I was getting close to graduating from Asbury Theological Seminary and heading back to south Georgia to pastor a church. But before I could go, I had to complete a semester of working in a hospital for a supervised ministry course. If I am honest about it, I was less than excited about taking this class. I didn’t have any desire to work in a hospital. Throughout my whole time in seminary my only desire was to get home and pastor a church. However, I knew I would spend some time visiting parishioners in hospitals in the years to come and the class was a requirement.
Each person in the course had to meet individually with the supervisor and decide what our goals were for the semester. I decided one of my goals was going to be to try and work through my own issues with death. I wanted to become more comfortable around death and people who were dying.
Twice a week I made the drive to the hospital to work my shift and go through the class. Throughout the semester I was exposed to things I had never seen before in my twenty-six years of living. Every night I went to the hospital to cover my area someone died. Every night. Some of my fellow students went the whole semester encountering only a couple of instances of death. It seemed as if not only was my supervisor listening to my goals, but so was God.
At some point I sat down with the supervisor to talk about my time at the hospital, graduation, going back to Georgia to pastor a church. He began talking about the future, his ministry, and how God was using him and I remember saying to him with all the confidence a very green smug twenty-six-year-old could muster, “I think you have to be crazy to do what you are doing.”
He replied, “Why would you ever say that?” And I said, “Because of all of the death. I know I will encounter it in my ministry, but here you are every night coming to work with the possibility that someone is going to die. That is absolutely crazy.”
Thankfully he didn’t fail me. When my time in seminary was over I headed back to south Georgia envisioning working in parish ministry the rest of my years.
The Courage to Walk Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death
When I look back at that foolish statement—“I think you have to be crazy to do what you are doing,”—I have come to realize I was the crazy one. I now believe I was trying to disqualify him and his ministry because I didn’t have the courage to do it myself. One of the main things I learned that semester I spent working in the hospital was I didn’t have the courage to be a hospital chaplain.
Webster defines courage as, “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” The Oxford dictionary says it is, “the ability to do something that frightens one.” What I didn’t understand when I was seminary was the courage it takes to walk through the valley of the shadow of death with others on a regular basis.
You don’t work in a hospital as a chaplain because you have it all figured out. You don’t work in hospice because you are a super servant or super spiritual. I believe you work in hospice because you have courage: “the ability to do something that frightens one.” I didn’t understand that at twenty-six, but I do now.
The “rest of my years” in parish ministry would only amount to ten. Towards the end of those ten years, I found myself pursuing a job as a hospital chaplain. I was equally excited as I was shocked when I made the change. I worked in a hospital for five years and then left to become a hospice chaplain where I just recently completed my thirteenth year. Through the years I have tried on many occasions to track down my supervisor from seminary just to hear him laugh and ask, “Who’s the crazy one now?”
There have been many days over the last thirteen years when I didn’t know what kind of situation I was going to encounter. Whether I was knocking on a door of a house in a neighborhood that many would say wasn’t safe, or when I have been called out in the middle of the night to try and provide comfort to a family. Through the years I have had young patients and old patients. I have spent time with patients for many months while others I only saw a couple of times before their death.
There are occasions when death is welcomed by the family as well as the patient due many days of suffering and pain. There are also days when it seems death snuck up like a thief in the night. No two situations are the same and yet many have commonalities. Death certainly has no respect for people.
Thankfully I do not have to do this alone. I have been blessed through the years to work with some very talented nurses, social workers, home health aides, office staff, volunteers and fellow chaplains. I have watched grown, professional adults cry with families as their loved one is getting close to dying or has died. It can be a difficult place to do ministry.
If I am honest, I am still not that courageous. I can be more like the cowardly lion in The Wizard of Oz who said,
“All right, I'll go in there for Dorothy. Wicked Witch or no Wicked Witch, guards or no guards, I'll tear them apart. I may not come out alive, but I'm going in there. There’s only one thing I want you fellows to do.
Tin Man and Scarecrow: What's that?
Cowardly Lion: Talk me out of it!”
But day after day I get up and go to work. I do it because the people with the real courage are the patients and the families that I will visit in a given day. They are the ones dealing with the pain, the sleepless nights, the incurable disease, the heartache, the struggle of letting go. They show more courage on a day-to-day basis than I do in several months. It is my hope and prayer that as I enter into their lives I might be an instrument of peace and mercy. They are the ones that keep me going.
The Promise of the Presence of God
Courage is a reoccurring theme in the scriptures. On one occasion, in Deuteronomy 31:6, the time had come in the Old Testament for Moses to die. He gathered the children of Israel around him and gave them some encouraging words and turned them over to Joshua. Moses said, “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
This is what keeps me going. This is where my courage comes from. Day after day I become close to patients and families only to watch them pass out of my life as they move from this life to the life to come. The promise of the presence of God keeps me, the patients, and their families courageous.
At different times I have had conversations with parish ministers and on more than one occasion they have said, “You have to be crazy to do what you are doing.” I have to laugh at how life comes full circle and I think God may be laughing as well. I don’t think you have to be crazy to be chaplain, but you do have to be courageous.
Cover image by Anton Darius.