(This post is part of the continuing series ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy.)
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had the following exchange with a patient or family member in the hospital:
“Hi, my name is Stacy. I’m the hospital chaplain.”
“Oh, thank you for coming, but I don’t believe in God.”
My response varies. In my early days as a chaplain intern, I would have allowed this to be the end of the visit. But now, with a few years’ experience under my belt, I don’t walk away so quickly. Sometimes I’ll ask them what it means to them not to believe in God. Sometimes I’ll be honest enough to say, “That’s okay; sometimes I don’t really believe either.” But usually, I just breathe a silent prayer to the God I (usually) believe in and offer whatever support I can to the person across from me. We may never mention God again, but God is there.
Vocatus atque non vocatus, Deus aderit. I remember seeing the Latin phrase on a plaque in the office of one of my seminary professors. Once I knew what it meant, I fell in love with it. “Bidden or unbidden, God is present.” I’ve generally found it to be true. There are times during my work in the hospital that the presence of God is as real as that of anyone in the room. But even in those moments, though the presence is powerfully felt, I’d be a fool to pretend I completely understand who God is.
I sometimes have people ask me what I tell patients about God in the hospital. The truth is I don’t, and I can’t. We aren’t allowed to evangelize as chaplains. We’re there to offer spiritual support to absolutely everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs, not to impose our own. I listen to what, if anything, the people I meet believe about God. If they ask directly, I tell them what I believe. But more than anything, by my presence and caring, openness and honesty, I show them what I believe.
Right here, right now, God is in this room with us. Sometimes that’s comforting, when what we believe is that God is a loving heavenly parent. Sometimes it’s frightening, when what we believe is that God is a vengeful judge whom we have wronged. Sometimes it’s frustrating, when what we believe is that God can do anything but isn’t doing what we’re praying for so hard. God is mystery. We’ll never figure God out. I don’t know what you believe about God, if anything. Some days I’m not even completely sure what I believe. But I’m here with you. Let’s reach for God together, and even if we don’t find any answers, we might just find God reaching out for us, too.