A Chaplain’s Perspective Essay V: A Barge Boat

A Barge Boat

Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.” (John 14:6a)

As an Emergency Department chaplain who also covers COVID+ intensive care units (thirty-two beds). I am called to serve in crisis ministry situations several times a day. In this way, I am frequently present in times of pain, confusion, loss and death. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross and her stages of grief theory continues to provide a valid starting point when understanding and being with those experiencing loss and grief. Today it is commonly understood that for most, the grief journey is not linear (simply one stage to the next) but rather more accurately describes the emotions felt in the “pool of grief”, and these emotions are then experienced in a more haphazard manner. Kubler-Ross identified the emotions of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance within the grief journey.

Looking at society from a chaplain’s perspective it is easy to identify these stages of grief being experienced at societal levels. There continues to be a debate around wearing masks and those who seem to have an attitude of being “un-threatened” by the pandemic. We continue to see people in large group settings and those who do not wear masks, these actions can be understood as forms of denial.

Random acts of anger and violence seem to be on the rise. People are experiencing new stressors; many are separated from loved ones due to COVID. Many are experiencing financial difficulties and even devastation.

We are seeing the effects of the pandemic as many in our community are experiencing signs of depression including feeling overwhelmed, helpless, hostile or simply trying to escape the reality of the moment. Sadly, last weekend, the city of Columbus experienced a spike in overdose admissions and death. My own hospital was part of these very difficult situations.

Last Tuesday, we experienced a new hospital record for psych patients boarded in the Emergency Department. These people recognize that something is not right, and they need help. Everyone acknowledges that boarding these patients is only providing a band-aid but like most cities there is a terrible lack of beds for patients experiencing psychological issues. Keeping individuals safe (even for a short time) is better than having them on the streets. If a person is deemed a threat to self or others, they can be boarded for seventy-two hours. In some situations, the patient is with us for hours, a day or until the patient believes they are well enough to re-enter life. If deemed, they are not a threat to self or others they are able to sign themselves out of the hospital. Last Tuesday, in a twenty-four-hour period our hospital saw thirty-one boarded patients.

There is a growing sense of frustration as more and more people move to acceptance that regardless of what we do, regardless of the successes and sacrifices, regardless of the mixed messages from those in leadership, the reality is that at some point in late July or early August we will reach 150,000 people in the United States who have died from COVID-19. There is so much grief being experienced by so many people within our society and throughout the world.

How do we navigate through these turbulent, chaotic and difficult times?

Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life” (John 14a).

Several years ago, I was serving three small churches along the Ohio River. I found the river to be beautiful and frequently my black lab, Mandy, and I would go to the river. I would sit on a rock and she would play in the water.

One day I was watching a huge barge approaching. I watched for a while and then a “light bulb” went off in my head. Something was pushing the barge! I grew up hearing stories of tugboats. But this was different. The barge boat was being pushed.

Needless to say, the River Pilots who were part of the church got a good laugh! Then they explained why you must push the barge and not tug the barge to navigate the river. If you are tugging, then the pilot is frequently looking backwards, and you would quickly get stuck in the mud if you are looking backwards while navigating the Ohio River.

Pushing the barge means the pilot has their vision forward. Therefore, they can navigate the twists and turns experienced in their journey.

Jesus, who is the Way, can be the focal point in our forward journey. This focal point, like the North Star, helps us navigate.

Jesus, who is the Truth, allows us to be fully present in the truth of the moment, as difficult as that moment may be. Therefore, those who seek to dwell in the Truth are also able to dwell in another person’s truth of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Having company in these emotions can be healing and comforting. At times, a chaplain can even begin to travel with that person as they begin the emotional journey of hope, joy and life.

Jesus is the Life, for as much as death is around us and is more a part of our conscious daily thoughts, life wins! Life continues, babies are born, new dreams come into focus, Jesus is with us and Loves wins!

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