In the summer after my first year of seminary, I spent ten weeks interning as a chaplain at San Francisco General Hospital. The General, as it is known by those who serve and are cared for there, is the Level One Trauma Centre for the Bay Area. It is, in other words, the place that you are brought after the biggest and the worst accidents. It is also the major public hospital serving that hilly and foggy city, it is where you go if you have limited insurance or no insurance at all.
Interning as a chaplain – or doing CPE, short for Clinical Pastoral Education – is an intense experience at any hospital. In a culture that hides away limitation and injury and illness and death like the Wizard of Oz behind a curtain, being in a hospital tears that curtain down. A hundred years ago, it was common to die at home. Today, you can go for years, decades sometimes, without ever setting eyes on a dying person or a dead body. But in a hospital the façade is gone. And the reality of mortality and grief – including your own mortality and your own grief – is immediate and inescapable.
Interning as a chaplain at the General is especially intense because of the level of poverty there. When I was growing up, it rarely or never occurred to me that my family was privileged, that I was privileged. Having stable housing, having regular and easy access to health care, never wondering where my next meal was coming from, never being hassled by the police, more or less assuming that I would someday attend university – all of this struck me as obvious and self-evident and universal. The General was one of the first places that I regularly encountered deep poverty, generational poverty, that I talked with and sat with and prayed with people who had nowhere, nowhere to go after they got discharged.
For a number of the General’s patients, a big part of poverty was tied up in addiction. In the General’s beds, I saw addiction that was radical in nature. The drunks that I had known growing up – and here again is my privilege – were more or less functional: they held down jobs and were raising families. Whereas the people whom I met at the General who were struggling with booze or smack or meth were not functional at all, they had lost their grip on the island of normalcy and stability long ago. They were being tossed about in addiction’s storm.
For still more of the General’s patients, poverty was tied up in race. It was impossible to avoid noticing the correlation between having brown skin and lying in one of the General’s beds.
Funnily enough, in the midst of all of this suffering and injustice and hardship, all of this hanging out with illness and unfairness, one of the hardest things for me about being a chaplain at the General (and maybe for my fellow seminarians, most of whom were also Episcopalians, I’m not sure) was the absence of a predictable routine, the absence of a set of rules. Actually, maybe that is not funny at all: many of you have told me that church, and this church in particular, is a kind of rock of stability in a tumultuous world. One of the reasons that so many of us are drawn to the Episcopal tradition is the liturgy, the structured, rhythmic nature of the seasons, of the Eucharist. It is one of the gifts of this tradition that, on any given Sunday, even when you are travelling, you can go into an Episcopal or an Anglican church and right away say:
I know this. I’m home.
But at the General, the stability of the BCP, the stability of the liturgy, all of that was gone. A lot of its patients were Christians. But I don’t think that I ever met one who was an Episcopalian. (Indeed, I met quite a few who had never even heard of The Episcopal Church.) By and large, the Episcopalians – who, let’s be clear, were mostly white people – were off at the hospitals reserved for folks who had good insurance. And so the General was a hospital populated with Baptists and Roman Catholics and Pentecostals and folks who went to churches with names like Life Centre and The Crossroads.
I remember Will Hocker, the head of the chaplaincy program at the General saying to my colleagues and me:
I advise against taking a prayer book with you when you go visiting. If you have to take a prayer book, take a small one.
And leave it in your pocket.
And so I knocked on the door of hospital rooms, as nervous, as scared, as I had been in a long time. If felt like an elementary school student knocking on the Principal’s door, saying in the least terrified voice that I could muster:
Hi. My name’s Martin. I’m a chaplain. Would you like a visit?
And so I got some experience with rejection, with finding out that I could survive when people said “no.” But mostly what I encountered were people who did want to visit, who welcomed me graciously and generously into their rooms.
The General’s patients started to teach me. They taught me about the Bible – most of the Christians at the General read it carefully and often, far more carefully and far more often than a lot of Episcopalians. And they taught me about prayer as well. About just being with another person, about listening for the Spirit, about doing your best to put what was happening in the room into words.
Generally speaking, my visits began with my nervous knock on the door, when I cold called at a room. But occasionally someone would phone down to the chaplaincy office and ask for chaplain to come to a patient’s room. I remember vividly being in the office by myself – all of my colleagues, all of my supervisors were somewhere else – and the phone ringing. I picked it up and I heard the voice of a nurse. She said:
There’s a patient in Room 504. He is dying. His family is there. They don’t have a connection with any kind of church or religious community. And they want a chaplain to come up and say something.
Oh my God.
It is probably an exaggeration to say that my knees were knocking as I walked out the door of the office and rode up the elevator to Room 504. (It was three floors above my office. I remember the buttons of the elevator counting them off.) But it’s not much of an exaggeration. If you had given me my choice between walking into the room with the dying man and his family and taking a dare that involved coming to church naked, I would’ve needed to give my decision some thought.
Today we listen as Jesus gives a charge to his disciples, a commission to his disciples. Jesus’ commission is kind of perfect inversion of the commission from the coach or the general or the scout master who tells his people to go forth meticulously prepared, to triple check that everything is in their backpacks and strapped forth to their belts.
Jesus tells his charges to go forth and take nothing. No money, no bag, no sandals (implicitly, the disciples are to go in bare feet), no change of clothes, no staff. If Jesus were giving this charge to you and me right now, he would tell us to leave our wallets and our cars here at church and go. We are to go forth with empty pockets and open hands. We are to go forth with nothing.
Well, not quite nothing.
We are to go forth with nothing except having met Jesus.
And maybe that is everything.
Because notice what Jesus tells his deliberately unprepared disciples that they are prepared to do:
Cure the sick.
Raise the dead.
Cleanse the lepers.
Cast out demons.
Change the world.
It is simply having known Jesus, having followed Jesus, having said yes to Jesus that empowers them to do these things.
And maybe that empowers you and me to do these things.
You are going, Jesus says, going without sandals or staff or money or change of clothes, going like sheep into the midst of wolves. They will flog you and betray you and drag you before governors. You will suffer. It will be hard.
And then Jesus goes on to say something that was one of the first passages of scripture that I ever heard, a part of the Bible that is cemented in my mind. Again, here is the theme of taking nothing. But now it is a kind of mental or psychic nothing that are to take:
When they hand you over, don’t worry about how to speak or what you are to say. For what you say will be given to you then. For it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
When the time comes, you don’t need to prepare your speech.
You will have everything that you need.
I knocked on the door of Room 504 of the San Francisco General Hospital. The man dying in the bed was younger than I expected, maybe seventy years old.
His wife and his adult children and maybe some siblings were gathered around him. I don’t really remember what I said. I do remember that I invited everyone, the whole family, to gather with me and to hold hands around the bed, to tell stories about the dying man, to say thanks to him. To say I love you. Maybe I said something at the end – a kind of prayer. Maybe I just allowed the prayer that was silence and tears to hang in the room.
Somehow, somehow it was enough.
It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.
Maybe Jesus tells the disciples – maybe he tells us – to take nothing for our journey, because he knows that, left to our own devices, we might just keep on preparing forever, that preparation is sometimes the way that we disguise procrastination. That sometimes preparation is what we do instead of living life. And so Jesus says: you don’t need to pack your suitcase, you don’t need to raise a bunch more money, you don’t need to take another course. You just need to go.
Or maybe Jesus tells us to take nothing because he knows that when we walk into the hospital room clutching our Prayer Books or our carefully prepared speeches, we can be so intent on delivering our lines that we forget to listen to the people in the room, that we forget to listen to the Spirit.
Go forth, Jesus says, with your pockets empty and your hands open. You have met me. You have received the gift of the Spirit. You have what you need.
You are ready.