An American Episcopal Priest reflects on over 25 years of working as a chaplain in a paediatric setting. How has his beliefs nurtured his clinical care of children and families? How have his experiences shaped his interpretation of clinical encounters? Bedside questions, he finds, are less about finding the right answer than about exploring possibilities, and wondering about new aspects of God that he, or the other person, have not glimpsed before.
Let me share some of those experiences to set the context for what follows. I am the surviving older brother. And in what is at least ironic, or perhaps God’s sense of humour, the first infant I was called to baptise, when I was a chaplain resident, had the same congenital cardiac anomaly as my brother – and I now work at the same hospital where my brother was cared for and where he died in 1967. My undergraduate degree, and my first research experience were in astrophysics. Science was always my favourite class in school, and I pursued various experiments in a basement laboratory during the day and with a telescope outside at night. It’s a small miracle that I didn’t blow our house up! I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, part of the worldwide Anglican Communion. I have always been affiliated with a congregation where I worship and been an Assisting Priest, but I have never been employed in a parish. I have spent the past 26 years as a paediatric hospital chaplain, and I was trained, as virtually all American chaplains are, through a Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) programme. With those experiences acknowledged, I hope that what I have to offer will make a bit more sense. With my background in both science and theology, it’s probably not surprising that I find my calling as a health care chaplain, and currently work in one of the larger academic research hospitals in the United States.
Working in an environment that focuses on the pursuit of knowledge, and listening to peoples’ stories as their chaplain, I’ve come to learn to love the questions. There are the theologians we read in seminary, and then there are those opportunities to grapple with theology at the bedside. And that happens there to me far more frequently than in a parish, which is why I continue to enjoy being a chaplain. I can only recall one instance where I have been asked, as a priest in the parish, where someone explicitly started a conversation with me because she had a question about God. But the questions come up much more frequently at the bedside, and they seem to arise in the context of distress.
After listening to those questions, it seems to me that we suffer in part because we are asking the wrong questions. For some people, asking any question of God, or questioning their faith, is the wrong question and the soure of distress. For other people, the questions they ask have no answer. The beliefs they have held for years don’t have an answer or know how to respond to a crisis or tragedy, and they are in distress because they can’t imagine an alternative, new belief that might help them understand what they are going through. An analogy that occurred to me, and perhaps this makes the most sense in a paediatric hospital, is that the questions or distress are signs that the old way of using our beliefs isn’t working any more and we haven’t quite figured out new beliefs that work. I liken the situation to what happens to our bodies: by the time one is 17 years old, our body doesn’t look like it did at 17 months, or 7 years. Our brains are capable of thinking differently than they did as infants and children, so why should we expect our spiritual selves to remain the same while the rest of who we are is changing and growing?
Another aspect of suffering for the wrong reasons is suffering because our understanding of God is too small. I think here of adolescents I have worked with on inpatient or residential psychiatry units who believe that by their suicide attempt, they have committed “the unforgivable sin”. Already depressed enough to attempt suicide, they are now left without hope, having grown up to believe in a God who is a Judge, and who punishes. During their hospitalisation, we would begin to wonder, if they could imagine a God who felt sad for them, instead of mad at them, or a God who could be scared for them or even glad for them. We would wonder how their life might be different if their image of God was bigger.
Sometimes it is our experience of the Church acting in small ways. During a job interview, one of the department heads told me that her son had died as an infant, just a few weeks short of his baptism in the church. It was to be a big family and church celebration, the special foods from their ethnic culture were already made and in the freezer. And then he suddenly died. While she was still with him in the hospital’s Emergency Department, she asked to have him baptised. The priest from her congregation was out of town, and the hospital at that time had no chaplain on staff, and the staff began to call other clergy in the city on the phone to see if someone would come in. One clergy person agreed to come in, and told her he would not baptise the child, explaining in what the mother remembered as a very patronising way, that the church’s sacraments are for the living, and weren’t appropriate for the dead. And so, her interview question was, of course: “If you had been the chaplain with me in the Emergency Department, would you have baptised my son?”
Can our vision of what it means to be the church move outside the narrow rules so that we do not add to human suffering? Can the church be big enough to hold and heal my pain? Obviously, that interview question made a significant impression on me, and I carry it with me as a reminder of what I think being a chaplain means. Can we as chaplains be big enough – big enough to be a container to hold other people’s strong emotions? Big enough to create space for someone to ask their questions? Big enough to step outside the rules and allow God to be with us?
1. This reflection is based on a presentation given at the 15th Consultation of the European Network of Health Care Chaplains, 15 June 2018, Blankenberge, Belgium.
2. Daniel Grossoehme is a Staff Scientist (Haslinger Family Palliative Care Center) at the Akron Children’s Hospital, Ohio, USA. When preparing this reflection, he was working as Associate Professor of Pediatrics, Division of Pulmonary Medicine and Staff Chaplain III in the Department of Pastoral Care, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Ohio, USA.
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