When I was 19, I had a slight brush with the court over a college prank. (I’ll tell write that story when my moving van clears the county line) but since then, I’ve kept my nose clean. I’ve kept as far away from the courthouse as possible because I have no desire to ever hear a judge pronounce sentence over me.
Nevertheless I have to admit a fondness for one particular kind of court – the food court. At my arraignment hearing in food court, I was deemed an incorrigible coupon clipper always in search of the 99-cent fat bomb.
My inability to avoid this court has brought a harsh sentence upon me – endless jogging. Jogging is my punishment for the contempt I hold for good nutrition and I’ll be doing hard time until I show more respect for the food I eat. It is the justice I get for suppersizing instead of downsizing.
Of course, when it comes to food, I know God did not naturally bless me with love handles and the suffering I endure from jogging is the suffering I deserve. But what about the suffering we get that we don’t deserve? Patients frequently ask, “Chaplain, what did I do to deserve this suffering?” Why did God do this?
While “fitness nuts” frequently bring on their own pain, there are some “gym rats” who occasionally, work to abridge the “No Pain, No Gain” commandment. The man I met several years ago was one such rat who sought to bypass the pain only to hand it off to his family.
He was admitted to our ICU unit with the telltale sign of pneumonia. How he had denied it to himself and to others so long, we weren’t sure. He was very sick but it would take only a quick blood test to pronounce his sentence.
In the gym, he had shared injections of steroids and had contracted AIDS and now his doctor approached me.
“Hey, Chaplain, can you go with me to talk to the wife?” he asked.
We were on our way to deliver a double dose of bad news that would double again.
We found her in the waiting room and invited her into a physician’s consultation room. You never want to go into one of these closets. It won’t be good news. But here we were – just the three of us.
How do you tell someone something like that?
This doctor was known to just blurt out the bad news. I was sure he might say something like, “Hey lady! The one you love is dying from a deadly disease, and by the way, do the two of you practice marital relations? Because if you have shared any intimacy in the past two years, both of you will probably die.”
No, the doctor found a much more clinical explanation that was sheltered in a third person voice which made it sound as if this was happening to someone whom the three of us knew, but not to her. The doctor concluded with telling her that she would need to be tested.
For several moments she just stared at us. Finally she broke the silence.
“I’m pregnant. Twins!”
Yes, chaplains can swear – mostly under their breath – and this was one of those occasions.
I’m sure she must have thought how this wasn’t fair. “Why is God doing this to me?” she possibly wondered. It is much harder to answer the “God-isn’t-fair” question when it really seems like he is not fair. Nothing seemed fair about this. Was this to be the reward for this woman’s fidelity to her husband? Where the “sins of the father” to fall upon the mother and his children? To both questions, the answer seemed as though it would be “yes.”
“Was this what God was like?” she might have wondered.
It was the same question CS Lewis had after the painful death of his wife. He said he was not worried about suddenly becoming an atheist. He was worried that his despair might lead him to conclude, “So, this is what God is really like.”
The “Is-God-fair?” question is really one I like to defer to the CEO Himself. I’d like to tell people that I’m only in sales, not management – much higher pay grade than I, but I find some solace in the response given by CS Lewis to that fairness question.
While writing the book, The Problem of Pain, he had an argument with his publishers. He wanted to title the book, God’s Megaphone, because he believed that God did not cause our pain, but, if we allowed it, he would shape our pain into a megaphone through which he would speak to us. His challenge to people was to encourage them to ask “What can God say to me through the pain?”
The woman’s initial tests turned out negative and since chaplaincy is a bit like pastoring a parade, I never saw her again. But rest assured that in the coming months, the question for the woman would evolve to a much deeper question than “why.” The task of those involved in ministry with this woman would be to redirect her question in the coming months so that she was asking, not “why” but “where to from here?”
In the meantime, you should know that CS Lewis realized that one is never more in tune with what God has to say than when he is in the depth of pain.
Do you think that this is why I keep running? I keep looking for this epiphany found only in pain. One day, I hope to show enough remorse for my “contempt of court” that I can reappear and plead for leniency. Until then, running is my only sign of penitence.