Hearing the Call
Scripture: Psalm 23
(Following is the transcript of a homily delivered by Lexi Boudreaux on August 6, 2017. No audio is available.)
Good Morning! I’m so happy to be worshiping with you all today. If you don’t already know me, my name is Lexi Boudreaux, and I’ve been a part of the United Parish community for most of my 25 some-odd years. I’ve loved every minute of it. And, as some of you may be aware, I have plans to attend Harvard Divinity School in the fall to pursue a call to ministry. More specifically, at the moment, I’m interested in exploring hospital chaplaincy. Nonetheless, I know that God usually laughs at most of our plans, however carefully we lay them out. Consequently, I am eager to explore different forms of ministry as I learn about them. But, for now I’ll do my best to tell you what I do know.
I recognize that the 23rd Psalm is one of the most well known portions of the Bible, so I’m sure most are familiar with the traditional metaphor of God as the shepherd, and we, God’s people, as a flock of sheep, being comforted by divine, attentive care, unending love, and concern for our welfare. I hesitated choosing this particular psalm for today since I wasn’t sure I could properly tackle it, considering I’ve never given a homily before in my life. Psalm 23 is so familiar, so ingrained in our culture that, to be honest with you, I was a little intimidated by the pervasiveness of it. What would I have to add to the chorus? Then, I remembered what an integral part of my call to ministry it was. In that moment, I threw caution to the wind and decided to simply speak about what was in my heart.
For me, the 23rd Psalm carries a strong connection to family. It had been known for quite some time that my grandmother had wanted to be the one to pass away first, or at the very least at the same time as my grandfather. As the year progressed, my grandfather’s condition worsened and it started to be clear to all of us that that wouldn’t be how things turned out. A couple of weeks ago the night before my grandfather’s funeral, it was the psalm I offered to pray with my grandmother, a woman of great faith in God, who asked me “why did God take away my best friend of 70 years from me? I’m left with so many questions. This shouldn’t have happened”. As soon as we began praying these ancient, but familiar words together the lines between generations faded. We became a flock of just two members; we became partners in our shared grief.
A couple of decades ago it was one of the first sections of the Bible I had the privilege of dedicating to memory, and I did so right upstairs in one of the Sunday school classrooms at United Parish, quite possibly with some of you in this room. I remember my mother helping me diligently practice reciting it at home, her favorite psalm slowly becoming mine, having faith that goodness and mercy would follow me all the days of my life, only as a mother does. I believe I was competing for some sort of chocolate bar and a gold star on my memorization chart at the time, so for 8 year-old me the stakes were high. Since that day, this psalm has lived in my heart, has helped me call on God when I’ve needed God the most, and has also provoked some questions. The psalm begins by painting a beautiful picture of God as a shepherd who attentively cares for us, who are like sheep. God our Shepherd meets all our needs, gives us spiritual refreshment, and guides us in the right paths. In short, God keeps us safe and secure even though we walk through valleys or experiences that trouble us deeply. At first, the psalm’s language reads as a little problematic to me. There’s this strange contrast of promises of comfort, rest, and trust –and then events of our present reality, of our imminent mortality and the very real trials we face in life. And what happens when we feel like our cries fall on deaf ears? Where is God’s comfort then?
As a child, I spent a great deal of time in hospitals, like, the people on the orthopedic and neurology floors knew my name kind of time. It was mainly due to the fact that I had progressive idiopathic scoliosis, which is when your spine curves in an unnatural way for no reason, but for the fact that it does. I was told after 7 years of being in a back brace that I would have to undergo spinal fusion surgery for my whole spine, reducing my mobility and activities I could participate in. I was 11 years old at the time and felt like my world was falling down around me, like I was, for a moment, glimpsing into my very own valley. Along with the feeling that all my hard work living in a back brace had gone to waste, I was overcome with fear at the thought of waking up and possibly not being able to walk again. Where was God in this? I asked myself. I wasn’t aware of it, but at this point, my journey was just beginning. In the end, I would actually have not one, but two spinal fusions due to the first one not being successful.
While I had my two spinal surgeries my family and I felt held by the United Parish community, and slowly but surely I was hopeful again to lie beside green pastures. I had always loved going to church as a child because I always saw church as a place where I was unconditionally loved by God, and God’s people. I believe in these moments of crisis, God sends people into our lives to act as her hands, to fill our cups overflowing, to comfort us as he promised in the 23rd Psalm. From that time on, I knew that whatever I ended up pursuing in life had to involve serving others in some way. As members of the body of Christ we are all called to serve each other, and to seek to meet the true needs of one another, as Jesus would have done. But what does that look like outside of a time of crisis? Sometimes it’s as simple as asking how someone is really doing and listening intently to their answer, contrary to our usual Northeast culture of using “How are you?” as a substitute for “Hello”. Or maybe it’s breaking the habit of sitting where you normally do and sit next to someone who looks like they feel not quite a part of our community yet. These small acts of service anoint our heads with the healing oil of understanding, of belonging, of hope.
I often think of hospital waiting rooms as the worst possible airport terminal. Usually you arrive for a specific time, but oftentimes you end up being delayed, or better yet, the destination wasn’t even the one you had expected in the first place. In my former job as a clinical research coordinator for the psychiatry department at Mass General Hospital and as a volunteer at the same hospital in their chemotherapy infusion unit I’ve sat in many waiting rooms accompanying patients to appointments. What I quickly learned is that sometimes a phrase that sounded like something that would be comforting came across as trite as soon as it left my lips. So I started listening instead because I like to think it’s something I’m good at and I began to notice it’s something people crave who are under medical care. In hospitals there are usually more questions than answers. More discomfort than comfort. Most of the time doctors, nurses, or family members are all asking something of you, however well intentioned. What do we do now? Can I have your date of birth? Do you have any allergies? Amidst the cacophony of voices there is rarely a trickle from the still waters inquiring, “how are you handling this” or “what do you need”? Part of ministry for me is learning how to be present with each other—how to be present in suffering, how to walk with one another through the valleys, not around them.
The past couple of months my mind has been continually coming back to this moment I had with my grandfather who passed away this summer. Whenever I would come to visit my family in Louisiana my grandfather and I usually had a tradition of sitting next to each other at the dinner table. Even though he was in a hospital bed we still kept up with the habit. As I was assisting him with eating dinner one night, he was quiet for a moment, and then turned to me, looked me in the eyes and said, “I’m ready to go, but I know she wants me to stay with her”. My grandfather lived to serve my grandmother, and I knew this was very hard for him to admit being a very quiet, reserved man of the Greatest Generation. While he was eating, I wasn’t sure what the right thing was to say, so I just decided to listen. I think in that moment that’s exactly what he needed, someone whom he trusted to carry that burden with him. I was happy to do so.
Over the past several years I had been listening intently to what God was telling me to do with my life. During that time I realized that ministry fit so well with what’s most important to me in my life and what I aspire to do. I hope to continue to serve others as best I can, as long as I can, in whatever form that will take in the coming years. I know we are not all meant to go to divinity school or take on professional ministry positions like chaplaincy, but really listening, being there for one another, helping one another carry the load, is a ministry we can all participate in.
I’ll leave you with a quote that has stayed with me since I first read it: “It is our wounds that enable us to be compassionate with the wounds of others. It is our limitations that make us kind to the limitations of other people. It is our loneliness that helps us to find other people or to even know they’re alone with an illness. I think I have served people perfectly with parts of myself I used to be burdened by.” Come, let’s be servants together. Will you join me? Amen.