Every Sunday morning, I lead the interdenominational hospital chapel service. Hardly anyone attends. We record it. It plays mid-morning and late evening all week long. People often attend.
To make things simple, we use the Revised Common Lectionary. It gives a place to start for the service. It allows people from churches that use the lectionary stay in sync.And given an audience that is in the building for less than a week, it keeps us from the struggle of doing a series that no one can keep up with.
Every Sunday, I think about the people in front of me, knowing that I don’t know them. Unlike a pastor in a congregation, I don’t have relationships, don’t have history.
What I do have, however, is an awareness that everyone in attendance has something wrong with their own body or the body of a loved one. It’s a hospital. Further, because chaplains show up in the emergencies for traumas and heart attacks and strokes, because we show up before and after deaths, because we show up for really hard conversations,
Every Sunday, I approach the texts thinking about those people and those conversations and those traumas. My messages are always shaped by an awareness of the people who may be listening. My choice of vocabulary and illustrations are always adjusted. I assume that the awareness of the Bible will be basic. I assume that the denominational history will be diverse or minimal. I assume that thinking will be colored by crisis. I assume that I cannot, or should not, get away with platitudes.
I think that my interpretation of the text is shaped by the context as well. When we read the desolate beginning of Lamentations, I think of the people who feel like they are experiencing abandonment and desolation. Their cancer treatments have stripped away strength and family. Their past choices have so broken relationships that as they approach death, the only news family members want is notification of death.
When we read of the intense emotion of Jesus and Martha and Mary following the death of Lazarus, we don’t have to imagine what is would be like. We are in the middle of it.
When the Psalmist talks about the night watch or about fretting over evil or about tears in the middle of the night, they are true images.
I often test my understanding of the Word and of people in rooms other than the chapel. In the late evening, in the consult room, at the bedside, people ask questions and I reflect on my understanding of God and his relationships with us. I offer the forgiveness God offers, I speak to the presence God promises, I wrestle with the healing people desire. My insights into the texts, my conversations with the texts, are shaped in these rooms.
Not that I abandon belief in the face of uncertainty. The accident death of a five-year-old and the wailing of the grandmother do not lead me to reject the promises, though I may not speak them in those moments. The long life promised for those who love God feels hollow in the grief. But just because I do not speak them doesn’t mean I do not reflect them.
I confess. When we are reading texts that are happy, I tend to temper the delight, a little, for those who feel no delight. And I sometimes choose an alternate text when the lectionary takes us to more gruesome prophetic images.
But I am more aware than ever of seeking the Word that God has for the hearts of the people who may be present. And more honest with wrestling through the reality of the texts.
I carry the texts with me through the day and through the hospital. Or perhaps, on some days, the texts carry me.