The Web of Life: We Are Not Alone

(Prepared for healthcare chaplains’ conference April 2023)

The best part of my job the last nine years has been visiting chaplains, and so the worst part of the pandemic, for me, was being grounded. We had nearly two years in which we couldn’t travel. I have loved getting back out on the road, seeing you and hearing your stories. During those long months many of you felt lonely. Overworked. Burned out. Discouraged. There were dark days. Tough days. Days when many of us wanted to quit.

What Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 12 applies to us.

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

Paul wrote to a divided church in Corinth. He used the organic model of the human body to depict our connectedness; we are not in this alone, and we need each other and their gifts.

In Ephesians 2, he used the model of a building in a similar way.

“So then, you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone;in him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”

I felt very alone my first week doing CPE. It was 1986. I was a student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Gettysburg, an hour north of here. I drove up for a visit yesterday afternoon. In March of 1986 I was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant, Chaplain Candidate in the US Army Reserve. I did chaplain school that summer, and that fall I was on active duty orders to do a unit of CPE at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Georgia Avenue in DC.

I was scared. My preceptor took me up to my assigned ward, Neurosurgery and Neurology, and said, “Here you go.” And he stepped back onto the elevator. I panicked. “Is that all?! What do I do?” He responded, “Go visit your patients.” I felt inadequate. I felt overwhelmed. I felt alone. Later, I confessed these feelings to my supervisor, Carl Towley. He asked, “Do you or do you not believe Luther’s explanation of the third article of the Apostles Creed?” I had a dumb look on my face. He smiled, leaned back in his chair, closed his eyes, and recited words he memorized as a kid in Lutheran confirmation class:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith.

I was not alone. I was part of Christ, and part of his Church, and called by him to this ministry.

I also learned a practical lesson. I wasn’t alone as a chaplain caring for the patients on that ward. We had a great interdisciplinary team. I was surprised that I was respected as the chaplain and my contributions were valued, even though I was this scared baby chaplain.

Fast forward 36 years, and today I’m nearing the end of the last of three extended units of CPE at Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center in Houston, remembering those early lessons, and much more confident in my role as an IDT member and a part of that department of pastoral care.

We are not alone.

We are also part of this network, Adventist Chaplaincy Ministries. Sometimes we connect with a phone call, or a text. We see each other when I or one of my colleagues come to visit. And then there are times we come together in study and fellowship, holy convocations, such as this, or the CALLED conference last summer, or PELC each December. These times remind us that we are part of a community of chaplains. We are brothers and sisters with a shared passion and a shared mission. We are not alone.

Let’s take a little step beyond these comfortable circles of kith, kin and colleagues. Perhaps you remember some of the Greek you studied. The word, οἰκουμένη‎, for example. From it we get the words “ecumenism” and “ecumenical,” referring to the whole Christian church on earth. All who can say, “Jesus is Lord,” all who are washed in the waters of baptism and share at Christ’s table are part of that body. I usually don’t use the word in the Adventist context, let alone mention I have a Doctor of Ministry in ecumenism. It scares some people. But chaplains shouldn’t fear that word, for in our work in the hospital we encounter other siblings in Christ and know we are not alone in the world of faith. And there’s an even wider interfaith world—I’ve worked with Muslim, Buddhist, and Jewish chaplains. In humility we can share with them, learn from them, and love them, and see their chaplaincy ministry as just as valid as ours.

When I was in the hospital last summer with a touch of COVID, I let pastor friends know (and I know a lot of them in Houston after 25 years in the city). I posted it on Facebook. Only one pastor came to visit me–and she wasn’t Adventist. The one who was pastor to me at that point was a Black queer woman. She is family. As is my wife’s non-binary sibling. As are my transgender friends. As is a gay friend whose pastors preach anti-gay sermons but refuse to sit down with him and listen to his story.

God loves them. As do I.

One of the Adventist pastors who was an important part of my life when younger was a man named George Vandeman. One of his books I loved was, What I Like About …. He had chapters about different faith groups and what he liked about them. A positive presentation. Wash mentioned the Great Controversy in his reflection yesterday morning. I used to read that as a book about how everyone else is wrong. George Vandeman taught me to read it differently, as a record of God’s faithfulness through the ages, and individuals and movements in every era of church history who were faithful to God and taught important truths. We want to say like Elijah, “We are alone!” and we end up sulking and hungry in the desert. God reminds us that no, we are not alone.

Anton Boisen spoke of “the living human document” as the object of our theological reflection. Back in 1993, Bonnie Miller-McLemore expanded that image to speak of the “living human web.” I only discovered her groundbreaking essay recently, and it resonated with me. She expanded the image from the person as document to the person in relationship, as part of a community.

I started working in the field of suicide prevention as a chaplain in the National Guard. I realized we only saw our soldiers once a month, so we needed a wider web of connection with them. I started reaching out to the VA, to the various Veteran Service Organizations, to our county Veterans Service Office, our Mayor’s Office for Veteran and Military Affairs, and our county mental health agency. Sherlock Brown and I came together several years ago to take the VA’s Community Clergy Training Project to faith-based organizations in SE Texas. Then I was asked to be part of the Community Health Needs Assessment for the Harris County Public Health Department, and now I’m about halfway through my Master of Public Health degree in health promotion and health education.

So this “living human web” was the focus of my own work and reflection before I heard the term. I have spoken at SDAHCCA and PELC about this. A couple years ago I sparked conversations between an Adventist hospital, a nearby military base, and churches in the community to address issues of resilience, wellbeing, and grief recovery. On Tuesday, June 9, 2020, I marched for social justice with other healthcare professionals in the Texas Medical Center after George Floyd’s death—Whitecoats for Black Lives. These are some of the human webs we are part of. We are not alone.

More recently, Hellena Moon has expanded the image of the web to speak not just of our connections to the human community, but to the wider web of life on earth. Here the image of interconnectedness is no longer just about us as Christians or chaplains, or our interdisciplinary team, or even our community. Here we speak of One Health, embracing human and veterinary medicine (my daughter’s field). And we now speak of an even wider field of Planetary Health.

Consider another Greek word–κόσμος–which refers to the earth, or, in our common use, the entire universe. In introducing his television series of that name, astronomer Carl Sagan said, “The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be.” Some Christians were scared by that. “Is that it? Are you limiting it? There’s nothing else?” No, he was being expansive, and including everything that is, or was, or ever will be. Paul said in Colossians chapter 1:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation, for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Back in the late 1990s I was a campus chaplain at the University of California at Santa Barbara; our campus ministry center had a 16 x 16-foot mural illustrating a statement by Teilhard de Chardin, that “Christ invests himself organically with the very majesty of the universe.” There was an abstract image at the center of the crucified one, the incarnated one, in human flesh. It was framed by what appeared to be other abstract images. But as you looked at it, you realized that on one side you peered into the microscopic realm of cellular and molecular structures. On the other side, you zoomed out to the realm of planets and galaxies.  And then you see, holding it all together, the Creator of all: “The word became flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”

My studies in public health drew me into other areas of health and science, including my childhood love of science and paleontology and astronomy. I renewed my sense of wonder at creation, exclaiming with the Psalmist, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.”

In the middle of a psychotic episode, Anton Boisen had a bizarre hallucination which included a moment of clarity—an insight that stayed with him the rest of his career, that he was called to be “breaking an opening in the wall between religion and medicine.” He saw something – that we are part of this connected network of healing. Dr. Richard Cabot had a similar insight through his own work with seminarians and scientists, that ministerial students needed to have experience in the hospital setting. Ministers couldn’t stay in the church’s study pouring over books of theological lore. They had to be out with those most in need, in the hospital and out in the community.

The old song says, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.” I hear people say they are “tired of this horrible world.”

But I recall that God made this world and called it good—the sun, the oceans, the fish, the birds, the land, the animals, and all of humanity.

This is our home. We belong here. We aren’t escaping to pluck on a harp while sitting on pink clouds. We will return here after a thousand years to spend eternity on this earth, renewed. We are a natural part of these webs of life. The places where we live and work. The world of pain and of beauty. The world that groans waiting for deliverance, and the world that exults in the Creator. This is the full scope of spiritual care. To see through the pain, and know the beauty around us,

I think of the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins.  

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.

     It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;

     It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil

Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;

     And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil

     And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil

Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;

     There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;

And though the last lights off the black West went

     Oh, morning, at the brown bring eastward springs—

Because the Holy Ghost over the bent

     World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

We are not alone. We are never alone.

We are where we belong. God is here. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.