Last Saturday, with the help of Acworth friends and family, Rachelle, John Henry and I filled a UHaul and moved east to our new apartment in Concord. On Monday I began my first week as Chaplain at Havenwood Heritage Heights (HHH). Leaving Acworth was one of the hardest things I’ve done. The Acworth church was not just the community that licensed and ordained me into Christian ministry, it was also the community in which I grew up and where I was baptized. But something began stirring in me during the winter of 2017, only months after my ordination service. It was a strange thing to feel unsettled in a place that I had spent the previous six years settling into. I sat with the feeling for a few months before having a whole different kind of disruption arrive in the form of my diagnosis of non- Hodgkins lymphoma, on Good Friday, 2018. My illness sidelined me from my ministry for six months per doctor’s orders. I received an intense inpatient form of chemotherapy that had me on many precautions and largely kept me isolated from the community. The experience of illness and its isolation and the way that it strips so much away from your life led me into one of the loneliest and darkest hours of my life.
And I remember one of the more difficult moments was the week when I reported to the ER because of a high fever and proceeded to spend the next six days receiving IV antibiotics and under constant supervision. At one point during that week I complained to the rounding physician that I felt trapped and stuck and I wish I had just stayed home to recover from this fever – and he responded to me that if I had not come into the hospital, I would have died. My body’s immunity was nonexistent and the infection in my lungs would have easily taken my life. The realization of this struck me deep and I couldn’t hold back tears. Later I went to the chapel and opened up one of the Bibles to 2 Corinthians 1. Something one of the chaplains had said to me earlier that day had reminded me of Paul’s words in verses 3 and 4: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” And so I read those verses and then kept reading. And as I read on, tears returned as Paul’s words spoke deep to my frustrated and fearful heart: “We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (vv. 8 and 9). Tears once again welled up in my eyes. I felt in a way I never had before the truth that my life is hidden in the deeper life of God, the one whom one of my favorite hymns calls, “the true Life of all.” People have asked me what cancer has taught me and the deepest and most profound thing was something that I had preached many times before but felt in a truer and more real way than I ever had before in the middle of the darkest time in my life.
During my time serving the Acworth church as a student pastor, I had found myself drawn to a first, then a second, third, and fourth unit of Clinical Pastoral Education at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. At the time I merely considered it good supplemental training and support for ministry - which it was. But as I sat in the Oncology unit during one of my many admissions, on a hospital bed the like of which I had visited many times before as a chaplain intern, I began to realize that I had been preparing for a ministry of a different sort than I had originally thought. I wanted to companion with people as they went into the fearful and uncertain places like what I was experiencing – and help to bring them something like the comfort and hope that I had received on account of the care of chaplains, friends, family, and the prayers of so many.
In August I received an email from Rev. Michelle DeCoste, Director of Spiritual Care and Education at HHH. She told me that they were looking for someone to be the third chaplain on their team ministering to the five to six hundred residents in the continuing care retirement community and she wondered if I might be interested in applying. As I learned more about HHH I began to see that this opportunity was something that I had been uniquely preparing for – it would combine my work in the community with
the clinical work I had been doing per diem in hospital and hospice in southwest NH. I would lead worship and evening prayer – even Bible study – while also being a part of the interdisciplinary team caring for residents in times of crisis and change, grief and loss. I interviewed in early September and was offered the position a week later. I look forward to learning this place and this community and playing my guitar for gatherings of worship and prayer – and I look forward also to companioning with the residents, to being an embodied reminder of the true Life of all who has promised never to leave us, but walks with us and carries us through the darkest of valleys even to the end of the age. I invite your prayers for this new ministry at HHH, for the residents and staff here in this place, for the Acworth church as they begin the process of calling their next minister, and for Rachelle, myself, and John Henry as we get settled into our new life in Concord. Thank you for all your love and prayers and support that you have given to me and my family these past few years. Grace and peace to you.
Rev. Joel Eaton Chaplain
Havenwood Heritage Heights
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