The Simpsons is a great fun-house mirror for American life. One of my favorite scenes of all time shows Bart and the two devoutly Christian Flanders boys playing a video game in which they throw Bibles at heathens in order to convert them to Christianity. Bart’s biblical projectile glances off of one of the heathens-making him a Unitarian. As a Unitarian Universalist myself, I’ve become used to being considered too religious by atheists and not religious enough by many Christians. The Bible must have just nicked me as it flew past!
Through my religious practice, I have become increasingly interested in the middle places between doubt and belief, between being a member of the flock and being the black sheep. The work of a hospital chaplain requires a unique ability to navigate this tricky middle ground. Like the creators of The Simpsons, I think that humor can be a good avenue for deepening our understanding, which is why it’s so important to explore and celebrate the (sometimes unintentional) comedy that is part and parcel of being a religious professional.
Many of the young chaplains I know suffer constantly from a “too much, but not enough” view of their spirituality and professional calling. A few years ago, I went for a girls’ night out with a young, single minister friend of mine. Two men approached us in a bar and started making small talk. Many young, single religious professionals can guess what happened next. How many conversations have you had – on planes, at cocktail parties, in bars – where the flirty banter screeches to an abrupt halt when your potential suitor asks, “So, what do you do?”? For women especially, it seems, answering, “I’m a minister,” or “I’m a chaplain,” can end a romantic moment more quickly than saying, “I own sixteen cats and I let them all sleep in my bed.” Even if one’s date clears that first hurdle, another lies ahead. Most chaplains are, almost by definition, tolerant of others’ beliefs and ecumenical in their own beliefs. In America, religious toleration and acceptance are not frequently aligned with the abiding faith and deep commitment to spiritual practice that are part and parcel of being a religious professional. And so, there can emerge the converse problem that people sometimes assume that because you are a person who has chosen a religious profession, you are a person of their religious persuasion.
One of the most outlandish stories I have ever heard from the trenches of hospital chaplaincy was based around this kind of dynamic. A family who held a particularly inflexible view of Christianity was refusing to cooperate with “heathen” hospital staff. They clung to the Catholic hospital chaplain, who, by virtue of being the lone religious figure present, they took into their confidence. This priest was quickly dragged into a rather questionable religious rite at a patient’s bedside. They spoke in tongues, their bodies shaken by the Holy Spirit; he sang prayers in Latin. Everyone was happier, though the nurses were perhaps rather bemused.
These complexities can be especially challenging for those chaplains who are not heterosexual. Many of the chaplains I have met are gay or lesbian, having come to chaplaincy after being unable to reconcile their sexual orientation with the expectations of their “home” Christian denomination. They wanted a life of religious service free of the harsh judgments of certain faith traditions, and found that they could occupy that middle ground by working as a chaplain. One of the main characters in a novel I published last year is a chaplain who is in a same-sex relationship. I remember one literary agent suggesting that I drop this gay chaplain character so that my book could be more readily marketed in Christian bookstores. I will admit that I considered it. (I’ve got bills to pay, after all!) But in the end, I decided that the book, like the lives of real chaplains, would have to embrace the space in between.
Chaplaincy is a unique calling, and occupies a unique place in a complicated American religious landscape. Whether you are someone who wholeheartedly embraces the Christian Bible (or the sacred text of another religion), someone who tosses it out the window, or someone who was nicked by it as it flew past, I will happily stand with you if you want to join me out here on the middle ground.
Article originally published in The Association of Professional Chaplains newsletter, November 2013. archive.constantcontact.com/fs196/1101810986071/archive/1115478955604.html#LETTER.BLOCK12