Ten years ago I was working as a pediatric chaplain in Sacramento where my rounds often took me onto the high-risk maternity unit. Beds in this unit were filled with scared pregnant women whose doctors had confined them to bed rest in hopes of avoiding a miscarriage.
One afternoon, our unit secretary, Jeannette, told me about a patient who was expecting twins, but her 23-week pregnancy was being threatened by severe complications.
“Her husband is a youth minister, so she has a lot of church friends in her room now,” Jeannette said.
Jeannette’s unusually quiet demeanor told me she was worried. “Maybe you could go introduce yourself. Might help if things go south.”
Inside the room, the minister greeted me with the typical chorus of religious platitudes.
“These twins are in God’s hands. I’m not worried,” he said in a dismissive manner. “We know God will heal these babies.”
The atmosphere of the room had me nearly convinced. It was littered with religious books, greeting cards and Bibles. The family had sacred music playing and pious jewelry adorned necks and earlobes.
So I departed, taking the minister’s hint and figuring my time would be better spent elsewhere. Forty-eight hours later, I returned to the nurses’ station where Jeanette whispered, “They’re going to need you now, chaplain. The twins didn’t make it.”
“They’ll need me, but will they want me?” I muttered.
Jeanette dared me to “give it a shot.”
I tapped my watch. “I’ll bet you they don’t give me five minutes.”
Prayerfully, I entered the room. It’s a risk going where you aren’t wanted, even when you wear the chaplain’s badge.
Nevertheless, I entered the room and found it a very different place, in stark contrast to its previous state with smiling church visitors and religious music.
The couple remembered me and invited me to sit.
“We’ve been in church work for years,” the pastor said. “Why couldn’t God help us?”
For a moment, I assumed they didn’t want a chaplain so I leaned forward to signal my willingness to leave. Yet, amazingly, they continued to unload.
“No, chaplain, stay,” insisted the grieving mother.
They sincerely believed God had shortchanged them. They swore they’d never return to church. God wasn’t fair. We deserve better. Is God a God of love? If God loves us, why does he hurt his children?
I was plenty uncomfortable, but I stayed through the barrage, listening to it all with the tenacity of a soldier in a firefight.
I lost my bet with Jeanette. My visit lasted 45 minutes.
During the next few days, I was invited for more visits.
On the day our patient was discharged, her youth-pastor husband said to me, “You probably wonder why we let you stay after we’d dismissed our congregants.″
“You were the only one willing to listen to our gripes about God,” he said.
“I was taken by your honesty,” I said. “You voiced your complaints directly to God. Most people aren’t that authentic. Instead of telling God exactly what they are feeling, they talk smack about God behind his back.
“I think God understands your talk. After all, God saw his son die, too.”
They nodded, thanking me for not trying to change their minds or judge them.
“Just make sure you keep up the conversation with him,” I said with a cracked smile.
I phoned their home a few times in the weeks that followed and found that they were still having daily conversations with God. And while those conversations didn’t sound much like their usual church prayers, I know God heard every word.
I’d bet Jeanette that I wouldn’t be allowed into the couple’s room, much less their lives. But because I listened to them without trying to defend or explain God, the couple allowed me a place in their sacred grief.
In the end, that’s a gamble I’ll take every time.
Contact Norris at [email protected] or @chaplain or 843-608-9715