(This post is part of my ongoing series ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy.)
I took my dog, Hurley, for a walk along the Mount Pleasant waterfront, as I often do, but things didn’t look the same at all. Where I can usually look across the water to see the port of Charleston and the many church steeples of the Holy City, today there was a wall of gray nothing. A few times every minute, we would hear the low call of a foghorn, but couldn’t see the source of the sound. Then suddenly, the top of a massive cargo ship became visible, just a few phantom smoke stacks and containers that seemed to be floating on a cloud. It sounded a nearly constant alert to its presence as it made its way through the fog. If there were other ships in its path, I sure couldn’t see them.
By now, I should know how easy it is for big things to be invisible. Much of the time, what I do as a chaplain goes unseen, and the results of that work are just as invisible. I sometimes envy others working around me in the hospital who can see physical progress in their patients as a result of their interventions – bones knitting, wounds closing, tumors gone, lungs that no longer need the help of a ventilator, legs strong enough to walk down the hall. When I have an impact on patients and their families, it is much harder to measure. You may not be able to tell by looking at them that they have learned to forgive, that they found hope in the midst of a hopeless situation, that they are working through grief in healthy ways, that they prayed a genuine prayer for the first time in thirty years, that they are at peace.
Maybe part of my job as a chaplain is to be God’s foghorn. If the results of my work are invisible, the One I work for is even more so. I remember a very old hymn we used to sing at chapel services in seminary:
“Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes . . .”
Whether hidden by light or the cloud of unknowing, God’s presence is just as real as the cargo ship behind the fog. In all that I do and say with patients and families in crisis, I want to draw their awareness to the divine presence. I want them to know that they are not alone, that they are loved, that God is there. And sometimes for a moment, there’s a break in the fog, just enough for us to catch a glimpse. It’s enough to keep me coming back for more.