I’ve seen the look in too many people’s eyes. And I don’t say that as a pin of honor or badge on my lapel. It was a dreadful thing when I first started seeing fear so regularly. There’s nothing like the naked, bold, and startling fear in the eyes of a person who watched the slow-coming death of someone they love. Love makes us hold tightly. Love, often, is the enemy of surrender. And I thought about it when a woman asked me, in a way, about my own loves.
When I first started in ministry at Sweet Holy Spirit, my role was primarily administrative. Aside from some relatively small amount of pastoral care, I functioned the way an executive pastor functions, looking at costs, praying about meeting budget, managing operations, getting to know a staff, decreasing that staff, trying to compensate the staff based upon the unique and faithful expressions of ministry’s vocations. I brought an attorney on retainer, developed relationships with insurance agents, learned about wage demands from the IRS, and became a master at explaining differences between exempt and non-exempt employees.
Being an executive pastor who was in the seat when the pastor was away was more responsibility than I was ready for. It aged me. It still does in a way. And I remember seeing fear in those days. But it was a different fear. It was a fear of missing marks that were mostly set in the wide generous room of a large church. I had my own fears. But in terms of the real fears of others, I was hardly exposed to much. I was the person who kept at the overarching system so that the good folks in our church could come and hear the words spoken. But I hardly had enough time with those folks, those listeners. They would have taught me differently about different fear.
When I came to New Community, I came, in part, because it was twenty times smaller than my home church by my conservative estimate. I would be able to pastor in a classical way, and that vision is one that I’ve been able to live. I’ve been in homes, around tables, having conversations and not just at the office or even in my study at home. I’ve been able to search the lives of others at their leadership and invitation. I’ve seen more fears in the eyes of our people.
And still, my church is “relatively young” church. I find myself over the years putting up three or four fingers when I tell people how many times I’ve visited hospitals for the people of New Community. It’s relatively young, I tell them. People don’t ask the pastor to come to the hospital when a baby is born, and twenty and thirty-somethings don’t generally get hospitalized and require pastoral visitation. Where I preached twelve funerals a year (as part of a staff of ministers) at SHS, I’ve done almost as many weddings during some of my ten years at New Community. Fear looks differently in those congregational contexts.
When I started working as a chaplain, I started seeing fear differently. In the medical center, I saw it all the time. I see it all the time. I can see it daily if I choose. Unfortunately, there is always somebody (perhaps a somebody in 900+ beds) negotiating with fear.
The good thing about being a chaplain who is also in the supervisory education process is that you’re always doing action, reflection, action. Always working in that CPE model of learning. In fact, you have to stop yourself from doing it. At home, in the congregation, in conversation with people who know nothing about this model of learning. Stop being shaped the education and be. Still, it relates to how you see yourself.
You become a process person, loosening your grip on content and becoming more interested in what’s happening, what’s taking place, what process we’re in, rather than the superficial and low-hanging surface of what’s merely explicit. Process is hardly ever explicit. And fear is the same. You have to see it even though it’s facing you.
That’s why relationships falter because it takes a therapist or a spiritual director or a guide who’s outside the dyad to say, “Hey, what’s happening here?” or “This is what I’m seeing.” or “If you keep in this direction, where are you headed?” These aren’t content statements but process ones.
You begin to see your own fears. You make friends with some of them. You give grace to them, gifting them with new understanding because the words behind and under those fears are understandable. They are real just like the fear.
“His mercy extends to those who fear him.” (Luke 1:50)
My son fears things. At least that’s what he says. And we have to take him at his word. Sometimes I think it’s his way of keeping us talking when he should be asleep, but that’s for the other blog.
The point is we spend a fair amount of time, and only at night, telling him that there’s nothing to fear, that we are with him, that we are together, and that we are safe. His fear returns and we repeat these things. We have a psalm between he and me that we repeat, one we read from a book someone gave him. These things address his fear or his comment about it.
Bryce’s fear is not like the fear mentioned in this text. My boy’s fear is about the images of things his brain smashes together before sleeping as he processes the whole wide world of his day. Mary’s fear–the fear mentioned in her song–is a fear of respect, awe, and devotion. Those who fear God get mercy.
I’m not sure there is a better message for us. Whether victims or victors, successful or unsuccessful, Godward or aimless, there is a clear comment about God and us. His mercy extends to those who fear him. When the increasing hunger in us is God and God’s life, for God’s things, for God’s rule and ways of ruling, we get mercy.
This is a tool, this mercy. Indeed, mercy is the equipment that we need to live into the future. Consider that Mary was destined to live with Jesus, parent and raise him with Joseph, watch his growth and monitor her own. If there was something she needed, just to do those things, it was mercy.
Her life would be filled with much more than being a mother, even though that role and trait would make and mark and transform her. She would need mercy to do all of what God called upon her to do. She would need the compassion that comes from an unending source of love. She would require, for all her mornings and all her nights, the untiring stream of care coming from the hand of God.
I get tired of my son’s pleas about fears. I do. Especially when I think he’s testing us. I don’t like his tests. But because he fears, the little voice in my head says that I have to respond. I don’t want him to fear and if I can play a part in decreasing those reckless emotions, I will. My wife does better at it than me for sure. But I try. I repeat the psalm we share, I look in and scan the place, and I tell him he’s okay.
I need the habit of uttering these words to myself when I lean into the boy’s room. His mercy extends. His love comes. His compassion is present. I have enough. I have more than enough. For his fears and for mine. May his fears remind me that there really is nothing to fear and that there’s only mercy surrounding us.
The first day or so into my residency I heard my supervisor utter from the corner a response that I scribbled into my calendar. I swipe quotes from people like free gifts, and his words were a little gift to me–a gift I’ve looked at and played with ever since.
We were gathered as interns and residents and going through the initial orientation to life in CPE at Northwestern Memorial. We were just starting our adjustment into life as chaplains at the area’s premier academic medical center. Some of us had never been in a hospital setting for CPE. A few of us had been in 3 or 4 hospitals before to serve as chaplains.
I don’t remember who said they were scared. I couldn’t quote them if I did for the confidences we keep. But I’ll out my supervisor since I won’t name him. The person had said in a sigh that they were afraid, and he said to the comment, “I’m still scared.” We had already heard a bit about how long he’d been in ministry, and his reaction in those three words, together, were a life raft.
It was an immediate frame of vulnerability and risk and strength, his words. I’ve thought about the many reasons to fear in this ministry.
The ministry of serving others in a congregation brings fears. I know that as a pastor who has served in churches for close to 15 years. The same is true for the role of a chaplain in a medical setting. We should fear. We should name our fears. They are real and they are credible. We could really muck things up.
And, of course, fear isn’t the only feeling in the room. There are other emotions. And all of them, like voices in a chorus, will be heard. Tenors and sopranos and every other important voice needs to be respected as it sings.
I’ve heard the fear with each beep of the pager. I like to tell my colleagues that the 3 to 4AM hour is my golden hour when I’m on-call. I’ve always been paged at that hour for, at least, one trauma. But with each page, with each shift, the fear gets smaller.
I can see how it works now. I know a lot about what will happen. Of course, there is the long spectrum of surprises that comes with any interaction. I don’t know how it will go with that next person who’s in crisis. That’s the beauty of it for me. The beauty of seeing what will be said, seeing how I’ll listen better, seeing how God will move between us.
But the fear part, the part of me that didn’t know what to expect is schooled by these first 4-5 on-call shifts now. I know what it looks like for a response team to descend upon a quiet floor when a patient is “crashing.” I know the frenetic, nervous space filled by firefighters and police officers and nurses while respiratory therapists are working to help a gunshot victim breathe. Those fears are decreasing.
Yes, I’m still afraid. This feels especially true this morning, after the night we’ve witnessed in Missouri. But I’m less afraid. And that feels like a part of the goal for life and for CPE. To be less fearful. To have those fears respected and known but less in control.
I’ll go to the next patient visit with less anxiety. I’ll feel more like myself as I sit with someone whose loved one just slipped away after the ventilator has been removed, after their breath has left their bodies for that final time.
And though, like my supervisor, I’ll still be afraid, I’ll be stronger, and I’ll be more in my skin as a less anxious presence. At least those are my hopes as I finish this on-call shift, as I walk out of the hospital and face the rest.
It is a powerful thing. May it never cripple you.
It is a present visitor, even if it’s deep under your skin, deeper than your muscles, your bones. May you always find its root.
I’m talking about fear, son. May you rise above fear, each fear, and may it only be a good teacher to you. May fear be your best inspiration.
I thought of you when I heard all the cheering for the Jackie Robinson West team today. Named and unnamed people congratulated them for their win, for their courage, for their consistent and elegant boyishness.
And I considered your future and how you would be like those boys, triumphant after having practiced and worked and played a game for fun and for sport and for your own sake.
I remember when I couldn’t cajole you into reaching for this sliding contraption, when you only looked at it with something like confusion or wonder or fear in your eyes. And look at you, growing beyond what once made you afraid.
Keep going. Keep looking up. Keep being guided by your mother and me. Keep doing what seems out of reach.
Brook Warner offers writers some compelling advice. She talks about the writer’s inner critic and all the things the critic says. She says that we should take it all in, breathe deeply, and ask if any of the critic’s messages are based in fear. Brook’s words spill beyond the work and life of the writer…
Your inner critic is a loud mouth who sits on a pile of fear in hopes that you won’t risk yourself. If you don’t try, you can’t fail. If you never risk, you maintain the status quo. If you don’t stretch yourself, you stay safe.
Our writing pushes us outside of our comfort zone because it challenges us to be more visible, bigger, more truthful, to take a stand for ourselves and what we want.
I challenge you to write down your list of fears and hang it in your writing space this week. It’s amazing how giving voice to something lessens its charge. When you sit down to a message that says, “Your writing sucks,” rather than getting worked up about it, answer with, “Yes, it mostly does, but this is a content dump.” The point of SheWriMo is to write. It’s okay if it’s shit. The whole challenge is about getting yourself into the habit of writing and setting a pace.
So let it be shit. And do invite your critic into your writing space this week. By the end of the week you might just have a new friend.
Read Brook’s entire post over at She Writes.