Parallels in Ministry

“Parallels in Ministry”
By Kathleen Ibsen, Chaplain, WCD

“This first week, when it gets dark we’ll leave the curtains open and the lights on,” I said.

“But the neighbors will see what you own. You are already a target for robbery! They believe you are naïve, and that you own too much,” they objected.

This was our first day on ‘Cantaloupe Lane’ and some local friends were helping us set up house in a community where foreigners never ventured.

A Christian family of four, we had come from Canada to Indonesia to reach out to a local Muslim people group who had suffered injustices. They lived in impoverished neighborhoods and villages. We wanted to live among them, but it was clear that our friends worried we were settling on the wrong side of town.

As we unpacked, I acknowledged concern about the social boundaries we were crossing and the issue of our safety. But I believed we still needed to leave the curtains open.

Didn’t our new neighbours believe drugs, alcohol, infidelity and violence come from the West? Their beliefs about foreigners were informed by western movies and the experience of colonization. If they did not see us, how could they learn that we were principled people who would respect rather than harm their community? Perhaps a healthy dose of openness was the best way to gain their trust.

Later that afternoon, when the unpacking was finished, I sat down by the window. The question of what we were doing here and how we could find belonging still stuck with me, but my thoughts were suddenly interrupted. I heard music coming down the lane. A familiar tune, it was clear and sweet, growing louder as it approached my home. The words came to mind, Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare him room, and heaven and nature sing…

It was mid-July. The ice-cream man slowly rode by my curtain-less window on his bicycle equipped with a little metal umbrella and a speaker on a pole above a colorful icebox. I smiled. How surprising and yet fitting, to be heralded by a Christmas carol!

Unknowingly the ice-cream man, delivered a message to me as he rode by: God has been here from the beginning of time.

In the flurry of leaving Canada and being ‘sent’ to this community I had picked up spiritual arrogance. I believed I was starting rather than stepping into something. But things were not beginning with my arrival, God was already at work.

Yes, I had taken a step, and I was in a vulnerable place as a result, so the first thing God did was send a messenger to prepare room for Him in my heart.

Several months later, I had friendships in the community and was feeling more settled. At the same time the thousands of people caught in poverty that I saw everyday left me very overwhelmed. I knew that instead of feeling that I should carry everything, I needed a deeper understanding of my calling that would leave me renewed not depleted as I lived the witness of Jesus’ love to those around me. What leapt off the pages of Scripture was: a voice calling, in the desert, prepare the way, a highway, for the coming, make straight paths, valleys raised up, mountains and hills made low, rough ground leveled. Comfort, comfort, speak tenderly, proclaim. He tends his flock like a shepherd, gathers the lambs in his arms, cradles them close to his heart, and gently leads those with young (Matthew 3 and Isaiah 40).

To see myself as a herald, someone who creates awareness of something that is beyond herself, was freeing and empowering, and helped me respect the agency of others. I felt connected to the figure of John the Baptist in those early days of community development, and now as I have transitioned from International Worker to Hospital Chaplain, preparing the way is still informing me.

As a chaplain I am constantly reminded that from the beginning of their time, God has been with the person I come to serve. Preparing the way is God’s vision and work, and alongside each patient, I have the opportunity to be a participant. Together, we can be open to the ways God is already present in their life.

Recently, I cared for a middle aged man in hospital dying from liver failure, the effects of alcohol poisoning. One staff member said, “Don’t bother with him, he’s no longer lucid.” But the physician countered, “Maybe try, we don’t know when a patient might be alert.”

The patient was lucid. His words were slowed by weakness, he had just hours left, and he did not open his eyes.  “Are you the chaplain that spoke to Mr. A… in the next bed?” he asked. 

I was. But I thought this patient was asleep during those visits. Mr. A had been dealing with life regrets and was on a search for his “maker.” Had I already, unknowingly, taken part in God’s preparing the way for the coming of the Lord to the man I was speaking to now?

“How did you know I am the chaplain that talked with Mr. A?” I asked.

“I remember the timbre of your voice,” he answered.

“The timbre of my voice, are you a musician?” I asked. No, but his favorite work was hand-crafting guitars. With that connection, suddenly the curtains were pulled back and the window to his life was open. He shared how he was badly neglected by his parents. He expressed dismay at being a burden to staff. He wanted help with prayer to confess his sins and reconnect with God.

As he prayed, he cried and I had a persistent image of a musician playing a guitar in concert. My son is a classical guitarist and I had been to many performances. “You know,” I said, “near the end of a classical guitar concert piece, several bars of music are played in clear notes, without embellishment. The sound quiets, the audience leans in, anticipating each note, for one last savor, and then the song is over.”

“That is how I see you this afternoon. Don’t under-estimate what God can do in this time, as staff come in and out to care for you, and as your sister comes to sit with you again. In your last hours, you can rest in God’s good work and His care.” 

Tears trickled down his cheeks from his closed eyes. His sister did come. He truly did have one last rich savor, as he opened himself to God’s presence in that last earthly hour.