By Norris Burkes
Posted Dec 10, 2017 at 7:14 PM
In 1991, I began training to become a hospital chaplain in a yearlong postgraduate residency called Clinical Pastoral Education. It was a hospital-based clinical internship that consisted of half-dozen seminary graduates.
Each morning, the student interns went onto the wards to support patients in need of spiritual care. In the afternoon, we’d regroup in our classroom to critique our patient visits with our supervisor and fellow students.
Dr. Timothy Little was our supervisor. He was an old hand at teaching his charges how to walk with patients through sickness and pain. He was blind, yet quite like Yoda with limitless wisdom. He often used a critique tool called a “verbatim,” which was our written recollection of a visit in a word-for-word description.
One afternoon, I walked the hospital floors, trolling for souls, determined to find a patient for my verbatim that would shine a favorable light on my abilities.
At the nurses’ station, a nurse described a patient who’d been requesting a chaplain. The man, in his 50s, had just received a terminal diagnosis of stomach cancer. However, before the nurse could explain more, an urgent phone call interrupted her.
Never mind, I thought, waiving a dismissive hand. I pushed out of the station like I was Chaplain America looking for a patient to save.
I found the room and opened the door. A few feet into the room, my game face shattered. The male patient appeared every bit pregnant.
Fortunately, I think his bulging gut blocked him from seeing the shock on my face and I made a composed introduction. The man responded well, taking an immediate liking to me and freely shared the doctor’s prognosis.
“Would you pray with me?” he asked. “I feel God in me and know he wants to heal me.”
“Certainly,” I said, smiling inwardly. This was someone I just might “save.”
I prayed a strong prayer from my Baptist tradition, full of words like, “If it be thy will, God,” and “In Jesus name we ask thee.” In retrospect, it was more like I was casting a theological incantation rather than trying to understand the man’s soul.
Still, he offered a satisfied smile. I was sure my patient would be the stunning star of my upcoming verbatim.
Just as I was about to dismiss myself, the man placed his hand on his belly.
“Sometimes I can feel him move.” He said.
“Pardon me. Who do you feel move?”
“Jesus!” he proclaimed. “Jesus is returning through me. I’m carrying God’s son.”
Along about then, the nurse appeared at the door and motioned me outside.
“Chaplain, I was trying to tell you that our patient is also psychotic.”
I shot her my best “No-duh” look.
“I was trying to tell you that when my phone rang,” she said.
A few days later I humbly presented the verbatim as a “How-not-to.” I admitted that I’d not waited for the nurse’s guidance or tried to hear the patient’s pain. I confessed that I was merely trying to put another notch on my ecclesiastical gun belt.
Dr. Little tapped his white cane on the floor. “Well, well, well,” he said, “I think we might have the makings of a chaplain.”
Years later, I reprised that verbatim, this time before a peer committee as I sought professional certification as a chaplain.
“What did you learn?” asked one committee member.
“I learned that I can’t be the hero of someone else’s story. When someone invites me into their story, I can’t morph into the Great Explainer or shine as the Truth Holder. I must honor the way God intersects their story without injecting myself into it.”
They all voted to endorse me as a new chaplain — and gratefully their commendation demonstrated yet another way in which God intersects my story.
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