The following is my second field education reflection group paper, concerning the second half of my Roxboro, NC placement.
At the Helm, Out of My Depth
The age-old image of the Church as a ship has begun to make sense to me. Kind of a “we’re all in this together,” afloat-through-the-storms-&-turbulence type of reasoning. That image is both romantic and frightening. Even more frightening is the realization of pastorally helming such a ship. My turn with the captain’s hat and wheel came over a two-week period whereby my supervisor left the country and left me to steer us down the center.
A couple weeks prior I got my first taste of what, according to Murphy’s Law, could and often does happen. While taking some of the youth (in fact a record number of youth: two full car-loads) to a summer movie special at the local cinema, we got in an accident. I say we, but mean rather four small children and the church matriarch, whom I enlisted to drive. Suffering a vicious sideswipe on a busy separated highway, I watched helplessly in the real-time panorama of a gruesomely violent crash. As I ran to the wreck, my heart pounded and mind raced. No training or preparation readied me for the response required of me. There was a dual awareness in me: a power and certainty, but also a frenetic awkwardness and hesitancy. Like the Platonic horses, I attempted to reign in both competing energies in order to be fully present and helpful in the situation in my midst.
After a day of holding up emergency room walls and wearing ruts into hallway floors, I departed Person Memorial encouraged, but troubled. Encouraged and thankful that none of my charges were seriously or permanently injured, but troubled by what had happened. It seems natural that we get shook up and called to refocus after avoiding an accident. If it was going to be our fault, we reevaluate how we were driving and how we must be more vigilant. If it was to be the other driver’s fault, we let angry thoughts flit across the clarity gained by the mix of adrenaline and awareness. What was troubling here though was that there was an accident. There was a sharpness. There was a momentary disorientation followed by an extreme sense of calm and clarity. But having seen the elderly, Alzheimer-riden antagonist confused in the backseat of the patrol car, there was no anger. That lack of anger was confusing and disorienting in itself.
Fast-forward a couple weeks, past the barrage of rental cars and CT scans, the only remnants of the bruises are now but pale-yellow traces. I am handed the reigns. My supervisor is now six time zones away and I begin an intense battle for both ministerial respectability and my beloved, well-ordered 5-day workweek. That fight began in earnest as I wrapped a 3rd of July barbeque and received a frantic phone call from the aforementioned driving matriarch-turned church liaison. It appeared that, as anyone may assume, the ills and injuries had saved their worst for the worse possibly timing, now. I left the celebration to attend to my parishioner, who suffered an aneurism. The contrast only became more apparent as I reached the bedside: my flip-flops and summer attire accusing the stifling white everything. Why did this aorta, as if on a timer, chose now, a time so festive and light; a time so unprepared and unfocused?
The following ten days featured more visits to Duke Hospital and anxious hikes from Central parking than I would have ever expected. What made the hikes especially anxious was the overwhelming feeling of unpreparedness, the fear of failure, and the nervous tension of not knowing. My visits featured long-periods of silence, awkward prayers, wanna-be tender embraces, over-stayed welcomes, and over-stepped boundaries. Just what to do when you don’t understand the seriousness and risk of the surgery to be performed and everyone else does but won’t admit it? What to do when you can’t communicate with the pacing fifty year-old son long enough to figure out what the family actually needs? To extend the nautical metaphor, wait out the storm. Don’t give up patience, don’t over-correct.
Throughout these varied incidents in my time at the helm, I found great comfort and instruction, perhaps “a peace surpassing understanding,” from the God who both creates and calms storms. Through the turbulence of car-crashes, self-blame, heart surgery and elephants in the room, I was consistently interrupted both by an overwhelming gentle stillness and a certain mantra of, “Peace. Be Still.” It was through these promptings and certainly not through neither some innate ability nor heroic confidence that I was able to offer even a modicum of stillness and peace to these families. Though out of my depth and completely unprepared, I learned my role was to merely offer the peace that I had been given.