Since I’m a per diem chaplain, I often work on Mondays to fill in for staff who are off on the Federal holiday. So it was on a Monday that I started my day seeing a patient whose reason for referral was “emotional distress.” This is a catch-all term that can mean anything from hysterical sobbing with terror and grief to bored and lonely. I could tell right away this guy was not filled with terror and grief.
“So what’d you do yesterday?” he asked sipping his coffee. I felt like we were on a first date except that I had no beverage. (I had many dates like this.)
“Church. I went to church.” I answered.
He raised an eyebrow. “So whaddya get out of that?”
“Well, it’s time reconnect with people and—”
“Why don’t you just see ‘em during the week? Don’t you like to sleep in? Maybe on Sunday, God should be thanking you!” Then he laughed like he said the most hilarious thing in the world.
I could see right away that this guy didn’t want a conversation about anything meaningful, he was simply trying to provoke me. Sometimes people do this as a test. They need to know that I’ll stick with them, be compassionate, understanding and non-judgmental. Then there are times when they’re just yanking my chain. He was a Yanker Guy.
I stayed a bit longer listening to him talk about how he taught his pit bull to fetch his cigarettes (bacon in the pack) and how these antibiotics better clear up his infection—or else.
“Or else what?” I asked “Or else you die?”
He actually choked on his coffee. When he was done coughing he said, “I’m really tired” which is code for, “Please leave,” or in his case, “Get outta here.” I was grateful to go because I had a long list of patients.
But I must admit, his question about church, about worship circled around my brain like the contents of a toilet about to clog. I thought about that word, “worship,” and the phrase, “worship God.” Images of a slaughtered fatted calf upon an altar! Ack. As I ate lunch (totally vegetarian cheese sandwich) I pondered not just the word “worship”, but the whole experience.
The word literally means “bend over” or “bow down.” When I was a child I figured Sunday worship was about thanking and praising God and telling Him how sorry I was for being human. So maybe that patient grew up hearing that too. As a child I thought, “Better be nice to God or He will get mad.”
Yes, sadly, I thought of God as male with a capital “H.” But that is what we were taught. But may I tell you the truth? I can hardly stand to type the letters G-o-d because I think of an old bearded white man on a throne. That is just the height of creepiness to me. (No offense to old bearded white men.) So, please bear with me when instead of God, I use the “Divine,” “Spirit,” “Universe” or even “Force.”
Anyway, what did Jesus say about worship? That’s the thing–Jesus never said , “Worship me,” but, “Follow me.” Yanker Guy is right. Sunday worship is time for us to be renewed and refreshed and recharged.
I believe that the Divine isn’t self-centered and greedy, but generous with overflowing love. So when we come to worship, we bring our emptiness and then through word, sacrament and connecting with one another, we are filled and inspired to continue to serve. That’s a church service—the Divine serving us.
If we think of the entire Sabbath this way, then no points off for cuddling on the bed with your pet or going on a hike Sunday morning if that fills and inspires you. It is true that Worship is our way of showing up for each other—on Sunday. And I am truly fed by connecting with my church community—in person. Watching on Zoom makes me feel like I’m reading the menu and then watching other people eat. I leave feeling hungry.
Anyway, I thought about all of this on my lunch hour! I can only think it was the Brie in my sandwich. I’ve always found it a thoughtful cheese and combined with Grey Poupon—something of a snooty genius—it was the perfect setup for deep reflection.
I moved through the day and saw every single patient on the referrals list—what we chaplains call, “Crushing Epic” because Epic is the name of the software but it makes us sound mighty as if we’ve been out fighting dragons all day.
I get off at 4:30 p.m. but wouldn’t you know it–at 3:45 p.m. another referral came in. I secretly pride myself on leaving a clean slate for the next chaplain (although I guess it’s no secret now) so I was bummed to see another referral and then horrified to see that it was for Yanker Guy.
I adjusted my armor, picked up my sword and mounted my steed. Onward!
Yanker Guy was in a totally different mood now. Perhaps because it was the end of the day. He said, “I want to tell you about this tattoo.” He pushed up the sleeve of his gown. “It’s the White Tree of Gondor from Lord of the Rings. But, like, it’s not white because I’m white, so on me it’s black.”
Here’s the thing about being a chaplain—about being a human—it rarely works to go in armored and wielding a sword. Yielding, not wielding is the thing to do. “Tell me about that,” I said.
He cleared his throat. “It’s a symbol of hope and renewal. It means the return of the king, to bring peace and prosperity to the people of Gondor who have been f**ked under the rule of Denethor.”
I did see Lord of the Rings even though I spent 40 minutes in the lobby because I was so tired of all the fighting. So I knew Gondor, didn’t recognize Denethor, but instantly recognized the power of the F-bomb.
“So you have hope?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. He talked a little more about trying to kick his meth habit and go back to his wife and son. Then he thanked me for coming. I offered a prayer and he accepted.
And with that I not only crushed Epic but was renewed and refreshed and inspired. Worship on a Monday.
Savoring your Comma reflections while sitting by this Maui beach. Waves return one upon the other in a stunning spray over lava rocks. I think of how you returned to that patient in need of your voice. Thank you for transporting me over thousands so miles
Savoring your Comma while looking out at the winds blowing the ocean. It is a relatively cold day in Mazatlan, brightened by the lovely bouquet of red roses and white hydrangea Kirk brought me. I love your story and love the invitation to stay open and present, rather than arming myself for protection. I just finished reading Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, so I have a new appreciation for and true compassion for those who are addicted to meth and other drugs. Wow = I’m so glad you returned and listened. We never know another person’s story unless we do just that. Thanks, Debra
Thanks Debra for yet another meaningful blog! Loved the whole story, but especially, “it rarely works to go in armored and wielding a sword. Yielding, not wielding is the thing to do.” I pray for your Yanker Guy as I do for so many people, including myself: “May Yanker Guy be blessed with love. May Yanker Guy be blessed with peace. May Yanker Guy be blessed with joy. May Yanker Guy be blessed with everything that is good.” It’s a simple prayer, but reminds me how vulnerable our spirits are, in need of affirmation and in need of others to listen. It’s really hard for me to feel lonely, worried, or upset after that prayer. Hope YG kicks his meth habit, if not for his own sake, then for the sake of his son.
Debra, thank you for those inspiring words. It is always a gift to read your blog. So often I do feel uplifted by the hope that emanates through your words. Following what must have been a discouraging start with “yanker guy,
” what a wonderful way to end the day!
I feel deeply touched by your post. There is such a poignancy in the need for this man to be so self protective. It seems as if you, indeed, by meeting him where he was allowed worship to occur –per your definition:
“we bring our emptiness and then through word, sacrament and connecting with one another, we are filled and inspired to continue to serve”.
I’m thinking about how your first interaction with YG might not have felt all that successful but it set up the second, more hopeful, meeting. That suggests something about the value of just listening and trying to be our best selves because we don’t control or determine the outcome. Clearly he was processing the first conversation and made him want a better second conversation. Maybe it’s also a good reminder to be wary of defining anyone by their bad moments.
Thanks for this story.
I recognize that this wasn’t the main point of your post, but I do want to respond to your comment, “Watching on Zoom makes me feel like I’m reading the menu and then watching other people eat. I leave feeling hungry.” I celebrate the fact that you are fed by connecting with your church community in person. Online worship doesn’t “work” for everyone. But for many, it allows a connection to worship and with our UCUCC community that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. And I celebrate that as well.
Lisa, Thanks for your comment. You are right about Zoom being a connection for some people and that is great. I was speaking only for myself.
I agree with Lisa. It is much better than nothing. Lisa and the other hosts try very hard to help the virtual community find a worshipful experience. After attending in person last week I realize how sterile the virtual experience is, but not feeling well today, I stayed home and at least connected with the community.