L is for . . .

(This post is part of my continuing series ABCs of Hospital Chaplaincy.)

I’ve gone back and forth about which L word fits best with my experience as a chaplain. Most of the other letters were pretty straightforward; one word jumped quickly to mind. But with L, there were two. Part of me thought, it has to be Loss. That’s something I certainly see plenty of in the hospital. In one shift, I may see people lose a spouse, a child, a limb, the ability to walk or talk, the hopes and dreams they had for the future they were certain was theirs, the will to continue living. It isn’t easy to witness those things, and they do come.

But even more powerful and more prominent in my mind than those moments of loss was something else, another L word. What I get to see even in the worst of circumstances, incredibly, is Love. When people shake their heads sadly upon hearing what I do for a living, when they tell me, “I could never do what you do. That must be such a depressing job,” I wish I could show them what I get to see. Let me tell you a little about what love looks like in a hospital, and maybe you’ll understand why I think I have the best job in the world.

Love is the young woman holding the hand of the elderly lady in the bed who is dying. “Are you a relative?” I ask, assuming that she is the patient’s daughter, or even her granddaughter. The young woman smiles. “She was my third grade teacher,” she tells me. “My parents died when I was in college, and when she heard about it, she wrote me a letter. We’ve taken care of each other ever since.”

Love is the son coming to visit his father in the hospital, even though they haven’t spoken for years after a disagreement. Though he tells me he is an atheist, he sings his father’s favorite hymns beautifully. “I don’t believe any of it,” he says, “but it seems to make Dad feel better, so why not?” I can see tears in his eyes, though he tries to hide them.

Love is the new parents holding their baby for the first and only hour of his life. Knowing he won’t survive long, they tell him everything they wanted to say. “We are so proud of you. You’re more perfect than we even could have imagined,” his father says. “I love you so much, and I’m so thankful that I get to hold you for your whole life,” his mother tells him.

Sometimes love is the nurse who patiently cares for his patients no matter how difficult they make it, or the doctor who takes time out of her busy schedule to play with a sick child instead of just treating his illness, or the dietary services worker who notices a Bible on the patient’s bedside table and asks if he can pray for her as he delivers her dinner. And sometimes love is the chaplain who, despite all her self-doubt and insecurity, remains present with a family through the worst night of their life and bears witness to the coming of the dawn. I love the times when I get to be love.

For me, all of these moments are an encounter with God. These words from 1 John chapter 4 echo in my mind:

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.

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