CPE Practices in Ancient Israel

From the closing service of my basic unit of CPE at Grady Memorial Hospital, August 5, 2005

Texts: Psalm 77:1-20 and Romans 9:1-5

            Selecting the texts for this was quite a struggle. You see I am a dyed in the wool lectionary preacher. I don't like choosing my own texts; I prefer instead to have them assigned for me.

            A lot of that is because I don't know how to pick a text without deciding what it is that I want to say, a process that we seminary students know as eisegesis. I worry that what I would end up saying would be more what I want to say and less what God wants spoken.

            So, that's not the way to come up with a text. How else to do it? I suppose that I could just close my eyes and pick one at random, maybe that's the way to get God involved in the process…The Holy Spirit would work through my own hands, leading me to the text that God wanted me to consider.

            But, there is a danger there as well; there is an old story about a man who did exactly that: Each morning he would get up and go to his Bible. He'd close his eyes and pick out a verse at random. He would assume that God was telling him that verse was his guidance for the day. The system worked great until the day came when the verse that his finger landed on read: "And Judas went and hanged himself." Well, the man knew that couldn't be God's message to him that day, there had to be a mistake. So he started over again from the beginning, and sure enough he got a new verse: "Go thou and do likewise."

            Sure, God might work through my random selection, but God has a sense of humor and might just lead my hands to a place that I don't want to go.

            I was stuck, I didn't want to pick a text all on my own and I'm afraid of where putting the choice in God's hands might lead me.

            But, the Lord will provide…and it turns out that God had picked these texts for me before I even knew that I was going to be looking for them.

            As I sat with families in crisis this summer I was drawn to The Psalms in the hope of finding something to say to them. There were all the standards: 139, 121, 51 and of course, the twenty third. But I also kept being drawn back to 77.

            I kept going back there because I wanted to tell the people that what they were feeling was OK. it was fine to be angry at God, to question where God is and why God seemed to be absent from there lives at that point.

            I thought that maybe it would help for them to hear that people have been asking those same questions for thousands of years. Maybe it would help them to know that no matter how much it feels like it right now, they were not alone.

            I think that it is really very powerful to hear this voice from 3,000 years ago calling out in a pain and anguish in the same way that families are today.

            So, that is how I came to the 77th Psalm, but it wasn't until I found the other text for today, the Romans passage, that I understood where I needed to go with it today.

            Unlike the Psalm my attention this summer had not been drawn to this particular passage from Romans. I had spent a lot of time, however, looking at what comes immediately before it.

            Right before this pericope are a couple of my favorite verses in the whole Bible, Roman's 8:38-39.

            "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rules, 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."

            Paul gives this amazing testimony to the power and scope of God's love, and then feels compelled to re-establish his authority in the very next verse, to make sure that we know that he is not lying, that this affirmation of God's love comes not from his own mouth but from the power of the Holy Spirit.

            The Romans text was the Epistle lesson from last Sunday's lectionary and in three years or so I will probably preach on it in a very different context. But here, I am looking at it in conjunction with the 77th Psalm.

            Because, when I looked at these two passages, Psalm 77 and Romans 9:1-5, looked at them side-by-side, I realized that both the psalmist and the Apostle Paul must have done CPE at some point in their lives. And it is not just because I can imagine hearing these texts in IPR, or at least individual supervision, at some point during a unit of CPE.

            No, it is because I think that they are both descriptive of what happens in the course of CPE.

            For those of you here who have not just done CPE, I should explain a little about what goes on. Over the course of a unit we are supposed to spend three quarters of our time out in the hospital working with patients, families and staff. The rest of the time, though, we spend working together in our groups learning about ourselves and about each other. We write papers reflecting on the work that we have done in the hospital and how it has affected us, we study books and reflect on how they relate to our work, we have didactic sessions where we learn about different fields and different situations and sometimes we just sit around and talk about what’s bothering us.

            I feel like CPE ends up focusing on three different areas. We focus on ourselves, we focus on the people of God here in the hospital and we focus on the way the power of God moves in this place, especially the way that we see it moves through us out to the people that we serve.

            The Psalmist begins by focusing on personal issues, her own growing edges: how she hasn’t been able to sleep, hasn’t been able to rest or to meditate at all. The Psalmist is particularly worried about how God seems to have been absent from her life.

            These are not unusual concerns, I know that there have been times in my life when I have wondered about the presence of God for me, when I have laid awake worrying about the future and where I am going.

            Our natural reaction in those time is, I think, to look for where God is in our lives, to become very introspective and reflective. There is nothing inherently wrong with that kind of turning in on ourselves, God is there, too. But the psalmist shows us another way, the psalmist doesn’t look inside for God, doesn't ask what God can do for her, but rather looks at what God has done for the people. What are the wonders that God has done in their lives? Where do we see God's power in their lives? How has God moved for them? And she finds her answer in the story of Exodus, the greatest exhibition of God's power that the people of Israel knew. The Psalmist sees that if even the waves tremble at the power of God, how could he doubt that God had the power to act in her life? And if God would go to that much effort to save God's people, how could she doubt that God would make a difference in her life?

            That is one of the great lessons that I will take from this place. As much as I have learned from the group process at Grady, what I will take with me, what I will remember is the way that the Lord moved in the lives of the ordinary people that I met out away from this corner of the building. If I could see the way that God acted in the lives of the families that I was working with, how could I doubt that God would work in my life?

            And like the psalmist, when I looked into the faces of mothers and wives, sons and daughters in the throes of the agonies of grieving for their loved ones, what can I offer to them but the sure fact that the Lord has moved with great power in the past, and will move that way in their lives.

            In Romans, I can see the connections to CPE even more clearly, because this summer there have been times when I have felt exactly what Paul seems to be feeling here. This passage could come directly from a verbatim. Have you ever stood with a family or a patient who just couldn't take in what you were trying to tell them? It is obvious that Paul has; he has just shared the greatest good news that he knows, the greatest good news that anyone has ever heard and the people, his people just won't hear it.

            He cries out to them: “I am not lying! I know this is true! I know that you can count on this! Why can’t you hear me? The Holy Spirit, the power of God has shown me that this is true!

            I also know the anguish that he feels, the desire to free them from this pain, to put himself in their place, but, just like the psalmist, all he can do is remind them of the great things that God has done in the past: how God has made a covenant with them, adopted them, given them the law and the prophets. He saying, “remember what God has done! Remember that our God is a God who keeps promises.”

            There is one thing though, that Paul can give them that the psalmist could not: Paul can point to the greatest news of all, he can point to Jesus Christ. He can assure his people, as we can assure our people that God came here, God became one of us, and wherever we go in this life or the next God has been there before us and knows what we are going through.

            God, in the person of Jesus Christ, lived and died, God faced temptation and God experienced the violence that humans perpetrate upon each other. And, in the person of the Parent and Creator, God experienced all of the depths of human grief. God knows about deceleration of care, because God had to decide to allow Jesus to die, and God knows what it is like to wait as the dearest of loved ones slowly and painfully dies.

            It is that good news, that God knows what we go through, indeed that God has gone through all that we do and that despite the fact that we caused God all of that pain and grief, there is still nothing, nothing that can stop God from loving us that Paul was trying to get across to his Roman readers.

            And it is that same good news that we as chaplains struggle to communicate to the people that we care for here in Grady and in the places that we go to from here.

            So just as the psalmist, in order to reassure herself and her listeners of the power and presence of God in their lives, pointed back to the work of God in Exodus; And just as Paul, in order to reassure himself and his readers of the power and the presence of God, pointed back to the work of God in Christ; I want to, in order to reassure myself and you, I want to point back to God’s work in the psalmist and in Paul.

            Because even in this work, we can know that God has gone there before us and that God is waiting there for us when we get there.

            And that is good news indeed.