A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, under different vocational aspirations, I spent a couple of years in seminary. One of those years included a summer internship for the required pastoral care course. I signed up for the stint which took place through the local Christian Mental Health facilities, Pine Rest and Wedgwood Christian Services. Not to take anything away from any of those experiences or the good intentions of those coordinating the program, but I really only had two instances in which I learned something of practical Reformed value.
The first was a rather mundane orientation session with my fellow interns at the Pine Rest campus. In a nicely polished room around a very conducive conference table, we met with a team of resident psychiatrists who treated the chemically dependant. My group of fellow interns included an older man of Hispanic descent with a fairly strong accent. For the life of me, I cannot remember his name but I do recall I enjoyed saying it. I also like to say “Guido,” so for the sake of this effort I will call him that. Unlike the rest of us twenty-something’s, Guido was somewhere awash in his forties. He had a very demonstrative disposition generally speaking, and quite fond of letting his love for Jesus be known. Not to diminish that love, but his was that favorite American spiritual-narrative of being saved from a life of drugs, alcohol and a general string of what many ordinarily deem very bad judgments. And his model for ministry was probably best thumb-nailed as that other favorite psycho-spiritual outlook, “Jesus beats beer.”
When Guido’s turn came to introduce himself it didn’t take long for it to turn into the same excited story we’d all heard many times before about his previous life of debauchery now reformed. (To be honest, it wasn’t too unlike one of those charismatic “Just Say No” speakers we got in the 1980s between fifth period chemistry and lunch, only this time with Jesus stapled on at the end). This venue, he claimed, was perfect for him because he, too, had been down and out on the sauce. Eventually the “Jesus is betta’ than drugs and don’ nobody need no stickin’ shrink to get betta’!” speech kicked into high gear. While most of my peers nodded in requisite affirmation, I looked at my feet as it went on and on, until a rather understated voice took advantage of Guido’s need to take a breath. It was one of the psychiatrists. I couldn’t see him from my angle. “Well, actually,” he suggested, “what most of these folks need is precisely a psychiatrist. They really don’t benefit from the false hope that faith fixes their problems.” I nodded in requisite affirmation. I am not sure I have witnessed, up close and in person anyway, a finer example of Calvinism putting the kibosh on well meaning but misguided piety. I was as boosted by the doctor’s Calvinist correction as my peers were mesmerized by Guido’s revival. The meeting pressed on otherwise unremarkably.
The second instance happened during a stint in juvenile lock-down on the Wedgwood campus. These were the kids so bad that they lived in what can only be described as a small prison. One side of the building housed females, the other males. I was to go and spend time with the girls. They seemed like the too-cool-for-school adolescents I had when I taught high school literature, only times ten. It reminded me of just what turned me off about teaching high school in the first place. Frankly, I didn’t want to be there at least as much as them. This was during the WWJD craze when all the kiddos wore those bracelets meant to spark redeemed conversation.
Of all things, the cell-block curiously included one standard-issue pool table. One girl, for whatever reasons, took up my offer for a round of eight-ball. After another awkward round laced with cynical, pre-pubescent undertones of anger and resentment for which I had relatively little patience, I decided to push the panic button, take a deep breath and ask what gave with the WWJD bracelet. Of course, having a slew of evangelical nieces and nephews, I knew the deal. And so did she: the wearer was obligated to “go Guido” on the inquirer. I knew that she knew that I knew that she knew I was playing the asinine game set up by insipid spirituality in order to “connect with a teen” I really didn’t care to connect with and who could’ve cared less about my presence. I think we both threw up a little bit. But she was the bigger man and mercifully played along for my sake: “It stands for Wedge Wood Juvenile Delinquent.” That wasn’t exactly the sort of redeemed conversation the designers of popular piety had in mind. But I have always remembered that remark. And it’s not just because I’m a hopeless sucker for contrarian, sarcastic wit. But also because, she, like the psychiatrist at Pine Rest, had probably a more realistic understanding of herself than any patronizing counselor who wanted her to be as in love with herself as God is reckoned by some to be.
And that’s what I learned at camp.