The Baptism of Christ. Painting by Dave Zelenka, 2005.
I think there are things involved in every job that no one ever tells you, the kinds of things you only find out once you’re actually doing the job.
I also think this is especially true in the caring professions.
I find that teachers, pastors, healthcare workers, therapists, social workers, and the like have the most entertaining answers to these questions. Those answers are usually amusing — like a pastor friend this week imploring his seminary to include a class on toilet repair. For sure, most pastors never knew that their jobs would require them to have knowledge of plumbing, or landscaping, or, for that matter, the intricacies of various physical or mental illnesses.
Sometimes, these things are as heartbreaking as they are ultimately uplifting.
No one ever told me how often chaplains would be called on to do more physical work than simply talking someone through a crisis. By this, I mean that when a patient’s loved one is acting out physically because of grief and is a threat to the medical staff doing their work — usually by throwing themselves onto the patient — and calling security would be insensitive, the chaplain stands in the breach between insensitivity and chaos.
I found this out one day when I was called to the large ICU in my hospital for a code blue. A code blue, as lots of folks especially in medicine know, is a life-threatening situation, usually a cardiac or respiratory arrest. When I arrived on the floor, I could already hear screaming and commotion.
I made my way to the back of the unit where the code was taking place. The patient lay lifeless in his hospital bed while the medical staff tried to intervene to save him. Next to the bed was the patient’s spouse, understandably beside herself, attempting to throw herself onto the patient. This is when I discovered that I was not the first chaplain to arrive. My colleague was already there.
She already had a relationship with this family. She held the patient’s wife, gently restraining her with her arms in what was more like an embrace than a security measure, allowing her to stay in the room while not allowing her to interfere with the medical staff’s work. I could see the chaplain speaking softly to her. Within a few seconds, she collapsed into the chaplain’s arms, and she held the woman up, continuing to speak to her while the staff worked away on her husband.
Wanting to make sure she didn’t need any more assistance, I looked through the glass of the door and caught my colleague’s eye. She gave me a nod.
When I checked back later, it was to relieve this chaplain so that she could go home. The patient had died, and his wife had arrived at the kind of grief most of us in leadership roles in our families have been familiar with at one time or another — the kind of grief that has clear eyes out of necessity: she knew that a lot had to be done, a lot of arrangements had to be made. By the time my own shift ended, the rest of the family had arrived and begun grieving, and the family’s pastor had arrived, and they were all together. The chaplain’s work of accompaniment was done.
When I asked my colleague what she had said to the woman to get her to calm down, she simply said, “We have to let them work. I am here. I’m here.”
“I am here.” It was the closest thing to actually being God’s voice that I ever heard anyone do. It still is.
The voice of God in our Old Testament text sweeps over the face of the formless void of the universe, the chaos, the darkness, and brings forth light and life.
In the psalm, God’s voice is so powerful that it breaks the cedars, the strongest trees that the psalmist knew.
In the Gospel, Jesus is baptized, and the voice of God tears open the heavens, the Holy Spirit swoops down, and God declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved — in you I am well pleased.”
And in Acts, the Holy Spirit appears again, only, it’s ordinary people who are declared beloved, and given the chance to speak for God.
Throughout history, some of the most famous humans who have claimed to speak for God have done so shamefully. They have declared others apostate, heretics, animals. They have held up institutions like slavery and condemned entire people groups to death, or worse. They’ve justified the brutal removal of peoples from their lands, declaring that God has given this land to them, putting together a smattering of Old Testament texts as justification. They have declared that some people are chosen while others are by nature contaminated or perverted or worthless. Speaking for God has led to brutal executions and unspeakable abuse.
Given this history, perhaps we should stop attempting to be God’s voice and well, let God speak on God’s own. After all, if the Bible itself tell us anything, it’s that God can reach whomever God chooses. In the Bible, God speaks to people through night skies and dreams and self-immolating shrubberies. Why, then, should we speak for God, especially given our uncanny ability to mishear and declare certainty instead of love?
I read an article recently about how, in many places, conservative evangelical Christianity has become more of a folk religion — something people appeal to rather flippantly to support views that they already have — than a faith that a person is dedicated to that fundamentally has the power to change how they view the world. The article did go on to describe another brand of conservative evangelicalism that was much more sincere, which drove politics rather than letting politics drive it.
This all made sense to me, but it wasn’t until I got to the part about us — mainline Christianity, or the Christian traditions largely imported from Europe — that I really got depressed. You see, the article stated that while conservative evangelical Christianity has become more conservative, mainline Christianity has let go of a lot of its beliefs because they did not line up with modern social views. In short, it claimed, we don’t believe things as strongly as we used to. As the article put it: “mainline Protestantism’s departures from historic Christian doctrine.” (1)
Us believing fewer things (or departing from Christian doctrine) was news to me.
It’s no fault of the author of the article. It would appear that we’ve lost our voice.
Because the last time I checked, my lack of certain condemnation of other people did not equate to my not having strong beliefs. In fact, when I look at you, I realize that your deep and abiding love for other human beings is precisely because you believe in things, and strongly. Things like love, new life, hope, and resurrection. Things like Jesus.
Maybe it’s about time we started some humble attempts at speaking for God again. Maybe the world needs that from us.
Because I don’t know about you, but most often, when I’ve heard God speak, it’s been through other people. When I’ve felt unlovable, it’s most often been another person who’s reminded me of my own belovedness. The times when I’ve actually felt like I understood this whole Gospel-as-actual-Good-News thing, it’s never been, in my case, because there was a burning bush nearby. My experience of God has been woefully postmodern — maybe I just haven’t been paying attention, and I’m certainly no Abraham or Moses, but God in my life has never been a plants-on-fire or speaking from the sky kind of God.
It seems to me that most often when God’s voice enters the world, it’s through the vocal chords of humans. And I don’t mean in a preach-y kind of way, which I realize is ironic coming from someone who’s currently giving a sermon. I mean in an unremarkable, “I am here and you are loved,” kind of way. In a vulnerable kind of way. In a Jesus kind of way.
Because it’s a well-worn sermon trope that Jesus could have come into the world as a powerful figure, but was instead born among the poor in a land that was occupied by a foreign power. God became a baby in a dangerous land just to show us what this whole thing was all about. We know this about his birth. Turns out the same is true about his baptism.
God could have pronounced Jesus beloved and pleasing when he was standing before some palace gates with wealth and military might all around him. Instead, God tears open the heavens and declares him beloved as he’s coming up out of a muddy river next to an eccentric street preacher as a member of a religious minority in an occupied land. From there, God’s beloved goes on to preach love and forgiveness and service and allegiance to God over any religious or political power that wants us to claim certainty. Then he’s arrested, tried, and doesn’t put up a fight. Love dies in agony with his arms spread wide, but three days later he proves that there is nothing to fear in love, because the only thing love can’t do is stay dead.
This was not a God who wants us to speak out with certainty that we are right and others are wrong. This is a God who is willing to be vulnerable and calls us to be vulnerable as well. Because the world needs it. Because your neighbor needs it. Because your students and your patients and your clients and your children and your parents and your siblings need that kind of love: the kind that isn’t afraid to spread its arms out wide, to wrap them around a grieving person and say “I am here.”
To say, You are not alone. God has put us here together. You are beloved.
That is how the voice of God still calms the chaos and tears open the heavens.
Because if you’ve ever been the recipient of that kind of love, you know that it is no less powerful than the cedars literally breaking in half, and no less a miracle.
Today we remember the baptism of Jesus and we look at our own baptisms as proof of our belovedness. God loves us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
How will we be God’s voice in 2018? How will you?
May God send the Spirit on us today, naming us beloved, offering us the courage to love, too. Amen.
1. Timothy Keller, “Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore?” The New Yorker, 19 December 2017. Read the full text here.