By Norris Burkes, July 22 2022
On most mornings, I begin the workday at my hospice office by calling my patients to arrange for visits in their homes.
Today is much the same as I set an early afternoon appointment with a woman in her mid-sixties who’s been given less than six months to live.
She greets me at the front door of her modest home with a question.
“Are you a Christian chaplain?” she asks, leaning into the word, “Christian.”
Now, I’m not much of a grammarian, but I think she is using the word “Christian” as a qualifier. Please, don’t get all bleary eyed over the idea of grammar. This remains a spiritual column.
But you should know that a qualifier is a type of word that adds or subtracts meaning to another word. In this case, the woman is announcing what kind of chaplain she wanted me to be – or, perhaps, didn’t want me to be.
Before I tell you what I said, I need you to hear what I am thinking. It seems likely that the woman hails from one of two spiritual camps.
If she’s from Camp #1, she’s a firebrand Christian who’s asking to see my credentials. The question is her litmus test to allow or deny my entry.
However, if she’s from Camp #2, – she is hoping I’m not a Christian at all. She may well have been wounded by the folks from Camp #1, the people who tried to cram their brand of faith down her throat.
Honestly neither camp seems appetizing to me, so I throw out an answer.
“I’m just a chaplain who also happens to be a Christian.”
My response is designed to impart some not-so-subtle education. Whatever camp she’s in, she needs to know that chaplains come from all faiths. Chaplains shouldn’t be disqualified from ministry just because they don’t match her qualifications.
Hence the problem with qualifiers. They are used to disqualify people from their personhood. They don’t let us see the person God made. They qualify people as smart, fat, thin, pretty, homely, etc. In so doing they disqualify people.
For a moment, I think about telling her that Harvard University has a Humanist chaplain, Chris Stedman, who calls himself a “Faitheist.” But I think better of that. After all, “first, do no harm.” Right?
I don’t tell her any of that, but instead point to the label on my ID. “Actually, my hospice group prefers I use the title, “Spiritual Counselor.”
She returns a hard look that suggests she’s about to shoot me and the horse I rode in on.
Honestly, I don’t love the designation. But I go with it because I’ve come to realize that “Chaplain” carries too much baggage. The title brings a lot of assumptions into both camps. One group supposes that I’ve come to convert them, the other assumes I belong to their exclusive theology club.
But most of all, whatever camp the hospice patient hails from, I’m hoping we can speak to each other without qualifiers. She’s not just a hospice patient. She’s a person and I hope to find the best way to affirm her.
I need to help her drop the qualifying emphasis on the words. I don’t need to be a chaplain, counselor or even a “Christian.” I need to be the person who’s unafraid to come alongside her pain.
Finally, I say, “How about if I’m just Norris today?”
Her face finally softens. She nods and reciprocates with her first name.
She invites me inside.
We sit and chat for 45 minutes. We pray. We cry. We trade a few awkward laughs.
She’s a person. I’m a person. We both celebrate being God’s creation and fully qualified to share his love.
I never do figure out what camp she’s in. Perhaps I’m not qualified to make that call. Perhaps no one is.
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