Category: Religion and chaplaincy

Underneath it all

I’ve been tinkering with a new story lately and I was reminded of a phrase that’s always driven me batty: s/he is “a good person underneath it all.”

The story I’m writing is written from first person point of view, a perspective I haven’t used in awhile. Being inside your character’s head can allow a little more scope for introspection and give space for your character to explain his or her actions to the reader. As I was creating my protagonist, it struck me just how unlike real life that is. What a luxury to be able to do something crappy and then be able to spend a few paragraphs explaining your underlying motivations, limitations, and experiences!

As a society, we rarely afford one another this luxury. Say some NASCAR wannabe cuts me off on the highway and causes me to swerve. Perhaps I’m feeling generous enough to sketch out an appropriate justification and backstory for her — maybe she was rushing to her child’s school because she got a call from the nurse? maybe she’s a doctor who’s just been called in to consult on a critical patient?

But nine times out of ten, I’m going to flip that crazy driver the bird, mentally or verbally. (Sorry, kids in the backseat. Don’t repeat what Mommy just said at daycare.) Maybe then the cycle of judgement continues. Another driver who missed seeing the near-accident happens to drive past my car a moment later. They’ll see me swerve, and then pass me as I’m red-faced and screaming, with my wide-eyed kiddos in the backseat, trying to process the colorful vocabulary they just learned.  Neither crazy NASCAR driver nor I will have a chance to hand out explanatory pamphlets to justify our actions.

What I’m getting at is that life is basically one big series of stories written in third-person limited point of view. For the most part, your character (Let’s call her You) is essentially the sum of You’s actions.

The phrase “good person underneath it all” is often rolled out as a sad platitude by kindly former neighbors or classmates after someone does something heinous. It’s like an atomic “bless your heart” — a way of reminding ourselves that even villains have backstories. The underneath it all idea represents a perennial strain of moral philosophy. Just think of the schism between Catholics and Protestants over whether a soul can get to Heaven by faith alone, or whether good works are also needed. Even though I was raised Baptist, I always found myself on #TeamCatholic for this one. It seemed extraordinarily unfair that some absolute stinker who repented in his very last breath would have access to the same harp-strumming, blissful afterlife as, say, Mister Rogers.

Even though I have some definite ideas about this, even I have to admit that my Actions = Character argument has some limitations. Most of the time, bad actions are made more likely by circumstances. It’s easier to be generous if you’re not starving. It’s pretty damn hard to give love if you’ve never received it. I also have to find a moral space for things like mental and physical illness. If a bipolar friend flakes on me because she’s going through a manic episode, that doesn’t make me think she’s a fundamentally bad person.

Still, I maintain that the best path is to recognize that our interior lives are, a majority of the time, inaccessible to our fellow humans. So even if we have Darth Vader-worthy origin stories to explain how we went over to the Dark Side, as much as this dumb old world will allow, let’s try to stay on the sunny side. Smile. Give a compliment. Give a hug. Unless you carry around a stack of explanatory pamphlets, you’re stuck as a third person kind of person.

Competing Narratives

Yesterday, when a journalist described the “competing narratives” surrounding President Trump’s now-infamous July phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, I was struck for the first time by the word narrative.  As a fiction writer, the idea of narrative obviously isn’t new to me, but that news report suddenly made me think of the foundational importance of storytelling in very different way. Narratives are stories, accounts of people/characters and events connected in such a way that they form a coherent whole. I wasn’t only surprised that the transcript of one fairly short phone call could pitch an entire nation into spin doctoring frenzy. I was surprised that I hadn’t ever realized that “narrative” describes what we all do, all the time, about everything.

When constructing a narrative, a storyteller has to make judgments about which facts are important, and which can be set aside. I mean, Hercule Poirot is a fascinating character, but nobody wants to read 50 irrelevant pages about him waiting for a taxi. Context is also crucial in building a coherent story. The genius of The Girl on the Train is how the slow build-up of context continually reframes the disappearance that lies at the heart of the novel’s action.

There’s a great section in Sarah Blake’s novel The Guest Book where one of the main characters, a history professor, shows her class a picture of a grave. The tombstone is inscribed with the deceased person’s name and dates of birth and death. After the death date, July 1863, are the words “At Gettysburg, Far From Home.” She asks the class, “What is the history here?” The obvious answers are thrown out (Civil War battles, soldiers), but then the less obvious ones start to emerge (the home front, post-war memorial tributes). From there, even more obscure histories become possible (How do we even know this person was a soldier? Could he have been a slave brought to Gettysburg with his master? Do we know if this grave is even located in America?).

History is not discovering facts; it’s crafting narrative. And the task of a responsible historian is to gather the tools at her disposal–dates, voices, documents, material culture, artifacts, etc.–and tell the most convincing story that can be told about a chosen topic. Inevitably, that narrative will be shaped both by the storyteller and by the audience.

When looked at this way, it’s not just novels or history or politics that rely on creating narratives, it’s every single thing we as humans do. If I tell my husband about my day, I’m creating a narrative. Maybe I include the part where I went to Pilates class and walked the dog, but omit the part where I gorged on Halloween candy while watching the wedding episode of Outlander.

I’ve written before about the work of Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain. In her memoir, On Living, Egan explains that an important step in helping ease the final transition of a dying person can be to help them craft a life story, an autobiographical narrative, for themselves. In most cases, this isn’t a matter of literally writing anything or trying to remember everything that happened in a person’s life. For some people, crafting a life story may mean reframing a trauma as an experience that made them stronger. For others, it may mean accepting (or not) that some wishes will never be granted. In all cases, though, people are making decisions about inclusion/exclusion of facts (or beliefs) and giving them context. They are creating narrative.

Humans have developed this wonderful tool — narrative — to parse and make sense of our very complicated world. Is there such a thing as objective truth? Drop a rock and see if it floats. Sometimes facts and context are clear enough that even the most skillful spin doctor would have a hard time creating a competing narrative.

When God prank calls you

When I was in my early twenties, I planned to go to seminary and become a Unitarian Universalist minister. I cherished this dream for several years, going as far as meeting with admissions officers from Meadville Lombard Theological School. This revelation may come as a surprise to those who know how much I love swearing and sleeping in on Sunday mornings. Over this past summer, I mentioned my now-silent religious calling to chaplain and author Kerry Egan. She asked me what made me give up on the idea. “Well,” I said, “I realized that I’m not good at being. I’m great at doing, but horrible at being.” She knew just what I meant. Religious folk are supposed to exude a calm, non-striving presence. I’m a halfway decent listener and I’m genuinely empathetic. But I’m also an antsy, leg-jiggling, nail-drumming advice-giver and people-helper. A lot of times, what people, particularly those with spiritual problems, need is to be truly, deeply heard. I’m about as deep as a jelly roll pan and about as still as a Mardi Gras parade. I am not minister material.

What I didn’t share with Kerry was the full backstory of the period of my life that led me to give up on the idea of ministry. The decision not to pursue ministry grew out of working with the Worst Possible Mindy. Worst Possible Mindy–let’s call her WPM–is a former boss of mine, a hospital chaplain who worked at the Duke Medical Center. I think of her as the worst possible version of myself because she seemed to embody and amplify all my foibles. She was full of great ideas, but terrible at seeing things through to completion. Her prodigious energy sizzled out of her in all directions, often leading to confusion, chaos, and crisis-mode actions. She had strong opinions and never curbed the instinct to share them. Although WPM probably meant much of what she said in jest, her need to be heard could make her come across as an rabid alpha female or a bully. Watching her operate was like watching the Bizarro Superman version of myself. As a boss and as a human, she was pretty much a disaster. The fact that she was a chaplain, someone who was supposed to exemplify the best of humanity, someone who was supposed to be in close touch with the universal and the divine, made her failings seem 100 times worse. I gave up on ministry because I was afraid that would happen to me — that standing on that pedestal would lead to a nasty tumble. I concluded that my dream of becoming a minister had been wrong. God hadn’t really called me.

Kerry’s response to my statement about being versus doing was that she, too, lacked the essential skills of a minister. “I learned them,” she said. “I’m still learning them.” They reminded me of the tagline of Stacy Sergent’s wonderful Chaplain Jesus Lady bloglearning (and unlearning) about life, death, God, myself, and other things…  I’ve thought about those words for months. I don’t know if I’ll ever go to seminary. However, the idea of learning has had an effect on me. Most ministers aren’t born to be ministers. Good ministers remain open to learning how to be more human rather than striving to attain saintliness.

Maybe certain in-born characteristics can help your chances of success, but most of the being is actually in the doing, the trying, and the learning.

The Kindness of #alternativefacts, Part 2

I’ve always tended to believe that the stories we construct about a thing are every bit as important as the actual thing. Feelings and shared meanings connect us and make us human. Maybe this is why I love writing novels. Fiction allows me to couch my own truths in other people’s stories.

I’ve seen first hand what happens when facts are divorced from meaning. Before my baby was born, I used to occasionally volunteer at our vet school’s Pet Loss Hotline. I’ve written before about how the most traumatized calls I fielded were from people whose questions could never be answered. Maybe they had trusted their veterinarian, only to later wonder if that trust was misplaced. It was impossible to go back in time and see if another choice would’ve resulted in a different outcome. Or perhaps their unanswerable question was even more visceral, i.e. one day, their pet simply disappeared. These were the callers who couldn’t move past the loss. As humans, unless we can fit a fact into a narrative we can understand, our brains get stuck in a perpetual “does not compute” cycle. Until we can create an answer to WHY?, all the facts in the world just don’t add up to a hill of beans.

In my last post, I said that I used to believe that meaning trumped facts. That was my explanation for the enduring pain of some of the Pet Loss Hotline callers, and that’s why I initially found myself nodding along when Kerry Egan, the renowned writer and hospice chaplain, suggests in her wonderful, poignant book, On Living, that the essence of a person’s experience, rather than the biographical details, are what remains at the end of life. At one point, Kerry tells the story of a dying woman who more than likely conned her way through life, and continued to fake her way towards death. Kerry chooses to focus on the power of the woman’s end-of-life experiences. “In the midst of unknowing,” she writes, “something absolute and real and true happened. Two women learned not just that they could love but that they were worthy of love.”

To me, however, the implications of that position have become less and less tenable in the era of #fakenews and #alternativefacts. The woman in Kerry’s story probably intended to deceive those around her, or perhaps had become so enamored of her own false narrative that she no longer recognized the truth. Either way, I’ve come to reject the idea that allowing someone free rein to craft their own life narrative is acceptable. Call me hardhearted, but I think Kerry lets the dying woman off too easy.

I will argue all day long about your opinion on an issue or a detail from a past event that we each remember differently. Just ask my husband. But I’ve become an ardent defender of the idea that where there is knowable truth, we must try our best to arrive at it. We cannot argue about facts. The blurring of the line between opinion, narrative, and reality and the maligning of the legitimate information is Demagogue 101. Prizing a narrative, whether it be about the size of a crowd or the size of a person’s hands, over knowable facts is dangerous and corrosive. Scientific progress and moral betterment rely on a basic acceptance that intrinsic truth exists.

The Buddha said, “Everything rests on the point of intention.” That has become my new yardstick for deciding when #alternativefacts might indeed be preferable to reality. A person who shares a falsely dramatic memory of walking seven miles uphill through the snow to get to school as a child probably doesn’t intend to deceive or to profit from crafting a false narrative, so I’ll let it go. No (intent to) harm, no foul. A dad who falsely tells his kid that her artwork is beautiful or a friend who reassures her bestie that no one will even notice her ill-advised foray into ombré hair color are almost definitely intending to be kind. A politician who spews whoppers to avoid the consequences of his actions? A woman, dying or not, who gains her lover’s trust in part by crafting a false life story? No free passes. It’s all about intention.

Then again, we all know what paves the road to hell.

 

The Kindness of #alternativefacts, Part 1

Over the summer, I had the privilege of meeting Kerry Egan, a hospice chaplain who authored the acclaimed memoir On Living. Kerry is perhaps the most famous hospice chaplain in America, having been featured on NPR and in the pages of the New York Times. Obviously “famous hospice chaplain” is a bit of an oxymoron, like “tastiest lima bean in the school cafeteria.” Kerry’s book, though, stands on its own merits. The book’s cover states that it reflects on “the spiritual work of dying” as related through the experiences of her patients. That sounds awfully dreary, and indeed the book is literally existential, that is, concerned with existence and non-existence. The word “existential” is so often paired with “crisis,” but in Kerry’s stories, what emerges isn’t crisis or trauma, but a sense of calm reckoning, coupled with a profound sense of wonder.

One chapter that has stuck with me for several months describes the last weeks in the life of a Cherokee woman who was dying of brain cancer. The woman led a remarkable life, born as the illegitimate, ultimately estranged daughter of the famous Cherokee leader Wilma Mankiller, sustaining severe injuries while rescuing a young man from a burning car, and uprooting her life to be with a woman she met online. Perhaps more remarkable, however, was that according to the woman’s daughter, almost none of this amazing life story was actually true. The dying woman had been a serial liar and con artist, well-practiced in art of manipulation. She wasn’t Wilma Mankiller’s daughter. In fact, she wasn’t even Cherokee. Kerry only came to discover this alternate reality after she and her dying patient had taken part in a powerful Native American religious ritual together. How can we reconcile the profoundly transformative experiences the woman had in her final weeks with the likelihood that most of what she had shared with her own partner and with Kerry was false?

This divergence between the facts of our lives and the narratives we create about them is a conundrum nearly everyone has struggled with — hopefully in a less extreme, less unscrupulous form. Whenever we misremember a childhood incident, painting it with overly-rosy or overly-dark hues, we engage in an act wherein the meaning we create around an experience has more resonance than the nitty-gritty realities of that event. My mother and her sister have an amusing version of this that is perhaps common in families. They often substitute themselves for the other sister when telling a story. So often, in fact, that they sometimes forget which sister was the protagonist in the real story.

Kerry comes away from her encounter with the faux Cherokee woman choosing to hold onto the essence of their shared experience. That essence, that feeling, was the existential truth of the woman’s life.

That’s what’s really important, right? Well, not to me. Not anymore. I think this story has stuck with me because its tidy conclusion caused me to reevaluate my own understanding of truth versus truthiness. Stay tuned for more philosophical ponderings in the next installment of The Kindness of #alternativefacts…

You secretly believe life is fair.

A friend of mine is undergoing treatment for a recurrence of cancer. She has two young daughters who are, for the second time in a year, having to watch their mom fall ill from treatment, lose her vitality and probably her hair (again), and fight for her life. This same friend’s brother died of cancer last week, after years of often agonizing pain. Oh, and her mom is currently in rehab after a debilitating stroke. She’s holding up incredibly well, but the Bible’s Job is probably looking at her like, “Damn, girl. That sucks.”

I confess. Although I am within sniffing distance of my fourth decade of life, I still secretly believe that life is fair. Or at least that it ought to be. I’m guessing you have the same irrational fantasy. Like toddlers complaining that Timmy got more turns on the slide than everybody else, we harbor a feeling that there should be a universal sense of justice, some kind of correlation between the way we live our lives and the things that happen to us. We see this instinct in action every time tragedy rains down. I often think of the public outcry when, a few years back, a toddler was killed by a rogue alligator at Disney World. Comments sections all over the internet filled up with outraged voices asking why the parents would let the boy get so close to the water. Why weren’t they watching their son more closely? Why didn’t Disney take more stringent measures to clear the lake of alligators? Why hadn’t employees warned people not to be near the water at night? The plain fact is that it was a terrible, terrible accident. Like most tragedies, if a hundred small things had gone slightly differently, it could have been prevented. But things went the way that they did, and a young, innocent life ended as a result. How unfair.

I see this same dynamic with my friend’s cancer diagnosis. People will ask her, “Is there cancer in your family?” “Were you exposed to X chemical?” “Did you eat too much of X or drink too little of Y?” As if there’s an answer. As if we must make this logical and fair somehow in our minds.

I think I write in part from this same deep-seated human impulse to make things fair. I’ve given my main character, Lindsay Harding, a lot of baggage. Deadbeat parents, adoption by an aunt whose ideas about child rearing bordered on Dickensian, a traumatic betrayal by her fiance, frequently being targeted by violent criminals. Like me, Lindsay knows that, despite her belief in a benevolent God, life isn’t fair. She even has several conversations in A Murder in Mount Moriah about this age-old philosophical dilemma. But what Lindsay doesn’t know is that <<SPOILER ALERT>> when all is said and done, she will get her happy ending. I get to make things fair for her. That’s the power of creating a fictional world. I’ll kill off the worst of the baddies and reward most of the goodies. That’s how most books and movies work, and I’m not cruel enough to deviate from that formula by subjecting my readers to an ending that results in Lindsay’s slow, painful death. (I know I’m not alone is still being mad at John Boyne for the ending of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.)

Admit it. You know rationally that life isn’t fair. But when you see good people suffering I’m willing to bet that you, like me, have to fight an internal battle against the belief that it damn well ought to be.

Life, Death, and Ginger Tea

Recently I paid a visit to a dear friend of mine who’s been ill. I shared the news of my pregnancy and told her about the unrelenting nausea I’d been experiencing. She, too, had been dealing with nausea, so she whipped out some Saltines for me to munch on and gave me her husband’s recipe for fresh ginger tea. We commiserated about how physical illness colors your entire worldview and makes it hard to concentrate. We both expressed some relief in the knowledge that no matter how bad things got, our suffering would soon come to an end.

There was a lot of commonality to discuss, but one major point of divergence–while I knew that my suffering would end with the birth of my baby, if not sooner, my friend knew that her suffering would likely only end with her death. She’d been told a few months previously that her condition was worsening and her decline would soon become inexorable. Just a week or so before I visited her, she began the transition from managing her chronic condition to moving towards in-home hospice care. She’s now in the process of spending her remaining time revisiting moments in her life with friends and family and cementing her legacy. Because she is the friggin’ bomb, my wonderful, compassionate, witty, vibrant friend is confronting her death with what feels a whole lot like joie de vivre. I can’t tell you how much I will miss her.

It may seem odd that in this time when I should perhaps be focused on the new life thumping away inside my womb, I’m instead spending a lot of time thinking about death. If you’ve read my blog for a while maybe this comes as less of a surprise, as I’ve written before about the way humor and death sometimes intertwine and how my own spiritual development is very much bound up in my views of the afterlife. You may also have taken a hint from the fact that I write murder-centric books about a hospital chaplain, who is often confronted with life-and-death dilemmas.

It turns out that I’m not the only person who sees life’s beginning and life’s ending as inextricably linked. In fact, I’d put forth that they’re not even two sides of the same coin. They’re more like the tension in a tug-of-war rope–the animating forces of the rope itself. Without them both pulling on you at the same time, the rope (i.e. you) would just be lying on the ground like a wet noodle.

If this post has put you in a philosophical frame of mind (and/or stirred up an existential crisis), I’d suggest some further reading, a recent New York Times piece “Looking Death in the Face” that my living/dying friend posted on Facebook. Happy living. xx

 

 

Who Wants to Date a Reverend?

My Reverend Lindsay Harding character, a short, spunky, curly-haired Southerner with a quick wit, bears an uncanny resemblance to real-life hospital chaplain Stacy Sergent. Sergent shares her hilarious, poignant observations about life in the spiritual trenches at stacysergent.com. You can also check out her fantastic memoir, Being Called Chaplain: How I lost my name and (eventually) found my faith.

Sergent’s post about trying to find love as a female minister would definitely resonate with Rev. Harding! I may have to steal some of these dating “gems” for the next Lindsay book. 🙂

Stacy N. Sergent

The dating world can be tough when you have a job that quite literally scares the hell out of some men, and makes it hard to meet people “the old-fashioned way.”  Guys I work with are out of the question, because I am their minister.  Sure, there are some cute young doctors, but what if I date one, then he has a rough night in the ER and finds himself in need of the kind of support often provided by the chaplain?  How awkward would it be if the chaplain on duty were his girlfriend, or worse yet, his ex-girlfriend?  I think my no-dating-guys-I-work-with rule is a pretty good one.  I spend a lot of time at church, which is often suggested to me as a good place to meet like-minded individuals.  Yet I’m sorry to say there are absolutely no single men at this particular church.

When meeting someone new, one of…

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Hatred isn’t pretend.

Since I published my first novel almost two years ago, I’ve received a lot of feedback in the form of online reviews. For the most part, these have been positive and encouraging. I realize that my soft-boiled Southern mysteries aren’t going to be everyone’s cup of sweet tea though, so I’ve come to accept that I’ll inevitably receive the occasional one or two-star review. Every time I do, my skin just grows a little thicker. (At least that’s how I’m explaining the weight I’ve gained over that period of time). Everyone’s entitled to an an opinion, right? It’s only a novel after all.

Or is it? One kind of bad review that’s cropped up a few times which my superthickened skin (which, incidentally, must weigh at least four pounds based on the weight I’ve gained) still can’t ward off comes in the form of a diatribe from anti-gay Christians. These are the folks who don’t like my books because they feature a homosexual character who works as a Christian hospital chaplain. At first, I was tempted to shrug off the comments of these apoplectic reviewers, who, by the way, often seem to have defective keyboards that are permanently stuck on ALL CAPS. After all, my books aren’t romances, and this character’s sexuality is, in the main, peripheral to the plot. But a Zen level of shrug-offery isn’t so easy to achieve. Some of these reviewers hated, or were disgusted by, my book just because it contained a gay Christian character, whose monogamous relationship is portrayed in a positive light. If just the idea of such a person could elicit such a strong reaction, what must life be like for actual LGBT Christians? And does that vitriol get handed out in double measure to LGBT ministers?

My first experience with the intersection of homosexuality and religion came in the form of a young man who attended the Baptist church where I passed my Sundays (and Wednesday nights, and some Saturdays. We were big on church.) as a child. This young man was active in the youth group, volunteered to help with the Sunday school program, and was generally thought of as a great guy. However, after he left his parents’ home, he came out as gay. He was never seen at church again. In fact, the church leaders went so far as to make it clear to him that he wasn’t welcome–performing whatever bureaucratic ritual comprises the Baptist version of excommunication. A mighty fortress is our God indeed–with gays and lesbians firmly on the outside the fortress walls.

That was more than twenty years ago, but things haven’t moved on as much as the #lovewins hashtag and the recent Supreme Court victory might indicate. In more recent years, I’ve heard of a hospital chaplain being spit on and another being tossed out of a room. I’ve heard of an Episcopalian minister being asked to be discreet about the existence of her wife in certain situations or among certain constituents.

Look, I’m not claiming that because some meanies said they didn’t like my books, I know what it feels like to be discriminated against or suffer under the yoke of oppression. And by no means do I wish to rain on the (pride) parade of those who are justifiably elated by the expansion of the definition of marriage. I also know that there are many, many people of faith who welcome their LGBT brothers and sisters with compassion and openness. I guess I’m just saying that I wish prejudice and hatred were things that could be contained within the pages of a novel. Then we could easily close the book on them once and for all.

Chaplain Norman L. Martin on faith and finding forgiveness

Retired chaplain Norman L. Martin has had an incredibly varied career, having provided pastoral support in prison, hospital, and psychiatric facility settings. He also worked as a college professor, pastor, drug and alcohol counselor, and pastoral counselor in a medical center behavioral unit. He’s been married to his wife Alice for almost fifty years. They have two children and two grandchildren. Part One of the Minty Fresh interview…

Minty Fresh Mysteries (MFM): You served in both general hospitals and a psychiatric hospital. What were the special challenges of caring for people who had mental illnesses? How did that work differ from your work with people whose main ailments tended to be physical?

Norman Martin (NM): I find that I can only answer that by giving examples. I could have written, “Well there are huge differences and some much the same.”

Of course one of the special challenges of caring for people in the psychiatric setting was getting the patients to take their medications when they were sent home after being stabilized. A challenge for me as chaplain/pastoral counselor was to honor the patients’ understanding of their faith, even when their beliefs were detrimental to their mental health. Often severely depressed patients would express the belief that they had sinned so badly that they could not be forgiven by God, exhibiting a level of hopelessness so great that it threatened their very being. Of course suicide prevention measures were put in place, but at this level patients were often too depressed to even try. As the medication for depression began to take effect and with talk therapy, they could voice their thoughts more clearly. I need to take this time to let readers know most of patients I encountered believed in the Christian God. There were times when a patient during my spiritual group sessions would state that they did believe God had forgiven them, but they hadn’t forgiven themselves (hanging on to a reason for depression). I would chide them a bit by saying: “So you are higher than God, He forgives you but you are stronger in not forgiving yourself?” Unfair? It got them thinking.

Many, many bi-polar patients found comfort in their faith. The stronger the faith, the better hope for them. There is a high suicide rate among people suffering from this illness. More than one told me if it weren’t for God they wouldn’t be living.
One told me that if it weren’t for God she would not have been able to hold on to a bit of control to keep herself from losing it all.

I never forgot the lesson from my clinical supervisor, that even if a belief (especially religious) were used as just an unsteady crutch, don’t kick it out until something better was established. I had one patient tell me that he had started out of the house to shoot himself in the yard when he remembered that he would go to hell for taking his life. Would it have been wise to argue theology on that belief? Not on your life or his.

There was the elderly lady who was brought in to the Psych. Unit by her family. She kept “bugging” them about visiting and talking with angels. In counseling with her, I found out there were multi-generations of family living together, and her going out on her porch to rest and talk to the angels was a real comfort to her. As usual with patients talking to voices, I asked if the voices were threatening, “Oh no,” she would say, “They tell me good things.” I don’t remember what she said they said but the voices were not dangerous to her or others. Her family had no complaints about her conduct other than her telling them about the voices. It’s not in any manual that I know of, but I counseled her to enjoy her meeting with the angels, just to be careful who she told about it. She wasn’t admitted again during the years I was there.

In the medical setting I found how certain religious beliefs were detrimental to patients’ physical as well as their spiritual/mental health. One hospital patient leaps to mind. She was sitting up cross-legged in the middle of the bed. When I introduced myself as chaplain, she told me that Christians are not supposed to get sick, for sickness is a sin. That belief was not giving her any comfort, but it was her barrier to receiving help. She wasn’t ready to discuss it further. At that time a California evangelist was preaching such stuff and having a lot of converts.

A number of times when I introduced myself to a patient their first response was, “Are you saved? Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?” I would say, “Yes, ma’am” or “Yes, sir.” Get that out of the way and make a pastoral visit.

Chaplaincy in a general hospital and in a mental health setting was different in that the stay in a general hospital was usually much shorter and the issues were different. The chaplain was called on more to give comfort to the seriously ill and the families that waited with them. I served five years at a fairly small hospital in an area which contained a group of people who had come down from the mountains many years before to work in a cotton mill. They had maintained their culture. They believed in the whole family “sitting up with the sick”. That meant crowding our small waiting area outside the ICU. I quickly learned what to expect when their loved one died. It would be a loud explosion of grief. This is one of the times when the physician, who told the bad news, would quickly turn everything over to the chaplain and leave forthwith. I was thankful to God that these folks respected ministers and calming prayer. I learned to take note of the younger children, for adults in the throes of grief would not think of the young. I made sure they were “noticed.” I would advise all chaplains not to forget the young griever.

Fear of dying during surgery would sometimes be spoken of to the nurses, and I would be called. If, in my opinion, the patient’s fears were such that the surgeon should know, I told him. I don’t know of any time that the operation proceeded without the physician conversing with the patient first; sometimes surgery was cancelled. One time a woman with an abusive husband had expressed fears but went ahead with surgery. She died on the table. Her written funeral service was found in the drawer by her bed after her death. The staff and physicians needed ministry after that. I learned later that she had talked with an employee and stated that maybe if she died, her husband would straighten up. Communication, people communication!

During my Chaplaincy at the general hospital, I conducted research and wrote my doctoral project entitled: Ministering to Health Care Persons as He or She Experiences Patient Death. Staff members who had not come to terms with their own mortality had more trouble. Also if they had unresolved grief issues, this also could be a problem. Seventy-five percent of the nurses I gave a questionnaire to believed in God and in heaven. It seemed to give them more strength in dealing with patient death.