A lot of people I talk to see CPE as a hoop to jump through on the the way to ordination – some sort of extra hurdle that ministry preparation committees place in front of seminarians as a nightmarish hazing ritual.
For me, that is (now) not the case.
While my committee on preparation for ministry “strongly recommended” that I complete CPE, and while I wasn’t exactly looking forward to an emotionally stressful summer, I’m now learning to love my CPE experience. Part of that love has come from seeing CPE as a chance to be missional in my ministry.
This works two ways. The first is that in visiting the sick we are following Christ’s example in mission. Applied to pastoral care in a hospital, Thomas Oden wrote “As God himself came to visit and redeem his people (Luke 1:68), so we go on behalf of God’s Son to visit and share that redemption in our own arena of service” (Pastoral Theology p. 171). For a Christian to walk into a sick patient’s room, unexpected and likely unwelcomed, is to literally follow Christ in the incarnational way in which he visited us. Nevertheless, we are called to do this. In John 20:21, Jesus says to his disciples, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” We are sent into the world with a mission to participate in God’s redeeming work, and every part of a Christian’s vocation has potential to be a part of that mission. This summer, I am learning to participate in God’s mission through the emotionally trying but incredibly rewarding practice of CPE.
Second, we are promised not just that we follow Christ in visiting the sick, but that we meet Christ in the experience. In Matthew 25:34ff., Jesus is speaking about the final judgment and he says:
34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (ESV, italics added)
There Jesus is, hidden in the skin of the oppressed, the sick, the hungry, and the imprisoned. Do we grasp the incredible power of this idea as a practical spirituality? I didn’t until this summer, and after three weeks of CPE, I’m still just beginning to. So now I go to CPE each day expecting to see Christ in the patients whom I visit. Often, I find that I leave patients’ rooms having been ministered to by them as much I sought to minister to them.
One last thought: Four years ago, I spent a summer in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I taught English and did relational evangelism with Thai, Buddhist, college students. Though I did not then and still do not feel called to a career as an overseas mission worker, that summer transformed my life. In the same way, though I do not feel called to chaplaincy as my specific ministry in life, I know this summer will change me as well. There’s something about living in a different culture, being immersed in community, and engaging in service for Christ, all for a short period of time, that opens the doors for the Holy Spirit to transform lives. I look forward to seeing what sort of mischief God will be up to this summer and in months to come as I process the whole experience!