The most critical and frequent question I get from readers is usually phrased something like: “Why don’t you use your job as a hospital chaplain to tell people about Jesus?”
That question is second only to: “Why don’t you use this column to tell people about Jesus?”
The question assumes several things, but mostly it assumes that chaplains represent Christianity and should evangelize patients. The second question assumes that a Christian who writes a spiritual column for a secular newspaper should limit his writings to Christian teachings.
Hospital chaplains — like spiritual columnists — don’t “represent” a single belief. Chaplains don’t wear the hat of pastor, rabbi or even Sharma. That’s because in a hospital, it doesn’t matter who we are. What matters to the chaplain is what you are: the patient, the reader.
In the hospital, like in this column, I try to help people get in touch with the spiritual component of their lives. I affirm the personal beliefs of the patient because when people are sick or dying, they tend to look toward their own healing rituals for comfort. And while I believe that Jesus is my friend — and even theirs — I don’t believe people should hear that proclamation from a stranger at their sickbed.
As a hospital chaplain who is a Christian, I’ve done some unorthodox things that have the capability of making even my own pastor uncomfortable. When patients have asked me, I’ve taped crystals to their wrists, turned their bed eastward, read the Bible, read the Koran, spread a healing blanket on their bed and placed garlic under their bed.
I did these things because those patients deserved my respect, not because I personally share their beliefs. When I have shown proper respect for people’s beliefs, I have sometimes been honored with questions about my beliefs.
On one such occasion, I met a cancer patient who told me that he wasn’t even sure he believed in God.
“That’s fine,” I joked. “I’m in customer service, not sales.”
He liked that retort, and we established common ground for our visits over the next several weeks. One day, in the grips of his illness, he fired multiple spiritual questions, which I answered in rapid succession.
Yes, there is a God; yes, God is loving; yes, God wants an up-close relationship with you. He then asked how he could talk to God. “Talking to God is just like talking to me,” I said. “Just say what you feel.”
He wondered aloud if God would consider him a hypocrite for waiting until his dying days to pray. It was then he asked me to do something I’ve never done before or since. “Say the words for me.”
Like I said, I’ve done some fairly unorthodox things, but nobody had ever asked me to lip-sync their prayers — very unorthodox.
“OK,” I agreed, “but if I pray something you don’t agree with, squeeze my hand for a do-over.”
As the man reached for my hand, I told God that my friend wanted to know him. I told God that the man sought forgiveness and wholeness and was asking for God to come into his life.
It was a prayer I will never forget. It was a prayer that never would have happened if it hadn’t started with respect.
Is there someone you want to share your faith with? If so, ask yourself how that sharing might look if it starts with respect.