By Norris Burkes Oct 29 2023
In my new book, “Tell it To the Chaplain,” I describe the yearlong postgraduate residency I took in 1991 to become a chaplain. The program was called Clinical Pastoral Education and was the hospital-based internship required to begin a career in healthcare chaplaincy.
Each morning, the interns went onto the wards to support patients in need of spiritual care. In the afternoon, we’d 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 Yoda-like with his limitless wisdom. He often used a critique tool called a “verbatim,” which was our written verbatim of a visit in a word-for-word description.
One afternoon I went onto the hospital wards determined to find a patient who would portray me in a favorable light to my supervisor.
As I walked past the nurses’ station, a nurse called me aside to tell me of a patient requesting a chaplain visit. The man he described was in his fifties and had just received a terminal diagnosis of stomach cancer. However, before the nurse could explain more, an urgent phone call pulled him back to the desk.
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. As I neared his bed, 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 as I composed my introduction. The man responded well. He took 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 your will, God,” and “In Jesus’s name we ask.” 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 the nurse my best “no-duh” look.
“I was trying to tell you that when my phone rang,” he added.
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.
Dr. Little tapped his white cane on the floor. “Well, well, well,” he said, “I think we might have the beginnings 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, I acknowledged that their commendation demonstrated yet another way in which God intersects my story.
You can find this story in “Tell It To the Chaplain” on my website, Amazon or by sending me $20. Send comments to [email protected]. Leave recorded comments at (843) 608-9715 or write 10556 Combie Rd Suite 6643 Auburn, CA 95602.