Monday, February 20, 2006

February 20, 2006 - Ship of Roses

This morning I awake with the remains of another vivid dream lingering at the edges of my awareness. I sit on the edge of the bed and will its details back into my conscious mind.

Claire and I are on some kind of cruise, although the cruise ship is a large, square-rigged sailing vessel rather than a steamship. Evidently it’s a tradition, on this ship, to hold Sunday worship services in a large, airy gallery below decks. Typically, the captain orders that this between-decks area be filled with bright red flower blossoms for the occasion. The sight and aroma of these flowers – strewn throughout the room in large numbers – make for a stunning experience for the passengers, one that is among their most vivid memories.

On this particular sailing, a problem has arisen. No minister has been found to lead this worship service. Without a minister, the crew is not sure they can go ahead with the tradition of the flower-strewn room. An elder from my church – who, in my dream, turns out to be an employee of the cruise line – circulates an announcement to the passengers, asking them to nominate a minister to conduct the worship service.

No names are submitted. As Sunday draws closer, the passengers and crew grow increasingly restive, as they worry there will be no one to conduct this service. Thinking about it, I become aware that I could put my own name in. I am a minister, after all. But I’m on vacation. I’ve brought no liturgical vestments with me, nor do I have any books or worship materials either – nothing I’d ordinarily use to plan and conduct a worship service. I have only myself.

At the eleventh hour, I decide to nominate myself anyway. Although I awaken from the dream before learning whether or not I’ve been chosen as the shipboard chaplain, I’m aware that, because no other names have been submitted, I will certainly be the choice.

It’s a compelling dream, and one whose meaning seems obvious. It has to do with my own sense of self in ministry, as a cancer survivor.

The dream has its genesis in events of the last day or so. Yesterday, in worship, we had a guest preacher. Scott – who served as our seminary assistant for a couple of years in the late 1990s, while a student at Princeton Seminary – flew all the way from Seattle to be here. Having heard of my illness, and knowing we needed pulpit-supply preachers, Scott had volunteered. Ordinarily, we would never have considered bringing a guest preacher from such a great distance, but Scott had offered to use his own frequent-flyer miles, explaining that he’d been hoping to come visit some friends on the east coast anyway. So, we gratefully accepted his offer.

I was feeling well enough to be present as a worship leader, so I found myself sitting behind Scott as he preached. During his sermon, Scott mentioned how the news of my illness had come as an emotional blow to him. It was an odd experience for me to sit there, in my shaven-and-shorn cancer-patient persona, and hear someone speak of me in the third person that way. His words were kind and gracious, and the congregation received him warmly, but the experience of sitting there and hearing myself talked about led me to meditate on my changed personal circumstances.

Those reflective moments, I’m sure, started the subconscious process that led to this morning’s dream. I’m slowly growing into a new understanding of myself in ministry: I am now a pastor who also happens to be a cancer survivor. I think the shipboard gallery strewn with red flowers may symbolize a new sort of ministry to which I’m being called, as a result of my sojourn into the valley of the sick. The fact that I’m being invited to lead worship with no preparation, and with nothing by way of vestments or resources, suggests that the most important thing about this new assignment is who I am, not anything I bring with me.

I have every expectation of continuing as pastor here at Point Pleasant – as symbolized, in the dream, by the fact that it was not just anyone, but a leader of my own church, who was trying to locate a shipboard chaplain. Yet I will plainly be conducting my ministry here in a new way. I’ve heard cancer described as a life-transforming experience. I’m beginning to learn that it can be a ministry-transforming experience as well. I may be in a unique position to reach out to others in the future, in ways others cannot.

It’s as though cancer has called me back to seminary, although this is a very different sort of education than any I’ve known. This seminary issues no degrees or diplomas; I bear on my body, instead, the stigmata of a surgical scar. The classes are held in unlikely places, like chemotherapy infusion cubicles and hospital radiology suites. As for mid-terms and finals, I have no idea when I will sit for them nor what form they may take. Yet I’m determined to graduate from this demanding course, and I trust that my ministry will be the stronger for having completed it.

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