keep that day. And she sent me off with a memorable job title I haven’t forgotten: A Chaplain for God!
I’ve been packing out my office and finding things that I’ve carted around with me for 37 years of parish ministry. One thing that surfaced is a portable communion set. Garrett and I purchased this in the first months of our ministry so that we could take communion to those who are unable to leave their homes. We carried it into hospitals on occasion and many nursing homes. People appreciated being included in the life of the congregation even if at a distance from us.
Learning the details of ministry, like any new position, requires some humility. I remember taking this communion kit to an older couple’s home. We filled the little portable container with grape juice and had a small piece of bread that could be broken and shared. The couple took care of their 50-something year old son who was bed-ridden. At a very young age, he had contracted some dread childhood disease that stole his mind and control of his body. He lay in bed all day and they cared for him. The husband couldn’t hear but he could see. It was the opposite for her so they used their gifts together. When the doorbell rang, she told him and he went to greet their visitors. So we sat down at the kitchen table with this salt-of-the-earth couple and pulled the communion elements out of our little kit. What a privilege to be able to celebrate the sacraments! Our seminary education and ordination gave us the privilege of overseeing this meal. The couple sat quietly as we began the liturgy. I broke the bread into four small pieces. Then I poured the juice from the plastic container into one of the glass communion cups. It didn’t pour well and spilled onto their table. My response was to stray for the age-old liturgy by saying quietly, almost reverently, “Darn it!” The woman, in spite of not seeing well, understood what happened and hopped up to get some paper towels. She smiled as she mopped it up and assured me that it was fine. She sat down again and we managed to finish our time of communing together. She offered me such grace in a very human moment. Reflecting the Jesus of the Eucharist, she reminded me that we don’t have to be perfect. We have to be faithful to God.
After our congregation’s concert that celebrated 175 years of ministry, I talked with a woman who had read about it in the local paper and attended. She loved the music and talked with me afterwards. She said she could tell that this was a close congregation and a church that was centered on the Spirit. I told her I was blessed to hear her say that. I asked her how she had come to that conclusion. She noticed that we didn’t sweat the small stuff. If there was a technology issue with a song or someone needed prompting with the words they were singing, the congregation was supportive. We laughed at our humanness at times. And we prayed. And we SANG! She felt the Spirit in the way we sang in that first moment when we began to feel like we were back in our sanctuary in a somewhat “normal” way after two years of COVID restrictions. I celebrate that a stranger could gather with us for an event and draw the conclusion that we are folks who live our faith together in humble and loving ways. In a world that is marked by division and rancor, this is clearly the work of the One we serve!
I’ve mentioned before that the one tattoo I would ever get is a beautiful calligraphic rendition of the Hebrew word, HESED. Instead of getting inked, my daughter made a clerical stole with the Hebrew word on it. She invited congregation members to sign the back of it! It takes several of our words to capture the meaning of it. Sometimes words are put together in pairs to convey the proper meaning. The translation I like is “lovingkindness.” Hesed described the kind of love God has for us. We hear it in our reading from Exodus today, when Moses is getting to know this God who asked him to side with his own people, the Jews, and put his life (and sanity!) at risk by leading them. Up on the mountain top for the second time (since the first time he came down with the tablets of the law in hand, they were dancing around a golden calf), Moses meets God. This divine being offers a brief resume to Moses who is already fed up with his people. God reassures him, encourages him by saying, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…”
God’s true nature is described as “hesed”: loving kindness, devotion, loyalty, mercy and goodness. It’s used some 250 times in the Old Testament. Its frequency should profoundly affect how we view God, not as a vengeful deity watching for us to trip up. Rather, we meet a loving Parent who, even after a transgression as egregious as dancing around a golden calf, assures us of love! Generations have carried that God of hesed love in their hearts and shared that faith with their children and grandchildren. What a gift it is for us to know that these are God’s attributes that we are encouraged to share with others.
The first picture to go up on the walls of my office at First Congregational Church of Rockford, United Church of Christ—and the last to leave—was this block print done by Japanese artist, Sadao Watanabe. When I was installed as pastor at this church, my father presented it to me. Watanabe was a Christian who depicted Biblical themes in his artwork. He was very popular when my parents were living in Japan. This image is of the prophet Elijah dropping his cloak down to the fledgling prophet, Elisha. Elijah is whisked off in a chariot of fire, entrusting his spiritual legacy to the one who had studied under him. I began my service at First Congregational with the blessing of my parents. My father’s ample gifts for ministry certainly shaped my leadership with this beloved congregation. He loved to teach and preach from the Bible, always finding ways that the message was relevant for the here and now. He led with creativity and a unifying spirit. My mother served alongside of him, quietly caring for those in the church with supportive words and prayer. I am so grateful for the mantel of ministry they passed on to me. I met the God of HESED in my childhood home and rejoice in how our congregation taught our children and youth about God’s lovingkindness. On mission trips, in VBS, in supporting Compassion children in other parts of the world, by leading zoom Sunday School classes during a global pandemic, we were faithful to the mandate of sharing the gospel with all generations.
The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who inspire and equip us to live our Christian faith. I’ve talked with church members whose loved ones have died. They described how, in their last days, their loved ones began to interact with an unseen world. They sometimes mentioned names of family members who had died earlier. These invisible interactions sometimes brought smiles to their faces, something you would not expect to see in a dying individual. Our faith reminds us that there is something spiritual going on that is so much greater than anything we can see or imagine. We stand in awe in privileged moments when this world and the next seem to converge and the distance between us is momentarily bridged. In our congregation, we meet in a space that has nourished generations! Just as they carried in with them the influence of their ancestors, we bring with us each week the presence of those in our lives who witnessed to God’s HESED. That cloud of witnesses is closer than we think, encouraging and equipping us for the tasks at hand. The Apostles’ Creed speaks of the “quick and the dead.” Some of us may not feel quick but we are not dead! We are the living, moving, breathing Body of Christ called to witness, on this side of heaven, to eternal truths that give us hope. The work my congregation and I offered was to faithfully instill a sense of the holy in the midst of ordinary daily experiences. It is most often in the small gestures that we meet the God of HESED and can offer the ongoing refrain, like the writer of the 136th Psalm, “God’s steadfast love endures forever!”
The final memento I brought home from my office is this guy. I loved him from the time I first saw him at a shop in the Breton Village Mall. My mother and I called it “the jelly bean mall” because a centrally located candy shop sold little packs of jelly bellies, which were newly on the market and beloved by my children. This figurine of a man wearing a clerical collar was somehow standing amidst the candy choices and my mom bought him for me. I loved the joy on his face as his hands are raised in obvious prayer. He exudes a love for God and a powerful connection to the Spirit. I wanted that at that early stage in my ministry. He’s been on my desk all these years. He suffered some abuse over the course of time. He fell off my desk a couple of times and both of his hands have fallen off and been glued back on! Not all the fingers are intact. So he’s aged a little bit as have I. I was disappointed to learn a short while after receiving him that the title for this particular figurine was, “Thank God I’ve retired!” What?! I thought his smile reflected the joy of his active service to God, not retirement from ministry! But his zeal for his Creator has inspired me for years.
As I retire from parish ministry, I can feel how my body parts don’t function quite as easily as they once did. I’m not as “quick” as I was when I first placed this preacher man on my desk But I share in his gladness of heart, rejoicing simply because I have been privileged, like Moses, like Elijah and Elisha, like my father and mother and countless saints who have dropped that mantle of ministry down to me, to have experienced God’s HESED in the Church of Jesus Christ. I thank my beloved church family for walking with me on this amazing journey of faith. Their love will always be one of the greatest gifts in my life. Together, with smiles and upraised hands, we can affirm what we know as truth: God’s steadfast love endures forever! GOD’S STEADFAST LOVE ENDURES FOREVER!