A couple weeks ago, I started working as a chaplain intern in a psychiatric hospital. My Sundays suddenly look like worship in a hospital cafeteria, where 50-60 patients shuffle in and together form a shifting blend of prayers, songs, tears, laughs, and shouts, slightly different from moment to moment and week to week. There’s an “order of worship” printed on bulletins, but of necessity this order, shall we say…leaves room for the Spirit.
And yesterday, on Pentecost Sunday, it sure felt like the Spirit showed up.
“When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.” – Acts 2:1-2
Whoooosh whoooosh, one patient said softly. On repeat.
Another asked if he could pray in Spanish and English, then proceeded to march circles around the “altar” up front, declaring for us all “El Espíritu Santo está en este lugar. The Holy Spirit is in this place.”
Another asked if I could pray for “the Muslims and the Catholics and the Jamaicans.” I was puzzled by this but said yes.
Another announced she’s getting married to Pharrell. (Apparently she’s engaged to a different celebrity nearly every week.)
Another thought he was a journalist, came down the aisle toward the lead chaplain, pen and notepad in hand, and told the chaplain, “I’m with the local news, could I ask you a question, sir?” Sure. “How does salvation work?” That’s a good question. I’d be happy to talk to you after service. “Can I quote you on that?” Yessir. The chaplain nearly laughed. The journalist patient walked away eagerly scribbling on his notepad.
“All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?'” – Acts 2:12
This means that Pentecost can pop up in “improbable” places and in unpredictable ways. That every one of us, regardless of the clinical symptoms or characteristic quirks that we present, is a beloved child of God, embodied and empowered by the Spirit of God.
I’m quickly becoming convinced that every pastor (maybe every person) should experience worship on a psych ward — or some place like it — at least once. In one sense, it helps us learn to “manage distractions,” to carry on presiding or preaching or whatever we’re doing while persons in the pews carry on whispering, coughing, moving about, or whatever they’re doing. In a much greater sense, though, it helps us learn to rethink distractions.
What we think of as “distractions,” I’m thinking, are usually just children of God needing something and trying to get it. Needing attention, love, relationship. Needing to be seen and heard and understood.
Now, to be sure, no one person can directly meet every need or directly address every “distraction.” But we can certainly attenuate our attitudes toward them — from a posture of annoyance or confusion to a posture of welcome and understanding.
You in the wheelchair, in the corner, in a manic episode, or in a delusional state, you are welcome in this place.
You, Holy Spirit, are welcome in this place.