The experience of being awakened in the middle of the night by a siren is not at all uncommon. Most of us know what its like to be shocked to sudden wakefulness by a sharp sound, a loud bang, or the howling of a police or ambulance siren. But, no matter how often it happens, it always seems to leave me a little shaken.
While I was in Seminary I spent a year as a Chaplain at Duke University Medical Schools Clinical-Pastoral-Education Program. After I returned to Texas, in the early 1990s, while Pastor at Cockrell Hill United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, I worked part-time at Methodist Central Hospital as an Adjunct Chaplain; in that capacity, as at Duke, I had many duties, including pastoral care responsibilities for the Neurology Floor. However, one of my most important duties was to serve 3 nights a month as the Chaplain On Call in the Hospital. Spending all night in the Hospital has given me new insights into what it means to be awakened by sudden sounds. Usually, while sleeping at home, those sounds are just a nuisance. I sit up in bed, listen to the sound of the siren for a moment, and then fall back onto my pillow and into the comfortable arms of sleep, sure in my confidence that I dont have to take care of that sound. Thats not so, however, when I was on-call in the hospital.
When the pager would go off at 3:30 am to alert me to an approaching ambulance or care-flight helicopter, I couldnt fall back onto my pillow. I was responsible for taking care of what was going on. I had to get up, put on my pants and shoes, shirt, clerical collar, and coat, grab my pad, pager, and bible, and head out the door and down the hall toward the Emergency Department. I went because those being brought in might need help--they might need someone to pray with them, someone to call family or friends, someone to help them communicate with the hospital staff.
As I road the elevator down the 7 floors to the basement, I wonder about what I was going to find when I got there. The possibilities were almost endless, and no matter what I expected to find--and no matter how many times I went--what I actually found was hardly ever what I expected. It was, each and every time, a new adventure. From automobile accident to gun-shot victim, each patient was different with different needs and different fears and different hopes and different dreams. I have been welcomed by frightened people who had just been through a horrible experience and now desire the comforting experience of the presence of God; I have been looked at with hatred by someone who views me, and all Christians, as liars. I have been considered a nuisance by some of the hospital staff -- just another untrained social worker -- and as a God-send by others. Indeed, I have had a weary-eyed nurse or physician turn to me when the evening has gone to pot, in hopes of hearing a word of comfort, a word which gives some sense of sanity to the insanity of daily living, a word which brings peace to their souls. The way a Chaplain is received can be as varied as there are days in the year and people in the world.
The need to be there was great, and so I went; on the one hand I might not have been needed, but on the other hand I might have been as essential in any given situation as any doctor or nurse. I could recount many times in which all a patient needed was prayer. I could also tell of those times when the patient was so close to death that I have been gripped by their dying hand, and have had my head pulled close to theirs so that I might hear a gasped confession of sin as the doctors and nurses frantically worked to save their life. They quickly list any number of sins, some important-sounding, some not, but all important enough to them to expend their last few breaths asking for forgiveness. I can also remember the fear on their faces giving way to peace as I pronounced the ancient words of the Church, the words given to us by our Lord: In the Name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven.
And its that look of peace which made all of the insanity worth it. Its the look of peace that we should all feel and know when we hear those same words each and every time we make a public confession of sin to Almighty God (which we will do this Sunday before Communion). I know that most of us, as Protestants, dont have the tradition of making confession before a priest, and, while I agree that we dont need a clergy-person to intercede for us, nevertheless there are times when it is helpful to seek guidance in our spiritual walk. Likewise, it is a very powerful experience for me to kneel before an altar and make my confession of sin to God, an then to hear those words that Jesus gave us--those words which wash away guilt and bring assurance: In the Name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven.
I want to encourage all of you to seek the Peace of Jesus Christ our Lord as we make our common confession of sin this Sunday in worship.
© 1997, Rev. Gregory S. Neal
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