Four Pages is a series of non-fiction short stories that I experienced one afternoon as the on-call chaplain at a local hospital. I received the pager at noon and passed it on at 4:30. Though I only got four calls, these were more intense than a night shift when I supported twelve trauma victims in the emergency department. These four pages show just how intense the life of a hospital chaplain can be.
That afternoon there was no time to rest or even think between each page. There was no way to prepare myself for what I might see and hear, nor could I anticipate the questions that were about to slap me out of self-absorption. I entered each room, assessed the situation, gave what care I could and then gently disengaged. I left each room with much on my mind but had no time to process because someone else was calling me.
As a pastor, especially as a hospital chaplain, I have discovered the great temptation to be Minister Fix-It. When someone is in distress or when I witness great suffering, I feel an overwhelming call to fix. It’s like there is a neon marquee in my brain flashing trite answers and solutions. But, as anyone who has ever experienced pain knows, answers and quickly spun solutions are weak and useless weapons against turbulent suffering. Answers comfort for a moment. Solutions are debunked and leave a trail of bitterness behind them.
When Mrs. Glass asked me if her husband’s condition was her “cross to bear,” I had several instinctual responses that I could have offered to her. She looked at me expecting something – perhaps absolution or agreement – but I said nothing. I could feel her pain and I desperately wanted to soothe her hurt. Instead, I held her gaze and let the silence linger between us.
It would be foolish to repair a sinking ship by patching a gaping hole with silly putty. It would be ridiculous to say to a person drowning in the eye of a hurricane, “the storm will be over soon” or “you’ll survive this” or “you’ll be stronger because of this.” For the drowning, there is only the here and now, the heavy limbs that pull them under, the briny sea burning their eyes and nostrils, the roar of the chaotic wind and swirling clouds that eclipse the possibility of a horizon.
There is wisdom in resisting the urge to fix and to answer. There is wisdom in offering silence, in taking time to think instead of respond, in allowing hollow spaces. In hollow spaces I honor the complexity of each unique situation and acknowledge the awfulness of suffering. I have learned that acknowledgement and understanding are the strongest responses to suffering. These are the tools with which I can offer long-lasting comfort. They are the birthplace of hope. If I can hear or touch or taste even a portion your pain, I am reminded that I too am weak, that I am vulnerable, that I would not want to be alone with this terrible pain. In these hollow spaces, I am pulled down from my lofty pastoral position, forced to acknowledge my humanness and reminded of my own bouts with suffering. Then I know to cry out with you because that is the best thing that I can do for you.
Every time I hold the hand of a hurting person like Francis Woodson, I am horribly tempted to abandon wisdom and embrace foolishness, to be a pastor-mechanic instead of a pastor-human. It is perhaps the hardest thing to linger in hollow spaces and allow suffering to have its place, to partake in it with others. Ministry that shares in the suffering of the human condition can be mind-numbing and excruciating and scary. But it is also the only truly effective ministry there is.
The word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. (John 1:14)