I confess there is a sort of sadistic streak in me that revels in the embarrassment of people who suddenly realize a chaplain heard their off-color remarks. They look at me like they are suddenly 7 years old again and I’m their mother threatening them with a bar of soap.
“Jeez, chaplain, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you standing there.”
I’m not a grammarian, but it is moments like these in which I jokingly step into the role of theological grammarian. For instance,
if you pronounce God’s last name as “Damn,” I might say, “No, no, no. He hasn’t used that name since Sodom and Gomorra.
He goes by his initials now: WWJD. Haven’t you seen the bracelets?
If you respond to frustration by saying “Oh God,” I’ll attempt to throw my voice into a deep baritone and say, “Yes, my son.”
If you blurt, “Jesus!” I might ask, “Was that a prayer?”
If I sneeze, and you respond with “God bless you,” I’ll say, “Thank you, he does.” Or, if I feel devilish, I might say “Thank you, she does.”
But, there is one thing about which I will correct you with all sincerity. If I hear you try to comfort someone with the words, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” I’ll say “The Bible doesn’t say that!” The quote is a poor paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 10:13, which is more accurately paraphrased as “God will not allow us to be tempted beyond our ability to escape.”
The folksy paraphrase of the verse changes the meaning of “temptation” to “burden,” and it burdens people with an understanding that God” gives” us calamities.
I guess I had heard that misquote one too many times when, one afternoon, I stumbled into a woman on the oncology ward who was losing her son to AIDS. She had that misquote wrapped around her neck, and she was stumbling under its weight. It didn’t seem to me she had any kind of superhuman strength. It did not seem possible to come to the conclusion that God required this woman to have the strength of the Greek god, Atlas, and hold up her world.
“Chaplain,” she asked, “can you talk with my son?” was her immediate request upon meeting me.
“He has AIDS, and you might have to put on some protective clothing,” she instructed.
Protocol did not require the clothing, but this was different. He had Hepatitis B, TB, AIDS and, if that wasn’t enough, the room was “hot” with the radioactive isotopes used to treat his cancer. His projectile
vomiting was a serious danger to staff, and that was just the danger he posed to us. His immune system was shot, and a sneeze from anyone of us might finish him off.
I entered the room looking like the Michelin Man, double-wrapped for freshness inside a space suit. With no shortage of expletives, he sincerely expressed how glad he was to see me — definitely not time to play theological grammarian. He had played a dangerous game with his life — the combination of drugs, male and female prostitutes all washed down with a considerable amount of alcohol had left this man delusional. However, he knew he was dying and sorry for the pain he had caused his mother.
After I finished my visit, I found the mother talking to the social workers outside. She told us how she had once been the Sunday school director of her church and now, people rarely spoke to her.
Then she quoted it — that saying I mentioned — “People tell me that God won’t give me more than I can handle, but I don’t know . . .” her voice trailing, “having both sons die of AIDS is more than I can bear.”
It takes a lot to give caregivers a cold shudder, but one went down the spine of everyone listening. Had she said “two sons?” That would mean this patient was not her only son, he was her only living son. She had been so heavily burdened with this misquote of scripture she now had the added burden of believing
she was failing a test sent from God.
Jesus jumped all over the preachers of his day for burdening people with loads they would not carry themselves. I find this to be one of the most reckless misquotes of scripture, because God doesn’t give us our “share of calamities.” Much of what we are “given” is either given unto us by others or self-acquired. I let her know that while this seemed to be much more than any human being could possibly handle, God had also endured pain as he watched the sacrifice of his only son.
But, now she had watched two. The only difference between the losses of these two parents — and the most important difference — was the way in which Jesus lived. There was no way to make this better. There was no way to create a happy ending to our conversation and no point pretending otherwise. I simply took her hand and held it and let her know that for the next several days, I would be here to help her shoulder this enormous burden.