It was one of those days that makes you want to go home, crawl in bed, and stay there for the next six months. It was one of those days when was too hot, the air conditioning too weak, and the hours you worked too long. It’s one of those exhausting days that made you stop and consider whether you made choice in deciding to serve as a hospital chaplain. It was one of those days.
By the end of that day, all I wanted to do cost to get in the car, turn the air conditioning on full blast, tune in some very loud music, and drive home. I did not want to say yes to a single additional request. I wanted to go home and heal.
So I walked out into the hot muggy night air, past the doors to the emergency room, past the now empty ambulances waiting for their crews to return from dropping off critically ill patients. I walked down the long narrow path until I could see the garage, until I could almost see my car sitting there, until I could almost feel the air conditioning and hear the music. I was that close to going home.
Then a voice came out of the darkness and startled me. “Do you work here at the hospital?”
I didn’t want to stop and talk, I didn’t want to say yes to another request, to spend another minute there. But something in the tone of that voice made me stop and turn. I could only vaguely see someone starting to emerge from the darkness. I didn’t want to say yes, Lord, here I am. But I did.
“Yes I work here at the hospital,” I said. Slowly the figure of a tall man came out from the darkness. “How can I help?” I asked. “I’m looking for my son and daughter-in-law, they’re here in the hospital,” he replied.
“Okay, let’s go in and find them,” I said. “Oh you don’t have to take the time to do that,” he answered. “Yes I do, I’m a chaplain.” Once again, I hadn’t wanted to say yes, I hadn’t even expected to say yes. But I did say yes.
Remember, a few minutes ago, when I was walking toward my car, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to continue to train to be a chaplain. But the moment he asked I said yes, I was a chaplain and ready to serve. And I knew I had spoken the truth, my truth.
We walked in silence past the ambulances still standing silent, waiting for their crews to return. We walked through the automatic doors that open with a pneumatic hiss and lead towards the emergency room. “How propitious it was for me to into a chaplain outside the hospital,” he said. “You see, I’m a pastor myself.” I knew he spoke the truth: for only a pastor would use a word like propitious.
I smiled at him and figured it would take a few minutes at most to help him find his son. But I was wrong.
“Actually,” the man said after we had walked the hospital. He paused before continuing: “Actually, I’m not looking for my son and daughter-in-law. I’m searching for my granddaughter. She’s just a child. But she died here today”
I realized this was not going to be a quick call for spiritual care, that this was one that would take some time, that this was fast turning into an extraordinary call for spiritual care.
We walked through the now-closed cafeteria before turning towards the Children’s Hospital. After reaching the lobby, he found the room number he needed to visit. We took an elevator to an upper floor. In the moment before the doors opened, he turned to me and said: “She was a wonderful child. How do I explain this to my son? What do I say when he asks how God let this happen?”
I knew he wasn’t asking me to tell him how to answer a question that cannot be answered. I realized he was simply sharing the pain he carried in his heart, and all he needed was for me to nod in acknowledgment and reception. He wasn’t seeking a smooth answer. He was hurting and he just needed someone else to hear and acknowledge the pain he now carried in his heart. So I looked him in the eye, nodded, and did not speak the trite words some say when faced with helping people endure unendurable pain.
The doors opened and we stepped out and headed toward the room where his grandchild lay dead. I walked him to the door and stood aside to allow him to take the lead. He nodded and walked into the room and closes the door. I stood there not sure of what to do. A moment later, two women who had been in the room came out and walked quickly away. I stood there unsure of how to proceed.
Suddenly the door and he asked “Chaplin, will you come in?”
I nodded yes without hesitating.
Inside the room, a beautiful child lay still in the bed. A single red rose body. She looked as if she had just fallen asleep: she looked like a perfect Disney princess waiting to be awoken by her prince charming. Only he and I – we knew the truth: this beautiful child would never wake again in this world. It was heartbreaking.
“Chaplin, who you pray for us?”
Once again I said yes. I don’t recall or the phrases are used but I prayed with all of my heart.
“Thank you, Chaplin,” he said. “Her little body just wasn’t strong enough to hold out until a transplant came through”
He nodded at me and I took my leave. I wept all the way back to Alameda. And since that night, I have never doubted my call to be a priest and chaplain. And I’ve always tried to say yes when the opportunity arose minister to someone who asked for spiritual care.
In today’s Gospel reading we hear Mary respond to the most extraordinary offer from God. She is, after all, a virgin. She’s betrothed to an older man, one who had standing in the community. She is part of a community where unmarried women who have sex are not only disowned by her family, these unmarried women are often killed. Mary had a lot to lose.
She also had a real choice to make. She had the free will to decline God’s astounding offer. She could have said no. She could have said, “Gabriel, go tell God that I decline this offer.” She has to have the ability to say no or the Incarnation becomes nothing more than another male God raping an innocent virgin.
Mary had a choice. And she chose to yes to God.
Each of us has that same choice. Every day, God offers us opportunities to say yes. Every day God offers us to connect with someone in a new way, to help someone out who is hurting, to brighten someone’s day, to help bind up the brokenhearted, to help release the prisoner loneliness or despair or poverty. Every day God gives us options for helping to bring the kingdom of God a little bit closer.
And most of the time, if you’re like me, you don’t even realize that God has come near to you until the whole interaction is over and you’re walking away. Then you realize, as Jacob did, that God was in this place and I, I did not know it.
Today we start the four-week season of Advent, The four-week season that leads us to Christmas Day. This Advent we’re talking about how each of us can develop as their own rule of life to guide them on their spiritual pilgrimage through this world.
Building your own rule of life with the saying yes to God, it begins with the saying yes God I want to walk a closer spiritual path to you.Saying yes to a rule of life that helps us walk The Way of Love invites us to live a life centered on incarnating Divine Love in the world.
As we will discuss after this service, The Way of Love focuses on seven different spiritual practices. On the Journeying the Way of Love Advent Calendar you’ll receive today, you can see that each week follows a pattern. Following this pattern will help each of us move along the path towards fashioning our own spiritual rule of life.
In summary, then, we can see Mary’s “yes” to her encounter with the angel as a model for our own “yes” to a rule of life centered on walking the Way of Love.
For we, too, are called to be changed by the Holy Spirit. For our “yes” to the Way of Love, to Jesus, is just as countercultural as Mary’s “yes” was more than two thousand years ago.
Saying “yes” to our own call to the Way of Love is scary. It may be just as frightening as Mary’s. We can not know the implications of saying yes just as surely as Mary did not know.
We can never be fully prepared for the magnificent journey with Jesus. It is sure to transform our lives. Like Mary, we are called to say “yes” to this impossibility made possible.
Let us pray. O God of all the prophets, you herald the coming of the Son of Man by wondrous signs in the heavens and on the earth. Guard our hearts from despair so that we, in the company of the faithful
and by the power of your Holy Spirit, may be found ready to raise our heads at the coming near of our redemption, the day of Jesus Christ. Let the church say: Amen!
Points to ponder: