He had a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye as I entered the room and introduced myself. Mr. Cook (not his real name, of course) was preparing for surgery that he hoped would give him a new lease on life so I encountered him in a reflective state of mind. He confessed that he was a former pastor who had “given up a great church and left the ministry many years ago to tend to an ailing parent.”
Through the years he had continued to reflect on his pastoral experiences and now they seemed to provide a sense of purpose for his upcoming surgery. “I’m not sure I’ve done much with my life these last few years. It’s mostly been about me. This may sound strange but only after it all did I realize what a privilege it was to share the darkest and most challenging times with people. I guess I really didn’t do much. I would just show up – and listen…and, you know, stand in the gap with ‘em. I think I’d like to do that again.”
Standing in the gap is a great way to describe much of what is done here at the hospital. As clinical professionals you stand in the gap between pain and comfort. As behind-the-scenes support staff, you stand in the gap between frustration and peace of mind. As a chaplain I stand in the gap between busy treatment plans and a patient’s longing to be seen and heard more fully. Regardless of our job titles we find ourselves standing in the gaps between isolation & community, shock & acceptance, and hopelessness & meaning.
It takes real courage to enter these uncomfortable in-between spaces with patients, their families, and our colleagues but as we do, we come to realize that holistic healing requires more than medical expertise – it requires compassion and generous listening. The simplest of gestures – just being there and being you – can make a difference, maybe even be enough. I hope you find it reassuring to know that while your expertise may be what helps mitigate pain, it is your presence, your willingness to stand and serve in the gap that reduces suffering. Thank you for all that you do to make this a place of healing no matter the prognosis or outcome.
This brief reflection was originally printed in the staff newsletter at the hospital where I completed a 12-month chaplain residency. Fortunately, my divinity school experience offered a complementary balance of classroom education & field learning - thinking & doing - which required me to use, & begin to integrate, my head & my heart. A core requirement in most divinity school/seminary curriculum is called systematic or constructive theology. The title suggests a lofty aim. John Calvin spent more than 1600 pages outlining his best articulation of “an orderly, rational, & coherent account of Christian faith & belief.” And there have been many great minds throughout the centuries from Augustine to Aquinas to Schleiermacher who tried their hand at this formidable task.
So, as you might guess I did not produce a theological magnum opus during my four brief years of professional studies. And, in many ways my time at the bedside revealed, for me, the futility of such an ambition. I don’t wish to disparage the great theologians as I benefitted greatly from reflecting on their methodical consideration of critical elements of religious faith. Instead, what I find myself mulling over now are a seemingly random hodge-podge of important insights & poignant experiences that require further reflection. I’ll call them “fragments of light.” And standing in the gap is the first of these I offer for your consideration. It is my hope that as I ruminate on these “a-ha” moments, these glimpses of the divine, these momentary connections to a “ground of all being”, I may begin to assemble these pieces into something resembling a theological mosaic. And I’ve learned that this messy process qualifies as “doing theology.” We can all claim the title of theologian when theology is rightly understood as “God-talk,” as a consideration of ultimate concern. Simply put – God is love – and standing in the gap is an act of love.
And so I walked away from this encounter with Mr. Cook with the commitment to recognize the gaps that present themselves and to stand in them with those I encounter. We all have gaps in our lives. We all have opportunities to stand in the gap with others – yes, family & friends but also neighbors and total strangers. Singer-songwriter Lori McKenna, in her song “Falter,” implores us to stand in the gaps upon which we stumble. “Why don’t we open up? Knowing that we all falter. When will we learn, when will we learn, to reach out for each other?”
Indeed, when will we learn that we are only good enough...together?