THE CHAPLAIN Series
Wrestling with God
Chaplain Lydia Jackson and the Angel of God arrive at work pretty much on time this morning, which is unusual. Lydia is exhausted after a sleepless night, but the angelic Presence, companion and guide for many years, is wide-eyed and eager to tag along.
My, oh my, what a beautiful day, the refrain in her brain is on auto-replay.
“Quiet!” she says.
Don’t like hearing voices? asks the Voice.
Lydia hangs up her coat and is about to sit down when her telephone brrrraaannngs. Lydia picks up the receiver. Its the hospital switchboard with an outside call.
A man is on the line, distraught and tired. “Satan sits on my back during the night,” the man tells the chaplain, “tapping me on the shoulder and beckoning me back to my old, sinful ways.”
“Okay. Do you want to talk for a while? I am here and have the time,” Lydia responds.
“Really?” The caller was unaccustomed to being granted a hearing.
“Yes, I’m a chaplain and you sound beat.”
“I am. This isn’t the first night he’s been there. Scares the be-jesus out of me. I haven’t slept in days.”
“I understand,” a very tired Lydia responds.
“I didn’t have anyone else to call.”
“It’s okay. What’s this devil on your back about?”
“My wife. Should I go back to my wife? The devil says I should. But she stole from me, used the money for drugs, got a restraining order against me, and threw me out. Now she wants me back. Says I’m living in sin.”
“You’re living with someone else?”
“She nice to you?
“But you think you should go back to your wife?”
“Yeah. The devil says so.”
“I wouldn’t take my marching orders from a devil. But you need to get some sleep before sorting this all out. You got any meds for sleep?”
“It’s really important to get some sleep. After you do, you’re sure welcome to call me again, even come see me. You gonna be okay?”
“Yeah, gotta sleep though.”
“That’s right. Tell the devil to mind his own business. You’ll deal with him later. It’s okay to call me back. I’m Chaplain Jackson.”
Lydia knows that it is unlikely that she will hear from the man again, one more unfinished story, the trial of the hospital chaplain.
She glances over at the Presence who is listening in. “At least I don’t have this man’s problem.”
The Presence smiles.
It is the nursing supervisor. A man has been flown in by helicopter from a campsite where he has been vacationing with his girlfriend. He has had a massive heart attack. The hospital is keeping him on life support until his wife and her mother arrive from out-of-state. “Someone has to take care of the girlfriend,” the supervisor sniffs. “She’s all yours.”
Lydia finds the young woman and introduces herself.
“We’ve been together for four years,” the girl begins. “He’d always wanted to visit the Last Frontier and I wanted to, too. Here we are, and now this! It’s just so awful.”
The girl wants to return to the campsite, but the state troopers won’t allow it.
“It’s embarrassing, but I really need to get back to the tent,” she explains.
“You’ll be able to pick up your belongings later.”
“You don’t understand. There are things there that I don’t want anyone to know about, especially his wife.”
Lydia listens. She has a good twenty years on this young woman and is intrigued as to how the girl will proceed.
“It’s well, do you know about ‘toys’?
“Yes,” Lydia said.
“Ropes, cuffs, rubber stuff?” Lydia asks helpfully.
“It’s all just for fun. We had so much fun,” the girl says helplessly.
“I wish we could do something, but I don’t think so,” Lydia sighs.
No, you can’t help with the police, but she really needs a friend. We’ll sort out the rest later.
Within the day, the soon-to-be-deceased’s wife arrives with her angry mother.
“If he weren’t almost dead already, I’d kill him,” the mother whispers to the chaplain. Lydia can’t blame her much, but she empathizes with all three women.
The girlfriend has assured Lydia that the man is deeply in love with his wife – but that he loves her, as well. Somehow, Lydia understands, but doesn’t think it would be helpful to try to explain this thought to the wife, nor to her mother. Her job is to stick with the girlfriend. Another chaplain is assigned to the wife and mother-in-law.
The patient is pronounced brain dead and arrangements are made to remove him from life support. The institution handles the situation with grace, but the person the chaplain truly admires is the wife. The woman does not wish to meet the girlfriend, but she sends word that the girl should come say goodbye to the patient before the machines breath his last. The visitation is arranged and the chaplain stands by. It is a poignant, even gentle, ending to a difficult day.
Lydia is late getting home that evening. Her husband had prepared dinner, which is now cold. Her children fell to sleep hours ago. Lydia finds her bed, falls in, and begins wrestling with her own demons. Her dreams fill the darkened room, a moving picture of her own travels and on-going disputes with God, some of which involve Love.
That night Jacob got up and sent his two wives, his two maid-servants and his eleven sons a cross the ford of the Jabbok …So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome.”
Lydia attended Sunday school with some regularity when she was a child, during which time she primarily learned the “shalt-nots” of the Bible. Thou shalt not do a number of things, she recalled, but her main concern focused on one very personal shalt not, and that was “thou shalt not divorce” – which was what her parents had finally determined to do. It was a dilemma for Lydia, because she was secretly pleased that her parents had decided to live separately. Living together had become unbearable for them all.
“Divorce is an affront to God! Who presumes to rent asunder what God has joined together for all eternity? If a woman obeys her husband, and keeps quiet in church and at home, there should be no cause for disharmony,” the minister from her childhood bellowed one Sunday. “But, there can be no music in a home if the wife sings off-key.”
Lydia’s experience with her parents involved a whole lot more than her mother being tone-deaf. There may have been harmony at some point, she decided, but this minister could not possibly understand the level of dissonance her little family experienced now.
My, oh my, what a beautiful day. She heard a Presence humming. Sometimes you have to sift through these sermons, Lydia. I listen to a lot of them. And this one was a real clanger.
I know from Love. And Love is not what is binding your mother and father together. Fear, perhaps, disappointment and shame, but not Love. They will be much better people living separately, and you will be happier, too. Trust me. Now sleep.
So the young Lydia began to talk with the Voice daily, while experiencing an almost-visible Presence who seemed to enjoy her company. Perceiving this all to be a bit otherworldly, she found another church and signed up to be a Sunday school teacher. She had some tough questions for God and wanted some serious on-going discussion. Here would be as good a place as any.
“I’ve followed most of the shalt-nots,” she had said at the time. (Although, it was easier to follow a shalt-not when one really didn’t have the desire or opportunity to shalt in the first place, she smiles now.)
“But doesn’t God have some responsibilities, too?” she would ask. “Shalt not He protect the world from war? Shalt not He protect his children from disease, accident, starvation – broken hearts?”
Although she was drawn to God, Lydia did not always approve of Him.
“God is either a neglectful parent or a vengeful tyrant,” she would complain.
Maybe you should focus on Jesus, her Companion suggested.
Jesus did seem a little kinder, but she really didn’t understand him either. Disturbed as she was with this Father/Son duo, Lydia just couldn’t let them be. She kept hanging out at their house, sometimes just to pick a fight. The words would be heated. Lydia would leave. She would return. They always let her in.
Lydia continued to wrestle with God. She figured He should be fixing His world on His own, but if He wasn’t going to do it, she would have to help Him out. Then again, there may be no God at all, but the world still needed some serious repair.
“If there is no God,” Lydia declared, “There ought to be. And I choose to live as though there were.”
That’s all I ask, for now.
Lydia grew older. One child died and then another. When one battle to change the world seemed to be making progress, there was always another one grinning at her like the Cheshire Cat. Changing winds, changing political alliances, children growing up with different goals and different dreams. Old men and old women passing on.
A grey-haired Lydia now stared at her two, old divine adversaries and saw that they were incomplete. Something or Someone was missing. There was a piece of her missing, as well – and that piece bore an uncanny resemblance to the missing piece in her divine puzzle. Weren’t there supposed to be Three?
“God the Father, God the Son, and where is the Holy Ghost?” she asked the Presence.
You are looking for me, came an almost grandmotherly Voice. Sophia. Wisdom. You are looking for me.
“Where have You been?” Lydia asked.
You have to be a little older to appreciate the Crone, came the new Voice. But I have always been here.
The familiar voice of the Presence broke in,
The crone assists with passages – changes in life where an inspired out-reached hand can save a life or save a soul. You are in transition, Lydia, meet your Crone.
It took more than one sleepless night, but Lydia talked with the Old One, seeking Her guidance.
I am -- where new life begins, where sickness challenges, and where death leads to yet another adventure, the Old Woman would say.
Lydia determined to follow this Crone. She wasn’t a nurse or physician, but she could be there when people needed a friend. She uprooted her family, attended seminary, and eventually became a hospital chaplain. That was some time ago.
The clock strikes five. In that twilight between wakefulness and sleep, Lydia prays for both the wife and the girlfriend from the previous day, and for the man who loved two women. She prays for the man being jacked around by Satan, for her parents, and for herself -- she who has one failed marriage to her credit, and a second, seriously wobbly one.
It’s almost daybreak, the Presence moans as He does every time they have this conversation. Let me go.
“Not without a blessing,” she responds.
She feels the Presence’s smile and hears the familiar refrain, O Mister Bluebird’s on my shoulder, it’s the truth, it’s actual, everything is satisfactual ….Awake now, with a lightness of heart, Lydia begins another .