My mind has been whirling with phrases, and the whirling has not been such a good thing. Phrases like, “abandonment of post,” and “ministry of presence.” Of course, lots of other phrases are now mantras for everyone: “an abundance of caution,” and “shelter in place.”
For chaplains and pastors, pastoral care has meant, at its core, “ministry of presence.” We believe in showing up. Well, most of us do… I can save another rant for pastors who think they need to wait to be summoned before showing up to offer pastoral care. Being present, listening well, attending to the needs and words and gestures and silences of those for whom we care, is what pastoral care is at its heart and soul.
But being “exiled” from the hospital …for pastors and most chaplains alike, now challenges our hearts as we yearn to do what we most want to do: be present. We want to show up, to offer gestures of care. We want to sit with people, check in on them in person. We want to minister with our bodies, our presence of “holy hanging out” that we have learned and been trained to do.
If that ache hasn’t been painful enough, then, the choking of tears and sobs from family members who also cannot be present with loved ones surely creates distress and inadequacy, perhaps even a sense of betrayal. We are supposed to be there.
But we are not there. We can call, write letters, maybe even show up outside the nursing home window. We can and do pray. Thank goodness there’s no limit on the Holy Spirit’s presence, work, and movement.
The “prescience” part, rather than the “presence,” is respecting the scientists who tell us what is to come. I’ve called it an explosion. I hope I’m wrong. I also hope the scientists are overestimating things. But I am also someone who wants to be prepared, and am very grateful for the health systems, and many, many others, who have practiced for epidemics, mass casualties, and other disasters. We have tried to be prepared for this. We think we know what’s coming, and we are doing our best to be ready.
We draw our theological weight for ministry of presence from Jesus’ incarnation. We are trying to find new ways to incarnate the real hope and grace upon which our faith is grounded.
I’ve never been a big fan of prayers by telephone; frankly, I’m not a big fan of talking or listening on the phone, given years of technical and audiological challenges. It takes some serious coordination of equipment for me to hear well on the phone. Praying on the phone adds layers of challenge as the subtleties of peoples’ gestures and facial expressions and body posture are not available. When people are sad, or ill, or weary, their voices drop all the more. Nevertheless, we’re trying to connect with patients and families by phone and to carry on our work and ministry as best we can.
Still. I’ve long known that getting a call from a chaplain is not always a gladsome thing. “Hi, I’m Cindi, and I’m the chaplain.” Family members of hospital patients who get cold calls from the chaplain may not respond with warmth and delight. So, the extra work and clues I’ve usually relied on are not available, so I am trying some other ways to discern methods of support.
A little over a month ago, my spouse and I visited a dear friend who was dying. She has meant so much to us over the years, as she demonstrated graciousness, and a willing and adventurous spirit, and a wisdom ahead of her time. We spent some time with her, knowing she might not have been able to respond with full awareness of who we were. We were there with her, holding her hand, adjusting her blankets, talking with her, and thanking her. We needed to be there with her, even for a short time, because that’s what friends do.
And now, friends, we do not get to do that.. being there. Instead, the phrase for this epidemic is, “we’re in this together.” Maybe that’s a new incarnation, a new presence by way of the Spirit. The new communion of saints, in this together, because we need to be apart. Presciently present, perhaps.