By Roy Olson
Like wise parish pastors who encourage congregations to develop the gift of hospitality so that newcomers feel welcome and the spiritually lost can be offered a new home, hospital chaplains recognize the importance of welcoming patients and creating an atmosphere of hospitality.
Hospitality, hostel, hotel, hospice and hospital are all rooted in the Latin “hospes,” referring to the host who welcomes a visitor.
While first-time visitors to a congregation might have some mild apprehension about what they will find, hospital patients often have heightened anxiety as they bring symptoms and await a diagnosis or anticipate surgery. Most hospitals today have organized programs, borrowed from the hospitality industry, that train all their staff to welcome patients and their loved ones as guests.
Chaplains have unique access to patient rooms and enter with their own set of questions. While hoping others can relieve the patient’s suffering and pain, they come prepared to listen to the impact it is having. Into the private space of the hospital room they enter softly and gently, asking what the unfolding events may mean.
As they enter the room, chaplains ask themselves, is the sacred present here? Where will I find it and how will it make its presence known? How does this patient understand faith? Can it be an asset for them in the face of the unknown or unwelcome known? Chaplains are less concerned about the orthodoxy of their patient’s faith than they are about its functionality.
Do they have access to that power greater than themselves that many call God and can they now draw emotional and spiritual strength from it? Can I as a chaplain become a spiritual midwife who, amidst a spiritual void, assists in bringing faith alive?
Chaplains benefit from understanding that there may be a difference between professed faith and operational faith and that the crisis of hospitalization may uncover that gap for the first time. A patient’s concept of God results from a cognitive learning process. If they identify with a specific faith tradition, they adhere in some fashion to an explicit abstract belief system. Their image of God revolves around how they subjectively experience God. It involves a more emotional belief system that is effected by a person’s early relationship with their parents.
One example involves asking whether Martin Luther’s terror during a violent thunderstorm and subsequent vow to become a monk, as well as his ongoing insecurity about his salvation, derived primarily from his early and subsequent theological education or from the nature of his relationship with his earthly father.
Another example comes from the life of J. Keith Miller. A popular Christian writer in the 1960s beginning with “A Taste of New Wine,” he disappeared for some time and re-emerged after battling addiction. He describes his chagrin at being unable to embrace the third step of recovery (“made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”) His breakthrough came when he overheard an old-timer tell a newcomer to fire the God to whom he was refusing to surrender.
This shocked Miller because of its apparent heresy, but he listened and thought more deeply about himself. Why couldn’t he, a trained theologian, turn his will and life over to God? He began to discover the discrepancy between his concept and his image of God.
He too needed to abandon his image of God as One who promises to be with you but doesn’t come through when needed. Where did this image come from? He discovered his operational image of God derived not from Scripture but that the God he actually had believed in up until that moment was a God who said he loved him but was out of town when needed or too tired to teach one how to become an adult. He realized this was how he experienced his earthly father as a young boy. He professed a theology of grace but deep inside when his family or financial security were threatened, his stomach churned.
Parish pastors can also have these exploratory conversations with their parishioners, especially in times of crisis. Chaplains often have them when patients’ congregational relationships have become lost or broken for whatever reason. Such conversations are one of the contributions chaplains offer to the healing process.
Roy Olson, an ELCA chaplain and graduate of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, has served several congregations in Illinois. He has also served as chaplain in facilities in Park Ridge and Hoffman Estates, Ill. In his retirement, he has over 40 years of pastoral experience in congregational and behavioral health settings.