By Jihyun Oh, MDiv ’06
Looking back, I think it all started the day a rocking and trembling son told me that his dying, 80-something year-old mother might have had a part in killing his father, her husband, some 30 years ago.
We keep saying in the chaplaincy department that we need to write a book. I think I’d title this chapter “The Days When Everything Hits the Fan” or “The Days When We Might All Sit Down and Cry but Not Know for What” or “The Days When You Suddenly Find Yourself Playing Confessor, but You’re Presbyterian!”
Usually, my work doesn’t involve a whole lot of confessions, at least initially. People clean up their language, apologize for misbehaviors, give reassurances that they have indeed been talking to God and trust in God, and insist that they are going to be fine. I’m the one who’s usually reframing their scriptural references and reminding them that it’s ok to question God, it’s ok for them to express their anger honestly with whatever language seems appropriate, and it’s ok for them to fall out, run around, not listen, do flips, go to the corner, or do whatever it is they need to do in their moment of grief. Eventually, many get to a place where they affirm and admit that things are hard, and sometimes what God gives seems heavier than what they can bear. But most of the time, the internal firefighters are strong and people eventually go back to the reassurances. It isn’t often that, unbidden, someone will speak the secrets of their heart.
What had it been like, these last 30-some years, holding suspicions of such a betrayal in his heart? What was it like now, watching her die? Did others in his family wonder, too? “I’ve asked God to forgive me if I’m wrong, but every year there seems to be more evidence that points to her.”
When the rest of the family arrived, they spoke of what a wonderful mother she’d been and how they didn’t want her to suffer any longer than she needed to. He agreed, and spoke of his love for her as well. Where did he go with the tension between a mother he loved, and a woman who, he suspected, may have had a hand in murdering a father he loved? Had she known that he suspected her? Had there been a strange distance between them these past 30 years?
I wondered in that moment, whether my role as “Confessor” for him was to hold his suspicion, his “treacherous” feelings toward his mother, so that he might, free from the experiences of his life, truly grieve her dying. I wondered whether my role wasn’t to be a witness and a temporary holder of his shadow-side and his mother’s shadow-side.
That day, as I prayed for his mother, I prayed that God would forgive all the things she had done and left undone, and all the things she had said and left unsaid, and that God would show mercy and grace to this beloved daughter.
Since then, those words, words I hadn’t prayed since I left my hospice CPE internship, have been often on my lips at the bedside of the dying. They were on my lips at the bedside of a teenager who committed suicide. They were on my lips at the bedside of a 60-something cancer patient. I hope, one day, that those words would be on the lips of a chaplain or a pastor who is at my bedside as I lay dying.
There is a scene in Virginia Woolf’s book To the Lighthouse in which two of the characters, Lily Briscoe and William Bankes, stand to watch the blue waters of the bay, the movement of the waves and the irregular spurting of the sprays of water, as they take a friendly walk together. They smile and are excited by the movement and there is a sense of life in the waters. Beyond the waters is a sandhill, still and looking as if it could last millennia; it is a reminder for William Bankes of his friendship with their host, Mr. Ramsay. There is a stillness to the sandhills as there is a stagnation to their friendship that stands in contrast to the liveliness of the waters. Woolf portrays the characters in To the Lighthouse as experiencing this sort of duality in their own selves; they have exterior lives that engage the world and accomplish, help, work, and play, and they have interior lives that seem to churn under the calm, placid exteriors with their feelings of treachery and despair and loneliness. And they are alone and isolated in these feelings.
What if these characters had a “Confessor” to whom they could speak of their treacherous feelings, of their despair, of their loneliness? What if these characters had someone to temporarily hold their suspicions, their disappointments, their tensions, so that they could grieve changes and losses and disappointments in their relationships? I wonder if they would have felt less alone. I wonder whether they might have had a chance at reconciliation.
What is confession, but telling the truth about ourselves before God, being honest with our longing and our treachery, with our grief and our failings? What is confession, but acknowledging our creatureliness before a holy and wholly other Creator, who nevertheless became creaturely and became acquainted with the shadow-side of our human existence? What is confession, but a moment in which we can imagine a redemption and a reconciliation that sometimes feels beyond our reach?
I think it all started that day as a son spoke his honesty, his creatureliness, the shadows in his life. I began to wonder about the role of sometimes-Confessor as more than a part I play, maybe even as a part of my ever-growing pastoral identity, and continue to wrestle with my own shadow-side. And I wonder about the stories that keep us isolated one from another and us from God, and about the stories that reconcile us one to another and us to God.
Jihyun Oh is a 2006 MDiv graduate of Columbia and now a hopeful DMin student. She has been the staff chaplain for the Marcus Stroke & Neuroscience Center and ICU Coordinator at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta since 2011. She feels called to minister in situations of crisis: the crisis of loss, trauma, and/or transition, among others. She believes this is where the greatest opportunities lie to see the divine re-create, redeem, and sustain us in ways we may never have imagined before. She is thankful to share in the work of Grady, of serving the most critical and the underserved of Atlanta and beyond.
The Center for Lifelong Learning offers many opportunities for pastors, as well as church leaders, to connect and learn with and from each other for faithful discipleship. Visit our course listing page for more information on our cohort-based learning programs and events.