Sometimes pastors ask me what it would take to become a hospital chaplain and in the “Right stuff” climate of the space coast I’m tempted to answer – “righteous stuff.”
Or I might give them the same wisecrack response I once got when I asked a Methodist friend, “What would it take for me to become a Methodist?”
“More than you got,” she replied, shaking her head in dismay. “More than you got.”
If the person continues with a serious inquiry, I usually tell them that it takes school, work experience and a successful completion of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). CPE is a one year clinical residency in which students visit patients under the mentoring direction of a gray-haired supervisor.
I tend to remember my training days in a mystic fog similar to the old Kung Fu episodes. I had a supervisor who was like a Yoda Jet Eye Master and almost as comical in his appearance. His wisdom filled morning lectures and afternoons were spent applying our new wisdom on patient.
One piece of wisdom he imparted seemed a bit odd at the time. “Sometimes,” he said. “the only power a patient has left is the power to kick the chaplain out of the room. You can’t kick the doctor or nurse out, unless you want to give up and die, but the patient will believe the chaplain can be dismissed without a negative effect.”
I saw that advice come to fruition one day as I entered the crowded room of a woman was being discharged from our hospital after undergoing a routine ysterectomy. But the morning brought terrible news – her house had burned to the ground the previous night. Now, the social workers and I were the preverbal “king’s men” summoned to put her humpty dumpty world back together again.
I introduced myself as the hospital chaplain and then I simply grasped her hand and simply said, “This has been a pretty difficult day for you. I understand you received some terrible news.”
Up to that point she had kept her composure, but upon hearing those words, her tears erupted in loud sobs. All she could do was shake her head acknowledging the truth in my statement.
At this point, you need to know that my wife teases me by telling people that I have no job satisfaction unless I can make people cry. I guess that statement could use some explanation.
She knows that I talk to people about intimate matters and when people want to deny their pain and suppress the tears, they give “just the facts.” But as people are given permission to safely unfold their story without ridicule or critique, the tears become the stream which floats the story. The tears can be the only tangible indication that that truth is about to surface for air.
But, not everyone is as impressed with my skill to encourage tears as is my wife. That was certainly the case that day because the tears brought a very tall and menacing 19-year-old man in my direction.
“Get out of here!” he commanded.
“Pardon me? I asked, begging for understanding.
“You’re making my mamma cry!” he accused.
“Making?” my mind questioned the incredulity of the accusation.
Still sobbing, the woman used one hand to direct her son out of the room and her other hand to anchor my hand to her side.
“Get out of here!” he repeated, ignoring her direction. “ You can’t come in here and make my mamma cry.”
“Maybe,” I slowly and guardedly suggested, “ I am the only one who has come here today willing to give your mother permission to cry.”
His mother nodded in more agreement, but my suggestion went right past him. He repeated his order and brandished his fist just out of his mother’s view. My supervisor had been right: the son was exercising the only power he had left and I was being dismissed.
“You! “ his mom declaredly defined, “are the one who is leaving. Right now!” she barked.
“Mamma,” he pleaded. Mamma had the real power.
“Now!” She ordered. Right now before I have them call hospital security.” With that, he found an exit. I stayed as the social workers devised a plan on where she would spend the next few days. The tears diminished in proportion to which problem was shared.
In the man’s efforts to suppress the tears, he was actually telling his mother that their pain was too much for him. Perhaps I should have asked, “If she stops crying, will you feel better?”
Many of us will seek to stop the tears of others with a pat on the back or a quick hug because their tears are making us uncomfortable. We mistake the symptom of tears for the actual problem and believe if we can dismiss the problem with the tears.
What would it take to become a chaplain? My guess is that it requires much of the same thing that is required to be a real person. Perhaps being a paid chaplain requires much more, but it seems to me that message of the Gospel is that we all need to be ministers And sometimes, when the only power people have left is the power to express tears – or even aggressive anger – ministry can take place as we become willing to give emotion permission to be expressed.