As an evening shift chaplain, I see a lot of waiting. By the time I end up walking the floors, the day is almost over. Our day-time staff are busily finishing those last visits or last emails before they leave. Many of our families are packing up to return home. Even our cafeterias begin to empty out. And that leaves those of us who remain, patients who are here for the night and those who work these strange hours.
It can be disquieting or anxiety producing, this sitting amidst the unknown. And so, I see restlessness in folks trying to find something to watch, or frustration trying to settle into their beds. In such moments, just a night’s sleep can be a challenge or uncomfortable.
Yet also I hear people’s hopes. I hear hopes for test results (maybe a cancer screening, something from a blood test taken earlier that day, or another opinion from a different doctor). I hear hopes for new medications (something that works quicker or maybe just has fewer side effects). Sometimes, it’s just hope that tomorrow is when something changes or even brings the possibility to go home.
And so, we wait together. It is one of the joys of my job, to be able to wait with people and witness to the fact that we are not alone, even in these moments. For we are always surrounded and supported by whether by our healing bodies, our busy doctors or nurses, and even just by our God.
Hence, I believe that this waiting, hoping, and just holding on amid all that we are going through is enough. It is holy and blessed, even as it feels infinitely long and indescribably difficult. For as I hear from St. Paul in my Christian faith: I am convinced that nothing present or anything that may come separates us from God or each other. For God, creation, and all of those around us are here with us in this expectation and longing. It is heartening to not be alone.
It is why Lutherans pray: “God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us. Amen”
[Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Evening Prayer: A Simplified Form (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 2006)].
It is not an easy calling to be the ones who have to wait and hope. But God is with us, leading us and supporting us. We are not alone, no matter what may come in these evenings or even in the days to come. There is hope in waiting.
Last September a group of four entered the buildings of Michigan Medicine with the desire to bring comfort, care, companionship, and peace to the patients, families, caregivers, and staff. Now, they have only a few days left of their journey as Chaplain Residents of Michigan Medicine’s CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) Program led by Rev. Tony Marshall, Certified CPE Educator. These individuals came with the hope that their presence would offer a sense of calm and security. Not only would these four be doing the practical work of supporting patients, families, caregivers, and staff, they would engage in an intensive study program aimed at further developing their personal theology, gain a deeper understanding of human behavior, refine skills to provide care to those with or without a religious tradition, grow their spiritual counseling, and explore new ways of offering care. All of this is done to prepare these individuals to become Board Certified Chaplains, experts in their field, and an honor that comes at the approval of their peers. In any given year, this is a daunting and intensive process, but as we know, this was no ordinary year at Michigan Medicine or in the world.
Father Joshua Genig, Reverend Brigette Kemink, Reverend Brooke Pickrell, and Rabbi Benyamin Vineburg started this journey knowing it would be intense, but could have never predicted the upheaval of COVID-19. While other programs were shutting down and sending residents on hiatus, delaying their ability to complete requirements for the certification process, the Department of Spiritual Care at Michigan Medicine, led by Rev. Christina Wright, PhD, took this opportunity to encourage the residents to engage with patients in new and different ways.
Living and working through a pandemic isn’t usually found on a bucket list, but neither is cancer, heart attacks, strokes, autoimmune diseases, car accidents…the list can go on.
A once bustling hospital of families, friends, and caregivers went nearly silent with only a few people coming and going with strict visitor policies in place. Programs designed to ease the stress and anxiety of being hospitalized were halted. Those in the dying process were unable to have their community around them and this pain was felt not only by the patients and family members, but the staff as well.
Noone wants to experience death this way.
People needed care more than ever.
In person visits were replaced with telephone calls to patients, sisters, brothers, moms, dads, daughters, sons, grandparents, aunts, uncles, spouses, and partners. Questions about God, the Divine, or a Higher Being, became more prevalent. The occasional, but not unexpected question of “Why did this happen to me?” became commonplace, begging to be answered. So, in their way, in their collective understanding of all people being deserving of love, compassion, care, and support, the residents explored new ways of offering care.
They coordinated family meetings via zoom
They created this website to offer a source of support when being in person is difficult
They advocated for families
They partnered with social workers, music therapists, and physicians to deliver care
They bared their souls through blog posts, videos, and interviews
They became witnesses to the racial disparity of COVID-19
They used their experience to inspire research
They found ways to offer support to staff as they navigated significant changes and challenges
They grew, they learned, and they cared.
And now they move on with a new perspective, new skills, and facing a future with a new confidence having climbed mountains they never saw on their path.
Certainly, this is how life goes.
One minute we are walking quietly along with our companions and then we encounter an obstacle. The obstacle does not matter. What matters is how we respond. There will always be days, moments, and times when we don’t want to deal with the obstacle. There will be moments when we’d rather turn around and go back to walking the quiet way. There will be days when we sit down at the face of this new path and feel overwhelmed, burdened, and defeated, but again, this is how life goes. There are no promises of a carefree, joyous filled, obstacle free life.
But in these difficult, trying, and stressful moments, these residents picked up their compass, their faith in God, and kept going. They drew on the strength of others to help them climb mountains, making sure there are people all around to help them. They tightened their rope. They checked their gear and made sure the connections were secure. Then, they stepped out in faith. They were never quite sure where their foot will land, but one thing they knew for sure was that God was with them each step of the way, leading them, climbing with them, and creating a path. Whomever they encounter on this climb is part of the divine process and this trust, this faith, is what encourages them to keep moving on, reaching up, settling in, and taking deep breaths to be in painful, gut-wrenching experiences, to celebrate joyous moments, and offer the companionship of a person of faith.
Thank you residents. Thank you, Joshua, Brigette, Brooke & Benyamin. You have laid the foundation for good work to continue. You have made an impact in places that you don’t even realize and your experiences at Michigan Medicine will never leave you. Michigan Medicine will forever be changed because of your good work and so will you.
By Rev. Christina L. Wright, Ph.D, Associate Director of the Department of Spiritual Care at Michigan Medicine
Over 600 years ago, the Christian mystic Julian of Norwich wrote her now famous words, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” I have repeated these words countless times to ground myself in difficult times, and so it is not surprising that these words have offered me comfort and a foundation as we journey through the uncharted territory of the covid-19 pandemic. The words are so simple, but one of the things I love about Julian’s work is that these words are not offered as a platitude meant to gloss over reality. Indeed, she continues her writing by arguing with God about how things actually aren’t well. Julian fully understands the depths of life’s difficulties and yet is still able to proclaim that “all shall be well.” How?!
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to write a devotion to be included in a book of prayers and devotions. As I re-read the devotion, I am reminded that the lessons in her words apply just as much today as they ever have. The world feels anything but “well.” We crave certainty and the familiar, control and normalcy. And yet a virus with no yet known cure has ravaged our lives and worlds, which will likely never be “normal” again. How can we possibly find peace? How can anything be well in this time? I offer Julian’s words and this devotion as one path.
Excerpt from We Pray With Her: Encouragement for All Women Who Lead. Peck-McClain, E., Trexler, D., Tyler, J., Boyer, P., and Sullivan, S. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2018:
As a hospital chaplain, I spend a lot of time with people for whom all is not well. Their stories are often heartbreaking: their bodies are not well, and frequently ,as a result, their emotional lives are not well, their relationships are not well, and their souls are not well. To say to them, “all shall be well,” feels insensitive to the pain they are experiencing. And yet, those are precisely the words that Julian of Norwich heard from Jesus in a vision during a time when she suffered from a grace illness and was prepared to die. Instead of death, she experienced God speaking to her, offering visions or unending love. God reminded her that although there are reasons to worry, reasons to feel exhausted by life’s struggles, God will provide for us.
The first time I heard these words was in a song we performed in my church choir. From the moment I first sang her words, they struck a chord deep within my soul. It felt counter-intuitive to say “all shall be well” at a time in my life all was very much not well. But something was grounding and affirming in repeatedly singing that phrase against a simple yet powerful melody. Julian’s visions remind us that amid all our struggles, God provides us unending love, hope, and peace, no matter what. Indeed, all shall be well.
We all have those moments, seasons, and even years when all is not well. We face struggles that churn up those gut-wrenching feelings of unrest, times when we cry out to God for peace and wholeness and rest amid pain, uncertainty, and chaos. One of the hardest things to do is to sit with that “unwellness,” to realize we are unable to fix it and, yet still, to find some measure of peace. Julian’s visions remind us peace isn’t the absence of struggle; rather peace is remaining grounded in the strength of our faith, in a belief that tells us God is our ultimate source of peace and that, through God, all shall indeed be well.
Below is a transcript of the above recording. You may read it on your own or read along to the recording or simply listen.
On grace and being lost and found. On grace and being lost and found…..
At some point in life, we all experience a sense of loss. Maybe it might be the loss of a loved one, the loss of what’s normal, the loss of a job. And being lost can throw us into a state of confusion, panic, challenge…but it also can put us on a search. It can put us into a state of seeking out reasons, answers….asking questions.
Sometimes we say why? Sometimes we say, why is this happening to me? Why is this happening to us? With time we may gain enough need or desire for peace, for solutions, that we, that the natures of our questions change. We may say what is the wisdom in this? What do I need to learn in this? What can I find in this? How do I find an aspect of myself that I need to? How do I find my higher self? How do I find compassion in life? Safety? Peace? Security? Clarity?
So, this can happen on a large scale. This can happen on a small scale, on a daily scale. Daily bewilderment. Where it becomes the importance of grace. That grace is something to personally connect with, a sense of acceptance. Connectedness. Kindness. Togetherness. Openness to your experience. That divine gift of space to find your orientation to that very thing…which is grace.
Grace. Compassion. These are ongoing, unfolding, revealing elements that we each can find our unique orientation to. So, my invitation to you is to establish or recognize, through intention, through attention, find your connection to grace. Find your connection to compassion. Taste it. Reveal in it. Increase in it. Explore it. Familiarize yourself with it.
And as you familiarize yourself with it, affirm it. Walk with it. Live with it. Create with it. Write down what it may mean. Write down how it shows up. Share and become that presence or become and share that presence. That allows all of these other beautiful realizations to come through. Beautiful findings. Being lost and found in grace is a part of the human condition that each and every one of us has the possibility of finding and connecting with and moving through and gaining confidence from.
We wish you well. Continue your journey with peace. Blessings and grace. So be it. Ameen.
I started as a Chaplain Resident with Michigan Medicine in September of 2019. I was anxious, excited and nervous. This is the largest healthcare provider I have worked at and one with an impressive reputation. In fact, some of my friends and family members have received care here. I knew I would be facing situations I wouldn’t find anywhere else.
One of the things I was most excited about was supporting staff. My previous jobs hadn’t really provided that opportunity. When it came time to find out what unit I was going to be working on, I was given the opportunity to choose. As a person of faith, I believe that my choice was intentionally guided. I believe that in any situation there is an opportunity for God to use it for good and for growth. It’s been six months since I started at Michigan Medicine and it’s been six months that I’ve had the opportunity to meet incredible people who give of themselves everyday for the betterment of others. Sadly, the unit I chose experiences loss on a routine basis – not daily, but monthly. Often these deaths occur around the fall and winter holidays. These deaths were even more intense because the patients are those with critical illnesses that require frequent visits to the hospital. Often they are children. Often the nurses, doctors, and support staff feel like they are part of the family and the families feel the same way about them. Considering this, I wanted to find a way to encourage these caregivers, these people who go way beyond what is required of them as professionals, to honor their work. So, I wrote this reflection on “What is honor?” and its message is needed now, just as it was the first time I shared it. Read this, share this, and offer it up to those who are working the front line at care facilities all across our world fighting not only COVID-19, but every other illness, disease, complication, and condition that was present before the pandemic.
What is honor?
Honor is defined as: to regard or treat someone with admiration and respect; to give special recognition to; to live up to or fulfill the terms of
In our moments of care-giving – whether it be through direct care, emotional support, moments of joy and laughter, or companionship – we are honoring the time we have with others in their need. It can be difficult when these moments come to an end in any form.
A patient could die.
A patient could no longer need treatment.
A patient could leave to be cared for at home.
In any case, in any situation, we, as caregivers, feel the loss of the patient, even if the outcome is good. We’ve spent days, weeks, months, and sometimes years being part of a patient’s life. Sometimes that extends to family members, significant others, and friends. The moments where we were so integral to their daily lives pass away and we are left with only memories and sometimes worry.
We worry about our patients.
We wonder if they are healing or getting worse.
We worry about parents and others who have been left behind.
Sometimes the only communication we receive is a funeral notice or a phone call that they have died. Other times, we don’t hear anything and we can only wonder at what is happening now. This is the complicated nature of the work that we do every day. We are involved to a point and then we have to step back, step away, and allow for other things to happen and other people to come into their lives.
We get a new patient, a new family, and new people to care for, but the memories are still with us. Sometimes we wonder if we’ve done enough.
Did we care enough?
Did we meet their needs?
Sometimes we wonder if we’ve done too much.
Did I get too attached?
Did I spend too much time?
This is how we know we care. This is how we know we are human. This is how we know that our work matters. Sometimes the work feels routine. Sometimes the work is tedious, but it is our attention to detail, our calming presence in the midst of chaos, our ability to laugh and cry with families that set us apart.
For however long our patients and their family and friends are with us, our impact lasts longer than we can imagine and so does their impact on us. So, we honor our work.
We honor the moments we have had with the people who have come and gone from our unit.
We honor that we were the people who were able to be there in their moments of need.
We honor that deep within us in a call to this work and it is unique.
We are specially equipped to be here. We are gifted for the work that is set before us. We have something special that draws us to this work. We don’t have to be heroes, we just need to be ourselves and know that it’s more than a job, it’s a calling.