Monday, March 12, 2007


This afternoon I was called upon to do what I have done before; to speak in a class of fresh-faced college students about the work I do as a hospice chaplain. The critical difference between today's class and other classes in which I've spoken was that today's class was at the local Bible college, a Bible college significantly more conservative than my social milieu. This should not be surprising, as I do live in Indiana, which is not exactly Diane Feinstein country. But, I am always taken aback when certain assumptions are made about me because I am a chaplain. Mainly assumptions about my belief in Jesus Christ as the only way to heaven, and my understanding of the importance of "winning souls" before people die. Today I was asked, "Is it hard for you to just let people die when you know they aren't saved?" and "How do you feel good about your work knowing that so many people don't come to Jesus before they die? Do you feel responsible for that?" I don't think I gave them the answers they wanted, the easy pat answers, the answers which seem to guarantee a one-way ticket to heaven.

Instead I talked about the power of story as that crucible which holds us. I spoke of the power of being heard into speech and the importance of listening, and then listening some more. I told them that each person has to tell their own story, and find the ways in which grace and forgiveness and confession and guilt and loss and hope and resurrection have all played a part in weaving each person's life story. I talked of a God of love and forgiveness who is manifest in many forms and many ways and with many names. And many of their eager faces seemed to stare at me with blank stares. And then one young woman said, "I have a question for many people in your agency are Christian?" And I wanted to bang my head on the table and say, "Who gives a flying fuck?!? Is it that important to label people into your all-important categories?"

Sometimes I feel like a hypocrite in my work, as if I am the one the least concerned with bringing my patients to kneel before the feet of Jesus. Instead, I would like to imagine Jesus sitting at their feet, washing their mottled toes, and healing their wounded hearts, completely unconcerned with their theological rules.

Perhaps I'll burn in hell for that. But, if that's the case, I think I'll find myself in good company with the other sinners.


ReverendKathryn said...

I too have faced people's assumptions about me in my role as chaplain. I work for a Catholic (faith-based healthcare) organization, and so a lot of staff assume I am Catholic as well. I am always amazed at some of the ideas that people have about what a "chaplain" is. I think the most scrutiny I faced about this was during my ordination procedure in the East. I was asked "how I preach an evangelistic message in a multi-faith/multi-cultural setting". I am sure I did not give this "member of the board" the answer he was expecting, but hopefully I taught him something about working in a multifaith, chaplain ministry.

harper said...

Thanks for this posting. I am a lay chaplain in a retirement community. I have an M.Div,but couldn't bring myself to jump through the many hoops required by the UMC to become ordained. And I would have had to serve churches anyway, since chaplaincy is "ministry beyond the local parish" i.e. a little suspect "Here lie Dragons..." Most of the people I encounter here are self-identified as Christian, but it has been so important to meet people where they are; to hear their fears or their faith. It still amazes me that some flavors of Christians have such a tiny, tiny view of God, that s/he will only "save" those who say the words of the right little formula. So meet you in hell? Let's do lunch. Thanks for writing this, I'll be back.

Chris said...

Oh Christen,
I believe with all of my heart that you are right. And I loved the imagery at the end of Jesus serving your hospice patients in their final days.
Hang in there!
Chris (in VA)

P.S. It's been fun to keep up with your pregnancy -- you'd better share the news of Grayson's arrival as soon as you are physically able to get to a computer!!

Marty said...

Congratulations on the miracle in your midst...and his upcoming birth. Your life will be never be the same.
Wow - what a couple of posts!
As a former fellow student during your time in the chaplaincy program at Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne, I wanted to comment - but first, I thought I would ask a question that would help clear things up for me a little (this question is for Kathryn, Harper, and Chris as well)
I would start by asking - is heaven a real place, and is hell a real place?
I ask in the hope of learning more about where you are coming from - not so much in a polemical way. Although as you know, we in The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod are the worst________(fill in the blank)
By the way...I googled you as well as the rest of the crew from our group and came across your blog that way. Kathy is in Michigan? Couldn't find anything on Debbie and Karen - greet them for me if you see them sometime.


Contemplative Chaplain said...

Marty! Wow! So good to hear from you. I'm so glad you're reading. You're a good man who has challenged me to think in so many ways. Send me an email so I can be more in touch personally. Let me know where you are now!

"imagine the darkness in love with the light." said...

i too will be seeing you the the very hot place. for having such an open mind.

harper said...

The truly honest answer to the question "Is heaven (or hell)a real place?" is "I don't know" if we are talking about it on a literal basis. If we are speaking metaphorically, I think the answer is "yes". I can tell you that in the nursing home section of the place I work, there are a number of people who are in hell, not necessarily because they are in more pain or sicker than others, or lacking in family attention or anything else. I try not to judge people and I don't know every detail of their past, but some folks just seem miserable no matter what. And there are some who seem to be genuinely happy no matter what. The great mystic and poet William Blake wrote, "Gratitude is Heaven itself" I am inclined to agree.

Marty said...

Sorry for the slow reply – I am serving my vicarage in northern Minnesota, and will receive a Divine call into the ministry this April at the call service in Fort Wayne.

So much to say, but I will try to keep it brief. Harper – thanks for answering – if heaven and hell are just metaphors – I might ask metaphors for what? Heaven and hell are very real – without confessing that, how can you give anyone real comfort in this broken world? (and as we know, Jesus said we will have tribulation in this world, John 16.33).

I believe the reason one gives such an answer is because to confess that heaven and hell are real places would leave you no option but to start down a path that leads away from you and your personal comfort zone, and straight into harder questions.

For instance, if heaven is a real place - it would mean that there are souls there at this moment!

Likewise, if hell is a real place – then there must be souls there as well, and then you have to answer the question "why are they there?" the answer is not – "because they are sinners" - after all, we're all sinners - Jesus tells us that (and if we need anymore proof – all we need to do is look at our lives). The reason people go to hell is not because they are sinners, but because they have not received forgiveness for their sins. That would lead to the next question – "how do we receive forgiveness of our sins?" the answer is, through faith in Jesus (which He works in us by the way – it's not a choice like so much of pop evangelical Christianity tells you) – through faith we receive His robe of righteousness and can stand before our heavenly Father cleansed by the blood of the Lamb. His death and resurrection have paid the price for our sin. That is the comfort of the cross for all to know.

What liberalism (which is a religion unto itself) does in its search for God's "presence" – is to point oneself to look within – at the moral inclination of humanity, so to speak – and that road leads to nowhere but hell, eternal separation from God.

H. Richard Niebuhr describes how liberalism would have it's truth proclaimed…"A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross."

David Wells, in his book "God in the Wasteland" writes…
"There is a hunger for religious experience but an aversion to theological definition of that experience. There is a hunger for God but a disengagement with dogma or doctrine. And their characteristic abandonment of boundaries – boundaries between God and the self and between one religion and another – typically results in a smorgasbord of spirituality for which the only acceptable criterion of truth is the pragmatic one of what seems to work personally"
I think he has put it well.

I would share with you the Gospel - the truth that Jesus Christ is Savior of the world.

Anonymous said...

I have traveled, not as a chaplain but as a daughter, friend, sister, work partner and lover, with many beautiful souls who have found their way through illness, death and peaceful ongoing..Many of these journeys began and ended before the idea of hospice or at least before my experience with the concept. As I read your words I felt the truth of all those experiences and was thankful that you have been a part of that for so many. Bless you for teaching even when you cannot be sure of the learning. Bless you for listening and loving and seeing the spirits beyond the pain and through the healing. You are appreciated and more important than you probably know. Your son, like the rest of your family, is clearly blessed by your presence (whether they know it or not! Smile) MCT