I’ve discovered something that chaplains and physical therapists have in common — patients lie to us. Patients lie to PTs about exercising and lie to chaplains about church attendance.
How do I know people lie to PTs, you ask. Uh, maybe because I’m not exactly forthcoming with mine.
“Did you do your neck stretches this week?” she asks.
“Every time I cross the street,” I add in a mumble.
Like the PT, I’m often on the receiving end of these creative stories, especially when I ask the patient where they get their spiritual strength.
The question is aimed at finding what connects them to a spiritual significance as I try to help them sort out their spiritual presuppositions about illness.
But 8 times out of 10, they misinterpret my intent and exaggerate their church attendance.
How do I know? Hey, if they can’t remember their church’s name, denomination or pastor’s name, they ain’t been in a while.
Usually, after I assure them I’m not their fourth-grade Sunday school teacher putting stars on an attendance chart, we get down to meaningful conversation.
This pretty much describes a conversation I had with a dialysis patient when I asked him where he got his spiritual support.
“I’m not sure I even believe in God.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “I’m in customer service, not sales.”
He liked that and, despite the fact I didn’t always relate to his engineer mind, we managed to develop a friendship during the next year. We found common ground in conversation about the future, about our daughters, about investing and about how I could dampen the noise of that infernal train running through my subdivision.
One day, I went to see him in the hospital after I heard he was hospitalized for something routine. After a quick visit, I left with assurances he’d be discharged soon.
But “soon” faded into four weeks, and with each visit he seemed worse. Until one day, we found out just why he wasn’t getting better.
He had cancer, and he wasn’t going to get better.
Our next several visits turned from engineering and investing toward spiritual things.
But when he asked me what I thought about God, I looked surprised. I assumed he knew what I believed: Yes, there was a God; yes, he was a loving God; and yes, he wanted an up-close relationship with us.
“Yes, but I want to know what I should do with God in my situation. How do I approach God? I trust you to tell me.”
“Going to God is just like talking to me. Just talk. Tell God you need to have a relationship.”
“I feel like a hypocrite. I’ve never talked to him before. And now, in the end, he’s supposed to believe I’m sincere?”
“It’s OK,” I said.
“Yes. You may recall that Jesus was crucified between two revolutionaries who had killed and robbed for their cause. The first guy, ‘Dead Man Mocking,’ goaded Jesus to use magical powers to save them all. The other guy couldn’t find any pride in the life he’d lived, so in the last hours of life, he sought Jesus for a spiritual connection.
“Jesus didn’t rebuff his request because it seemed hypocritical. Instead, he assured the man that his ‘prayer’ was answered and he’d escort the man to his spiritual home.
“With God,” I concluded, “it doesn’t matter what you’ve done with the past years of your life, it only matters what you’re going to do with the next minute of your life.”
“I don’t think I can talk to God by myself. Can you do it for me?”
At this point, you need to understand a chaplain’s training is in reflective listening and presence. We don’t do Ann Landers. We listen.
We usually intersect short term with patients. Not so with this man. I met him while he was walking the same road I was walking. He wasn’t asking for reflective listening, he was asking for spiritual intervention, asking me to take him to God.
I’ve done some fairly unorthodox things. I’ve tape crystals to patients’ wrists, turned a bed eastward, put a healing blanket on the bed and garlic under the bed. But nobody had ever asked me to lip-sync their prayers — very unorthodox.
“OK,” I agreed, “but if I pray something you don’t agree with, squeeze my hand for a do-over.”
As I did my best to prayerfully reflect my friend’s intentions, the prayer reminded me of the steadying hand I offered my daughter as she first learned to walk. Now, this man wanted my prayers to steady him as he learned how to walk to God on his own. Suddenly, it seemed quite reasonable to be unorthodox again.
As I left his room, I passed my physical therapist in the hall holding out her arms to steady a wobbly patient. I suddenly felt the inspiration to return to my office, do my neck exercises, and say prayers of gratitude for all the helping hands in my life.