Of Chaplains and Samaritans

(This is the manuscript of a recent message I gave at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Casper, Wyoming)

I believe each of us present today were divinely meant to be here. And I also believe each of us possess a spirituality which allows us to connect to others, to meaning and purpose in life, to crisis situations, to nature, and even to the Sacred or Divine. Dr. Christina Puchalski is the medical director of the George Washington Institute of Spirituality and Health. She has led large research and panel discussions on spirituality and its effect upon a person’s, (mine and yours) health and well being. Spirituality can be a difficult topic for many, yet so easy for others…but its definition to concisely and succinctly describe what this vast topic is, has been very difficult. Why? Because each of us will bring to the discussion our own cultural, as well as our faith, religious and theological perspectives to how we describe it. A few years ago, Dr. Puchalski and a large biomedical field of experts, finally agreed upon a definition that would lead their research and expand the perception and understanding of spirituality to the watching and eager world of healthcare. Their definition reads, (and maybe you will agree with it):

“Spirituality is the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.”

To me this definition states that spirituality is at the core, the very foundational level of every person’s existence. In my theological perspective, this is how God created life and is the foundational basis which causes each of us to innately search for meaning and purpose.

For me, this is where the journey begins to find ultimate meaning and worth—but through God. It is what allows me to connect to individuals of all walks and situations of life, as I simply respect and honor them as another created being from God. This is what helps guide me as a Chaplain and gives me the ability to be with people who many times are experiencing the worst possible moments of their lives. I’m not sure if I could work as a trauma chaplain if I did not have this connection and personal experience with my Lord.

As a hospital chaplain, I am around and observe the many medical specialties. As you might imagine, the medical pathology field is complex and highly important. But it allows a treating physician to discern what treatment approach may be the most appropriate and with the highest level of success for a patient. Yet for the patient, this requires some trust, it requires sacrifice and discomfort, because it almost always requires a tissue biopsy. Once a biopsy is taken from the human body, that tissue sample is taken to the pathology department and prepared. Often this complex preparation requires an instrument like a micro-dissector. The micro-dissector could be described as a double-edged, laser sharp, computer assisted photon energy knife which makes ultra-thin slices of the tissue. Anything thinner than a piece of paper seems radically precise to me. But often the thickness, or better word, thinness of the tissue sample is only a single cell layer. This is then placed under a microscope where a medical pathologist critically examines the cells and tissue and renders a diagnosis. In this context, it could be said that the success of modern medicine rests upon the ability of this precise micro-dissection to effectively slice and lay open the tissue in order for the physicians to assist in the proper healing and wellbeing of the patient. A large part of my well-being involves my spirituality, my psyche, and my emotions. What can serve as a micro-dissector for my soul? Your soul?

In the Ancient writings of scripture, there is a passage that states that the inspired, divine and most wise words of God are also like a micro-dissector for each of our souls. The passage infers that simply reading, hearing and listening to the active and living word of God can open up and lay bear our souls for the careful examination of Our Great Physician, the Jehovah Rapha. In doing so, the divine Great Physician can miraculously heal and transform us with unlimited peace, inner joy and well-being. This has been true for me. For me, God has not been a distant and non-caring God. For me, God has been very active, engaging and the ultimate enlightenment.  From the Book of Hebrews, the ancient words state,

“For the Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”

It is from this perspective which I have had to learn, but also to willfully choose to filter all of my life. It has been said that the Word of god, the Holy Bible can be used in 3 different ways: 1) you can be above and superior to it, using God’s Word to complement your own worldview, 2) you can be beside it, using the ancient Scriptures as support your thoughts as appropriate, or 3) you can be below and reverently respectful to it allowing the passages and principles to guide you in life.

I have chosen #3. I confess. I do not fully understand the great mysteries of God. And I do not understand the fullness of God’s deity. But I have decided to choose to keep learning about God, but also to let God be God and to use His Word to filter my thoughts, desires, and viewpoints…so that I may be closer to that of my Creator.

An ancient story is often told about a traveler on a deserted and barren road. This traveler was walking the twenty or so miles, the twenty or so hard and difficult miles from one town to the next.  As the landscape of this story is normally described, it seems to me that it would be like spending the day walking through Hell’s Half Acre where the movie Starship Troopers was filmed.  Arid, craggy, unknowns behind every shadow and curve. As this man made his way along the road, he was eventually stopped and threatened by a gang of thugs at their proverbial “Hole in the Wall” hangout, and they robbed him of all his possessions which he was carrying with him. The gang then beat him to an inch of his life, punching him, kicking him, spitting on him, and left him for dead in a ditch. A few hours go by, the hot sun is beating down on him as he continued to lay there not moving. I can imagine the ancient listeners of this story much have been thinking “Has he died? Has he suffered traumatic head injury? If he is still alive, what will his outcome be? Will he have long term physical or even cognitive impairments from his injuries?”   Yet, the Man in the Ditch still laid there motionless.  

A well-known Priest walks by. He sees the unconscious fellow in the ditch – and without breaking stride or even checking on the man – kept walking by. Maybe this religious leader was late for a meeting or afraid to begin caring for him and not have time allotted to finish what he started? We do not know his true reasoning, we only know that the religious giant kept on walking.

An hour or so later, A second passer by approaches. This second individual is well-respected business man and a regular church attender. He even is a respected elder in his church fellowship. This gentleman sees the unconscious man in the ditch, walks over to him, stops and pokes him with his walking stick to see if the man’s even alive. The church man observes that the man in the ditch is at least breathing, but is in a dire physical condition. The church man cautiously looks around to see if he himself is in danger from attack and then decides to keep walking along the lonely and barren road, deciding to quickly leave the dangerous area and to get to his next appointment at well. Hmmm.  Why do you suspect he went on his way? Maybe the business man would contact a local agency to come give aid to the man in the ditch, bring him some clean clothes and spot of coffee?  We do not know why he left or why there wasn’t any follow-up to his partial concern.

The sun continues to beat down on the unconscious man in the ditch. If you’re like me, in my own mind, I believe I just heard a Western Movie’s theme song (whistle the theme from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly). A sage grouse sneaks by. Time passes. The shadows slide by. Tumbleweeds do what tumbleweeds so, they tumble by. And on the horizon a third passer is seen approaching.

Who do you think the next character in our story will be? Maybe you think it will be good ole’ average Joe-citizen? The people who originally heard this ancient story thought so. But it’s not. In fact, the third character approaching was their most vile, despicable enemy. Who would that be to you? Is it a terrorist? Is it an abusive family member or ex-spouse? Is it a business partner who has made poor decisions and led you to financial ruin? Is it a former religious leader who you have lost trust and faith in? Maybe it’s a fourth cousin to one of the Hatfields and McCoys which your family has longed had hatred against…so long ago that you’ve actually forgotten why you detest them so much!    For those who heard this story first, two thousand years ago, this third passer-by was an ethnically and racially mixed individual whose ancestors had defiled and desecrated their religious temples and most sacred or sacred objects. This third character represented everything evil the listeners could imagine. It was their most vile enemy that they would probably rather kill then to ever help out – .  As this person who the story calls a Samaritan sees the robbed, beaten, unconscious, helpless man in the ditch, the Samaritan stops. Gets down in to the ditch, renders first aid, cleanse his wounds and then places the man on his own horse or donkey that he had with him… and backtracks back to the town he came from and takes the wounded stranger to a local inn. The Samaritan couldn’t attend to all the wounded man’s needs, but he did arrange for his care, personally sacrificed and paid for several days and nights lodging as well as his hospitalization if need be and then personally stated that if more money was needed, that he would be back in a few days to settle any remaining expenses. This Samaritan showed compassion and empathy to a complete stranger in desperate need.

Did the Samaritan preach at the wounded man, scolding him to not travel alone on unfamiliar roads? No. Did the Samaritan leave a card of a rescue agency that the wounded man could go and get help? No. The Samaritan was neighborly and assisted the man to the fullest extent of his abilities and then arranged for other resources that he might need.

This ancient story was told by Jesus the Christ, as a responsive answer to a question by an expert in the Jewish law. It is recorded in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10 verses 25-37. The Jewish lawyer wanted to trick Jesus and had asked what he must do to have eternal life?

Jesus answered the sneaky lawyer’s question with a question. Jesus simply asked him what The Jewish Law stated. The Lawyer quoted the Jewish Shema, the foundational precept of their spiritual faith. From the Word of God in the Book of Deuteronomy, the lawyer expertly quotes “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, and with all your mind.” He even added another passage from the Torah, “And love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus probably nodded, and affirmed him as being correct and then said, “Do this and you shall live.”

But the Jewish lawyer wanted to know actually what to DO rather than what to BE or BECOME. This is when the ancient story of The Good Samaritan was told. At the end of the story, Jesus asked the attorney who he thought was the best neighbor for the man in the ditch. The attorney replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

I’d like to believe Jesus also mean for him, for us to “Go and BE likewise”

This story is what I believe and what I hold dear as one of the theological precepts for what I do on a daily basis in chaplaincy ministry. Chaplaincy for me, is Being a neighbor to those in true need.  In this story, I have been every character. Maybe you see yourself as one or more as well?

I have been the busy Priest not wanting to stop and help.

I have been the curious but cautious church member and business man who really wasn’t quite willing to sacrifice or take on the responsibility and accountability of helping the man in the ditch.

I have probably also been the gang of thugs, who has robbed people of their joy, happiness or dreams due to my own selfishness or insensitivities.

But most of all, I’ve been the Man-in-the-Ditch. When I look back in my life, I see that I’ve been in great need of a Rescuer. I’ve been in great need of a Protector. I’ve been in great need of an Advocate. I’ve been in great need of a Caring Healer. I’ve been in great need of a true Peace Giver who can provide me with deep inner peace and inner well-being.

As being the Man-in-the Ditch, the Great Neighbor (point up) has rescued me from myself, the Great Neighbor has transformed me from the inside out out of my own selfishness to a possess a heart for others.

As being the Man-in-the-Ditch, the Great Neighbor has been a micro-dissector for my life. Through my scripture readings, my self-reflection, my meditations and prayer, God has been the ultimate spiritual micro-dissector helping me to identify and remove the ugly pathologies from my own life.

But as a Chaplain, I’m honored to serve as the third Passer-by and be that Neighbor in need to Others who have needs, To serve them in their emotional needs, as well as with their spiritual needs.

God was, is and will be my source for strength as I am drawn to people to assist.  As a chaplain I have been a front-row witness to glorious miracles and have personally experienced God’s presence and power in so many patient encounters. I have witnessed a catholic seminarian student essentially left for dead with skull fractures and brain fluid seeping out his ears, only to arise and speak to me without any deficits just 48 hours later, without surgery. I have witnessed the Breath of God come into a new born infant’s lungs and heart after an hour of no pulse. The power and presence of Our Almighty Creator should never be diminished or dismissed.  

Personally I do not believe we each can ever achieve and accomplish our own true self-awareness, humbleness and good neighborly qualities on our own without the intervening Hand of God. We each need an intervener, a spiritual micro-dissector, someone who can dispense a never ending amount of grace as well as a limitless level of internal peace that we have never felt before.

As a minister I hope that I never get calloused to the fact that I am privileged to represent the Divine. But everyone here can do this as well, through your own spirituality and through your growing faith in the Divine God who is our truly Great Neighbor and friend.

May God’s peace and love be felt within you,

Thank you.

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