ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy: B is for Bible

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I’m sure it’s not true everywhere, but since the hospital where I work is located pretty securely in the Bible Belt, we chaplains get a lot of requests to bring Bibles to patients. Our office also contains copies of other sacred texts — the Quran, the Book of Mormon, the Torah, and more — but rarely do we get a request for one of those. Instead, we regularly get calls from nurses whose patients say they left their Bibles at home when they were hospitalized and would like to borrow one. We have a steady supply of Gideon Bibles, so it’s okay that we almost never get them back. One patient told me not long ago, “I just can’t fall asleep without reading God’s word!” I wondered which parts she wasn’t reading, since I have found a lot in there over the years that would keep me awake nights. 

It’s always with mixed feelings that I hand a Bible to someone. It really should come with a warning label. We pretend that it’s full of lovely bedtime stories, but in truth, it can be a dangerous book. I know that some of the words in that book are the reason I sometimes have patients who won’t accept me as their chaplain because I’m a woman. I know that some of those words are the reason I see families unwilling to let a patient’s significant other visit, though they may have been together more than a decade, because they are a same gender couple. I know that some of those words influence the medical decisions of patients and families, at times leading them to refuse treatments that could be beneficial. I know that some of those words taken literally have given some patients justification for violence against themselves or others.

When I graduated high school, my church gave me a Bible, and on the inside cover was written, “Stacy, always remember this book has all the answers!” Sometimes, the patients and families who request Bibles in the hospital approach things that way. As I hand them the book, they will ask, “Where does it say that God won’t put any more on us than we can handle?” or “What verse is it that says God works in mysterious ways?” Spoiler alert: Neither of those chestnuts is actually found in the Bible. Other patients will tell me their favorite passage and ask me to read it to them, or want me to share my favorite verses with them. Sometimes I hesitate, because I fear taking things out of context, giving them wrong ideas about God or encouraging false hope. With people in such a vulnerable position, at times of crisis in their lives, I approach the Bible with fear and trembling, remembering what dangerous words it contains.

But I know that there are also words in that book that give hope when things look hopeless — the real hope that God is present and loving, no matter what happens. There are words that comfort broken hearts and calm fears. There are words of wisdom and love, promises that we are not alone in the dark times. And when it feels impossible to believe that, there are words that remind us that even the heroes of the faith — even Jesus himself — had moments when they felt forsaken by God and dared to ask why. The stories in the Bible are of people who are utterly human, who make terrible choices and blame God for them, who fail and doubt and despair, but who are part of God’s story anyway.

Here in these onionskin pages is proof positive that people have struggled for millennia to figure out who God is and who they are and what exactly it means to follow God. And through it all, I believe, God stuck with them.  So when I’m asked by patients or their families to read from this dangerous book, or to put a copy in their hands, I do, hoping that the Spirit will guide us all through such rough terrain. If I’m reading to them, I don’t skip over the tough or troubling parts. If they ask me what I find comforting about the Bible, I tell them that when I’m frustrated by the unanswerable injustices of life — the kind you encounter every day in a hospital — this book tells me that at least I’m not alone in my questions.

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6 thoughts on “ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy: B is for Bible

  1. Can’t believe you got me looking this up (old bible guy now a heathen secular)! People probably misinterpret (what else is new) but here’s one version of the “what we can handle” stuff:
    “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13). fyi
    When I was a jail chaplain I was giving out Qur’ans and Bibles and just about everything else (most popular: Daily Word. . .Christian but mostly watered down meditative stuff). The best part was the discussions when all these inmates came together for our weekly “spiritual group”!
    I agree, a dangerous book, as all “holy books” are.

    1. Thanks, Chris! Yeah, I know that saying is a misinterpretation of that verse, and sometimes I’ll explain that to people. The meaning isn’t really that simple, and if you look at it in different translations, it gets even more complicated! 🙂 I can only imagine the interesting discussions you got to hear in the prison spiritual group. Wow! Thanks for reading and commenting.

  2. Strange coincidence that I just came to this blog and saw this post (and these comments). My father is pretty well-versed for a layman in Biblical matters, and I fired off a question to him via email two days ago (about a confusing translation problem I couldn’t make heads or tails of the “real” meaning of).

    My favorite book of the Bible is, oddly, Ecclesiastics (I’m thinking that probably not in the top 10). The last time I was asked to select a passage for a particular purpose was for my grandfather’s funeral, and I struggled terribly: how could I find something to say what I wanted about I man I loved so much and whose death and devastated me? Defaulting to a comforting Psalm just didn’t seem adequate (odd, since the church I have attended most recently was Anglican). I ended up turning to the 1928 BCP Order for the Burial of the Dead and asking that the first part be read: http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1928/Burial.htm.

    Sometimes when you feel lost in the Bible and (very literally) don’t know where to turn, a prayer book can provide you with that direction– at least that’s true for me.

    1. Not odd at all to favor Ecclesiastes. It’s my favorite too, because it is realistic. It is the “minority view” which does not accept that the good necessarily get rewarded and the bad punished. It has a message I can believe, which is living with ambiguity and complexity and a lack of answers, but at the same time seizing the day and wringing the most out of our ” one wild and precious life.” (Mary Oliver, poet) Karen, of offbeatcompassion.com

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