I began my second unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) yesterday. CPE is basically a fancy way of saying that I’m studying to become a chaplain in a hospital. And “unit” is CPE speak for semester.
We share our “story” with our supervisor and the other students on the first day of every unit of CPE. Our supervisor says that part of CPE is about owning our “stuff,” and part of the “stuff” we need to own is our past. So we tell our story to discover how it informs our present and how we might use it to help shape our future.
The most significant part of my story is the day I met Jesus.
I met Jesus in May of 1995, but the story begins six years earlier when my mother was afflicted with cancer.
I was in 5th grade and had no idea what “cancer” meant. My parents rarely talked with me or my siblings about it. When I was in 8th grade her cancer went into remission. We were all very excited, but by 10th grade it came back. By then, I was old enough to know the severity of cancer. For some reason, I knew then that she would eventually die from it. I remember telling myself to start preparing for her death.
I was scared for my mother and for myself. I didn’t want to live without her. And I had questions about life after death in the back of my mind. My mother wasn’t very religious. She went to church, primarily because my dad wanted us all to go. They drove separately to church because my mom taught the kindergarten Sunday school program. It was her favorite thing about church. During the service, my family would sit at the far back of the sanctuary. After the sermon was over, and with about 30 minutes left in the service, mom and I would sneak out the back door and drive home, making a slight detour to Taco Bell to pick up lunch. It was a blessed Sunday ritual.
Besides skipping most of Sunday morning worship services, she also had the mouth of a sailor. “Shit!” I remember her exclaiming. Like her father, she would mumble under her breath, “God dmmmingnatnah.” But her favorite cussing phrase was fairly tame: “Darn it all.”
Which is why the following story was so surprising for me then and formative for me now. I was afraid that my mom would die. Since the topic was kind of taboo in my family, on that day in May of 1995 I worked up the courage to ask her if she was afraid. Never would I have guessed the words that calmly flowed from her mouth, “No. I know my Jesus will save me.”
Ever since that moment, I’ve been on a quest to know that Jesus.
I mean, who is that Jesus? I’m still discovering the answer to that question. Part of the answer was an intuition that Jesus means we no longer have to fear death. We fear death in our culture. We want to do everything we can to push it away. But because of Jesus, my mom understood that death is natural and not something that we have to fear or fight against. Rather, we can accept it and know that God loves us even after our death. I’m not exactly sure what happens after death, but my mom taught me the truth behind Roman 8:38-39: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
Some people think that God is all powerful and so causes everything to happen. That’s okay for them to believe. I just can’t. On the day I met Jesus, I discovered that God doesn’t cause cancer or make people suffer. It would be a cosmic sadist who would inflict suffering on someone, much more of a satanic figure than the God who is love.
My mom taught me this crucially important theological truth: shit happens. God doesn’t cause it, but God goes through it with us and invites us to go through it with one another. That’s what faith and ministry and chaplaincy are all about.
I went off to college a few years after my mom introduced me to Jesus. I frequently drove home to visit my parents. I often found them sweetly talking with each other and enjoying the few months they had left. By the end of my sophomore year, mom was in the hospital, where she would die with her sister by her side.
Of course, I wish she were still here. She was 53. That’s too young to die. It’s not fair. I wish I could give her a hug. I wish she could play with her grandchildren. There are so many things to wish for…And yet, it was a good death because she didn’t fear it.
She knew that Jesus had saved her.