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Alumni Spotlight: Rev. Merv Friberg (’78)

is issue’s Alumni Spotlight offers Rev. Merv Friberg’s reflections on his ministry as a hospital chaplain. Rev. Friberg is a Board Certified Chaplain with the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC), having earned degrees from Northwest Nazarene University (‘72) and Nazarene Theological Seminary (‘78). He is currently senior staff chaplain at Legacy Emanuel Hospital and Legacy Children’s Hospital and serves as the NNU region’s chaplaincy coordinator
for Nazarene Chaplaincy Services. Merv and his wife, Linda, have three adult children, two grandchildren, and live in Vancouver, WA.

THE GRACE-FILLED MESS OF MINISTRY                                         

It was obvious that Lillie, a little baby girl, was not going to survive another hour. Her young parents and I, a Pediatrics Chaplain, had journeyed together for four weeks. We had prayed for healing—a miracle—for all the staff caring for Lille, and for grace to be strong for her. That day, prayers evolved into expressions of acceptance. “We can’t force a miracle out of God, can we?” Lillie’s father, Dan, said with tears in his eyes. “She’s never even been outside…” cried Lillie’s outdoorsy mom, Molly.

The doctor offered Dan and Molly the opportunity to hold Lillie in their arms after the ventilator was removed—but they were unsure. “How about we take her off the vent, carry her down to our children’s garden, and allow her to rise to the Lord from among the trees and flowers?” I asked. “O, Chaplain, could we do that?” asked Molly. After I compassionately advocated for this family’s spiritual need, the hospital staff agreed.

We did a “Blessing of the Hands” ceremony for those who had cared for Lillie and who would now remove her from mechanical support. Lillie was removed from the ventilator, bundled up in Molly’s arms, and carried lovingly to the fog-enshrouded garden. As I prayed a prayer of release, requested inner healing for these loving parents, and thanked God for the staff who had worked so valiantly that past month, Lillie breathed her last. Molly spoke first, whispering, “Pastor, I think I saw her spirit rise up through the fog as you blessed her this very last time. You prayed my baby into Jesus’ arms. She is with Jesus now. She’ll be OK.”

Much has been written about relational theology and relational or servant leadership. A watershed moment in my life was sitting as a student at Nazarene Theological Seminary under the tutelage of Dr. Mildred Bangs Wynkoop, as she fleshed out her then new book, A Theology of Love (Beacon Hill Press, 1972). This was my first overt introduction to relational theology. It rang true to what I had observed in the parsonage where I grew up.

My NTS education opened the floodgates, freeing me to be who I would become.
Dr. Wynkoop helped me see that relationships with God and our fellow human beings encompass all of life. Important moments of decision must be infused with relational and ongoing grace. To be fully Christian, one must love in word and action. That was refreshing teaching.

Grace and sacraments can be messy as I work in a Level I Regional Trauma Center. Husbands die from heart attacks, wives die in car crashes, sons get shot; and too often, babies’ arrivals are marred by a hospital stay that ends when parents go home empty-armed. Life is messy. Therefore, grace must be messy too. The chaplain’s servant-role is to minister by discerning needs and responding appropriately.

Although Molly and Dan went home with empty arms grieving deeply, they also felt the everlasting arms of the Lord supporting them. The “Blessing of the Hands” was deeply sacramental in nature and bestowed grace. My advocacy to take Lillie out into the natural world that her parents had planned to share with her helped open space for God to grace their hearts with a lasting memory of His presence. The garden prayer marked Lillie’s transition—not from life to death but from illness to eternal life, and helped them move from hopelessness to hopefulness in the resurrection. I feel privileged that my presence with them, as their hospital chaplain, helped communicate and confer God’s grace in the midst of their messy lives.

I am so grateful to Dr. Wynkoop and other faculty at NTS, for teaching me the relational and servant nature of God’s grace by which we are transformed to be relational servants of others.

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