I spent about five hours yesterday out with my local fire department, where I serve as chaplain. We were called to a house fire in a neighboring town; one that unfortunately left a family without a home. After the fire we returned back to our station, put up our gear, and did what we always do after a fire call: we washed the fire truck.
It was covered in the mud from an unpaved Vermont road, so much so that the markings on the fire engine had been covered up. I sprayed water over the whole truck, watching as the dirt and ash and mud slid down off the red sides, the diamond plates, the tires and pumps, and onto the pavement below. While it did I thought about the pain and mess we had just seen, and how much easier life would be if we could just wash the mess away and make everything squeaky clean and shiny again.
But life doesn’t work that way. And faith doesn’t either. While our baptism as Christians might wash us with grace, and affirm Christ’s claim on us, it doesn’t make us invulnerable to the messiness of life. If you are really going to live your faith in this world, you’re going to get dirty, despite what you may have been told otherwise. You’re going to get down in the mud and the dirt, and some of it is going to get on you. And that’s not a bad thing. That’s a reminder that you have dared to wrestle with the world’s harder places, and that you have not simply stayed locked up in the safety of the temple.
But there are times, after the strife, when you will have a moment to return and rest, and remember the marking that are there under that mud. Just like the department’s name and engine number were still there in gold after the dirt was washed away, our baptism remains even when we are clothed in the mess of the world. It is what defines us in the end.
And so in Lent, we remember what is really there under everything, and we connect with it, and cut through the surface levels and remember who, and whose, we are. And then we do the small things in ways that matter. We wash the fire trucks. We live our lives. And, rest assured, we get messy again. Because that’s what life, and our baptism, requires of us.
When I moved to Vermont I wanted to do something to put my background in trauma chaplaincy to good use, so about a year ago I became the chaplain to my local fire department. Not long after I started attending the bi-weekly drills at the firehouse. It didn’t take me long to realize that standing with my back against the wall, looking “chaplain-ish” while the volunteer firefighters rolled hoses and refilled air tanks wasn’t doing anyone much good. So, with the chief’s permission, I started learning my way around firefighting.
Last night I washed one of our fire engines, and I thought about Advent. Washing a fire truck probably doesn’t sound all that exciting. That’s because it’s not. It’s like washing your own car, if your own car was about ten times its size. And yet, there is something about it that I find deeply peaceful. The water hits the truck, and the dirt and dust and grime from our last call comes off, runs onto the concrete floor below, and gets carried away from the firehouse by the grates. And washing the wheel wells, the doors, the lights, and everything else because oddly satisfying.
Christians sometimes have a tendency to stand content in our beliefs, without actually doing any work to help the world. We claim to serve a loving God, yet we do not live lives of service to God’s people. In the end we become about as useful as a person standing against the wall while everyone else does all of the hard work. But, when we join in, and when we serve others by actually doing something, that’s when our faith really comes to life.
If Advent is really about preparing our hearts to hear Christ’s teaching, then learning how to listen has a lot to do with learning how to serve. Christ never preached a Gospel of self-service or religious contentment. He preached a Gospel of active love and concern for the others. When Christians spend Advent content with our own theological navel gazing, we’ve missed the chance to truly prepare ourselves for what Christ will ask of us. But if we see this season as a chance to truly do good work, we are that much closer to Christmas and what the coming of Christ means. And, in a way, the joy we find in the smallest things, like a clean fire truck, can be a Christmas gift that we can give ourselves.
Yesterday, just hours after the Colorado shootings, I began to read stories of “chaplains” being sent by evangelical Christian groups to the scene. Immediately, I felt my blood pressure rise.
Last summer my southern Vermont community was hit hard by Hurricane Irene. Towns were flooded, families lost their homes, and entire businesses were literally washed away. In the aftermath, all of us got involved in the rebuilding. As a local pastor, I spent a lot of time talking to people who had suffered devastating losses, and connecting them with needed resources.
One afternoon, a few days after the flood, I saw people walking in town wearing t-shirts that said “Chaplain”. I stopped to introduce myself to them, and they flashed official-looking badges and identified themselves as Red Cross trauma chaplains. But something seemed off. I went home, pulled up webpages, and started investigating.
I was a trauma chaplain. I spent three years in seminary, and then completed numerous units of Clinical Pastoral Education, a supervised training program for would-be chaplains. CPE, as any clergy person who has done it will tell you, is rarely fun. But it’s meant to train clergy to be able to serve others in the most devastating hours of their lives with compassion and grace. And above all, it’s meant to train them to, like doctors, “do no harm”.
I served first in the emergency room of a Level One pediatric trauma hospital and later as a staff chaplain in other hospital and hospice settings. I now serve as a chaplain to a fire department. During my time I have sat with a child who just lost both parents to a drunk driver, a mother who literally watched her son bleed to death from a gun shot wound, and countless wives who just lost husbands to heart attacks. And there have been many, many more. Every time I walk into a trauma situation I give thanks for every hour of training I have completed.
What I found out about the “Red Cross trauma chaplains” who had come to my town was not only surprising, it was dangerous. The organization that had given them the legitimate-looking badges is not actually connected to the Red Cross or any public safety community. It requires no accredited theological education and no clinical training. It does, however, offer its own, questionable, training. One pastor who attended several years ago left in disgust after the group’s leader reportedly made violently homophobic comments and talked about carrying a gun and extra ammunition into trauma areas.
But what is possibly even more disturbing is that the mission statement of this trauma response organization, and others like it, makes clear that they see disaster situations as opportunities for evangelism and conversion. In a crisis situation, where there is often chaos, it’s pretty easy to come to town, say you are a “trained trauma chaplain”, flash a badge that you can have created by a company on the internet, and get assigned to help people who are at their most psychologically and spiritually vulnerable. The potential for doing harm, to the point of spiritual abuse, is high.
But not all chaplains are like that. The United States military, for example, requires their chaplains to hold a graduate theological degree, and to complete clinical training. Board Certified Chaplains, often found in medical settings, are required to undergo even more rigorous review. And local public safety organizations, such as police and fire departments, have become more wary about the qualifications of those whom they let assume their chaplaincy.
All of these organizations also make sure that chaplains understand what their job entails. A chaplain does not try to convert those who have survived a disaster. Rather, a chaplain provides spiritual and emotional support by meeting people where they are at and helping them find the resources that they need. The chaplain may be a Catholic priest ministering to a Muslim, or a rabbi serving a Baptist, or a minister serving an atheist. It doesn’t matter. In any of those situation, the agenda cannot be dictated by the chaplain’s beliefs. It must be dictated by the needs of the traumatized person.
When this is done well, the result can be reduced traumatization, increased hope, and substantive stabilization. When done poorly, it can be nothing short of religious exploitation.
In situations like yesterday’s, it’s important for local clergy, and local government and public safety officials, to carefully investigate the religious agendas of spiritual caregivers. Look for someone who is trained by accredited sources, who has chaplaincy experience in the military or a medical setting, who is connected with a legitimate credentialing body, or who is already affiliated with your local public safety chaplaincies.
I learned the hard way last summer that in times of crisis there are plenty of spiritual “wolves in sheep’s clothing”. There are also plenty of good people who simply are not trained for the task at hand. Both types can do incredible damage. The Scripture of my tradition advises us that Jesus told us to be “wise as serpents, gentle as doves”. It’s a good reminder when deciding who should have access to those who have been severely traumatized.