Crisis Chaplaincy Program Graduation
April 13, 2013
The Reverend Dr Linda Anderson
I want to tell you that it is my pleasure and my honor to be here. I’ve been in ministry for twenty five years, serving congregations and more recently serving as a chaplain and educating others to be chaplains. It’s a special calling. First, let me offer my congratulations to you upon your completion of the Crisis Chaplaincy program. For the past ten weeks or so you have learned, not only about the role of a chaplain, but also about yourselves and what you are capable of. Now you will go out into the world, as volunteers, to respond to the spiritual and emotional needs of people in crisis. That is no easy task, as anyone who serves as a chaplain knows. So secondly, I want to offer my gratitude to you. For every day and every night that you are called to an emergency and you stop what you are doing or you get out of bed or up from the dinner table, or you turn off the TV after an already long and tiring day, and go out into the unknown to help a stranger, I thank you. We all thank you.
As you embark on your chaplaincy, I have three things to ask of you. Number one: don’t ever forget that you make a difference. When things seem completely awful, devastated and broken beyond repair, when it looks like the wounds are too severe for any healing to take place, when too many people have too many needs to attend to, don’t forget that you make a difference. Don’t lose faith in the value and the goodness of what you are doing. I tell you this because sometimes crisis feels overwhelming and you are just one person and you can’t possibly do everything. Don’t forget that what you do matters to someone.
Have you ever heard the story of the Starfish? Star fish live in the sea and instead of blood they have water circulating in their bodies. They come in many colors and some of them have more than five points to their star shapes. They are not fish, despite their name. On their undersides they have feet, which allow them to walk along the bottom of the water and hold onto rocks and the like. So the story goes that a young girl was walking along a beach upon which thousands of starfish had been washed up during a terrible storm. When she came to each starfish, she would pick it up, and throw it back into the ocean. People watched her with amusement. She had been doing this for some time when a man approached her and said, “Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can’t save all these starfish. You can’t begin to make a difference!” The girl seemed crushed, suddenly deflated. But after a few moments, she bent down, picked up another starfish, and hurled it as far as she could into the ocean. Then she looked up at the man and replied, “Well, I made a difference to that one!” (adapted from the Star Thrower by Loren C. Eiseley)
We make a difference to someone. And even though we wish we could do it all and even though we stand helpless in the face of disaster and crisis, our efforts make a difference. Don’t lose faith in the goodness of what you do, even when, and especially when, it never seems like enough.
Number two: don’t lose faith in the goodness of other people. You will be called to emergencies and some of them will have resulted from accidents and some will have resulted from the acts of destruction that we human beings can inflict on one another. We can be cruel and mean, thoughtless, stupid, and the consequences of our actions can do untold harm. As a crisis chaplain you’re going to see the effects of human beings at their worst. But you are also going to see human beings at their best. Shortly after September 11, 2001, Stephen Jay Gould, a professor wrote an editorial in the New York Times and he said, “every spectacular incident of evil will be balanced by 10,000 acts of kindness, too often unnoted and invisible as the ”ordinary” efforts of a vast majority.” 10,000 acts of kindness. I have held onto that saying these past eleven years because I have needed to remember it. The acts of hatred seem big and their effects devastating. I get to thinking that all we are is cruel. It’s easy to overlook the smaller acts of kindness. Half the time we don’t even know the person who did them because they remain anonymous. The person who called 911. The one who waited to make sure the responders arrived. The one who brought coffee to the family in the waiting room of the hospital. Or a blanket. Or a shoulder to cry on. The passers by who said a silent prayer at the scene of the accident. The one who stayed after her or his shift was over, just to help a little more. 10,000 small acts of kindness. When the world seems to be nothing but crisis caused by the carelessness, the ignorance, the violence of other people, look around for the acts of kindness. When life itself seems to be too risky, when bad things happen to good people and you have no answer for the suffering that comes, look around for the acts of kindness. Look for the helpers. You will find them. They are always there. You are not alone. Let the kindnesses you find lift you and inspire you in your work. Don’t lose faith in the goodness of people.
Some people say the starfish story does not end where I ended it. They say that when the man heard what the little girl said, he came up beside her and started picking up the starfish himself and throwing them back into the sea. Soon other people on the beach joined them and lots of starfish were saved.
Finally, number 3: don’t lose faith in the necessity of taking care of yourself. It can be exciting and deeply gratifying to serve as a chaplain, to help people in times of crisis. It’s what we are called to do. Caregivers are terrible at taking care of ourselves. In our great desire to serve and to help we can forget about ourselves. We can forget that we need to take a break and rest. We need to be cared for. We need someone to tell our stories to. We need to spend time with our families and our friends. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you are indispensable or that nobody else can do it as good as you can or that you cannot stop because there’s so much to do. The beach is always going to be full of starfish washed up on the sand. You make a difference to the ones you throw back in the water. But you can’t do it alone and if you try you will do harm to yourself and the people who love you. Others will come and stand beside you and throw the starfish back into the water as well. It is not selfish to respect and honor yourself. Don’t lose faith in the necessity of taking care of yourself.
I want to end with a poem by a minister in my tradition. Choose to Bless the World by Rebecca Parker
Your gifts—whatever you discover them to be—
can be used to bless or curse the world.
The mind’s power,
The strength of the hands,
The reaches of the heart,
The gift of speaking, listening, imagining, seeing, waiting
Any of these can serve to feed the hungry,
Bind up wounds,
Welcome the stranger,
Praise what is sacred,
Do the work of justice
Or offer love.
Any of these can draw down the prison door,
Abandon the poor,
Obscure what is holy,
Comply with injustice
Or withhold love.
You must answer this question:
What will you do with your gifts?
Choose to bless the world.
The choice to bless the world is more than an act of will,
A moving forward into the world
With the Intention to do good.
It is an act of recognition, a confession of surprise, a grateful acknowledgment
That in the midst of a broken world
Unspeakable beauty, grace and mystery abide.
There is an embrace of kindness that encompasses all life, even yours.
And while there is injustice, anesthetization, or evil
A holy disturbance,
A benevolent rage,
A revolutionary love,
Protesting, urging, insisting
That which is sacred will not be defiled.
Those who bless the world live their life as a gesture of thanks
For this beauty
And this rage.
The choice to bless the world can take you into solitude
To search for the sources of power and grace;
Native wisdom, healing, and liberation.
More, the choice will draw you into community,
The endeavor shared,
The heritage passed on,
The companionship of struggle,
The importance of keeping faith,
The life of ritual and praise,
The comfort of human friendship,
The company of earth
The chorus of life welcoming you.
None of us alone can save the world.
Together—that is another possibility waiting.
May you not lose faith in the goodness of what you do; may you not lose faith in the goodness of other people. May you not lose faith in the importance of taking care of you. As you have chosen to bless the world with the gifts of your chaplaincy, may you in turn be blessed. This is the prayer of my heart.
Thank you for listening to my words this afternoon.