Is the chaplain in the modern hospital an anachronism? Can a clergyman, confining himself to his own field, have anything to offer today’s secular man when he becomes sick? Must the parish pastor or staff chaplain at a hospital limit his services to church people?

Much of America pretends that modern man has no needs apart from those of the mind, body, and emotions. This new and provincial idea is held only in post-Christian nations where super-sophistication has produced a new benightedness. Nevertheless, when today’s people fall ill, they can’t help contemplating the ultimate triumph of illness. Such thoughts suggest a need for more than medical treatment, for something beyond nature. That is when the chaplain begins to take on a more useful look.

Mr. A arrived at the hospital with bleeding ulcers, a closed mind, and an ugly word for everyone. “He’s impossible” was the diagnosis among the nurses. When the chaplain appeared, the word he got on the patient was “You can have him.”

The chaplain greeted the surly sufferer and sat down to listen. After an hour he left to think and pray about the soul ills that this man’s physical pain had brought out into the open. After this first visit, the nurses asked, “What did you do with him? He’s a new man!” But the chaplain knew there was much more to do, and that no real change had yet occurred. He had yet to confront the man with both himself and his Maker, and thereafter with his Redeemer and Sanctifier.

We of the cloth must admit that clergymen have not always excelled in the art of listening to a sick person’s troubles, real or imagined. As an example take the case of Mr. B, who was admitted to a hospital with mysterious ailments defying diagnosis. His illness had thrown his status at work into doubt, created confusion in his personal relations, and left him literally worried sick. When his pastor came by, Mr. B began telling his troubles. The pastor listened briefly, brusquely told the man to get his mind off his problems, and changed the subject. Needless to say, the illness worsened.

The chaplain or trained pastor of today knows that listening to the patient’s troubles is very important. His ministry to the sick reflects this new awareness.

A hospital stay can be fun part of the time. But there are also the times of fright, the gnawing of uncertainty, the belated assertions of conscience, the face-to-death encounters. Must one endure these alone?

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Not altogether. The chaplain can be worth his weight in gold in these trying moments. He can enter into the agony with the patient, and put his hand firmly into the hand of God.

Mrs. C, an elderly widow, entered the hospital for surgery. The operating room was not new to her, and in the past impending surgery had not troubled her much. But this time it did. Why? Certain “evil omens” had been brought to her attention, and she was sure no good could come of this hospitalization. Her doctors realized that this fear could become a serious complication.

The chaplain listened to her fears and superstitions sympathetically. Then he showed her that the unfounded superstitions were hiding the sure mercies of God, making complete surrender to his healing impossible. Thus Mrs. C’s preparation for surgery included more than controlled diet and injections. The superstition had to be removed.

Many times medical help becomes irrelevant, and the chaplain’s services are all the hospital has to offer. One day after school, little Bobby played where he shouldn’t have played, fell off a viaduct, and arrived at the hospital in a coma. During the night he died. In the intervening hours, the chaplain was as busy and as important as the doctors. While guiding the distraught parents in God-pleasing pleas for the boy’s recovery, he also had to prepare them for the probable parting.

You think your job is difficult or delicate? Probably not like this one. When a family has Christian foundations, the chaplain has something to work with. But with others he must start from scratch, and often he fails completely.

The many confrontations with the unthinkable that arise from sickness put the recent divorce between religion and healing in perspective. In times past the connection between man and God was taken for granted. However, institutionalized religion gradually drifted into untenable positions. These tended to block the unfolding knowledge of nature, and the healing sciences had to carve out a path for themselves. Science developed a disregard for ecclesiastical pronouncements because it had to—but then it went off on its own aberrations, trying to confine reality to material existence.

Within the last two decades we have seen a new willingness on the part of both medicine and religion to respect the role of the other. Consequently, we may in some places again have the advantage of integrated attention to the entire spectrum of human troubles. Those patients are fortunate whose doctors and pastors are ready to take into account the complex interrelation among the irregularities of body, mind, emotions, will, and soul. That is the stuff illness is made of, and the reason why the chaplain is as relevant as the doctor.

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Opportunity In Adversity

An article in the Reader’s Digest (December, 1963) advised, “Turn your sickness into an asset.” The chaplain or pastor can do much for a sick person in this connection.

Mr. D, a hard-driving, hard-hearted executive, had a coronary, as his doctors had warned. During the long convalescence he found himself thinking and suddenly aware that previously he had not been thinking at all. Wife, home, children, and other people began to take on a new shape—the shape of real people. Redemption, salvation, repentance, those zero quantities church people talk about, gradually assumed meaning. And Mr. D. returned home a new man.

Sometimes, especially when no hospital chaplain or pastor is available, Christian friends unwittingly help in turning the ashes of illness into gold.

Mr. E was hospitalized with an illness that ended his professional career, shattered his family’s position in the community, and left him with chaos and weakness and only a fair chance for survival. A visiting friend happened to ask, “Does the Lord’s Prayer help you any?” “Not that I could notice,” was Mr. E’s reply.

A few days later, after a more or less thoughtless run through the Lord’s Prayer, the words of the doxology seemed to linger in his mind. “Thine is the kingdom.” “Thine … the kingdom.” All night these words worked in him, like a strong time-release drug. By morning something new yet old was clear: only his own “kingdom” had been shattered; the real kingdom remained untouched.

The modern chaplain becomes indispensable to modern man when today’s cheap religion fails to deal with spiritual reality.

Mr. F had the beginnings of a serious condition, formerly always fatal, now sometimes curable. This smart and practical executive had been loud about his system of priorities: money and profits first; business obligations second; family affairs next; church every Sunday morning and no more. Now, if he were going to live, he decided, he would maintain his system of priorities; otherwise he would give religion top place.

A Christian friend asked him some hard questions: “Do you expect to receive the grace of God without being transformed by it? Are you going to be loyal to God if you get worse, and not loyal if you improve? Aren’t you using God for a fool?” The friend was sent out with an explosion of profanity. But the hospital chaplain moved into the void to work on the conversion of a long-time faithful church member.

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Among Christian people, the operation of the Holy Spirit in the time of sickness is a more important consideration than the illness itself or its treatment.

A middle-aged woman entered the hospital with an assortment of troubles. After the lab crew had completed its first visit, the chaplain came. Almost immediately she blurted out her real worries. Day after day she talked, and the chaplain listened and posed questions that led her into deep consideration of Scripture, the ways of God, and the role of a redeemed person in the world. By the time she went to surgery, she professed a peace never known to her before. This woman went home with a new lease on life, both physical and spiritual.

What To Pray About

One of the big questions in the time of illness concerns prayer. What does one say to God? What not? Are we out of place in asking God for a quick recovery? Shall we be insistent about what we want most? Are we over-reaching ourselves and tampering with what belongs to the Lord of life when we ask for a life to be spared?

Christians ought to remember the case of King Hezekiah, who was devout and God-fearing when fatally ill but who became proud and vain after his life was extended. We should therefore pray in the awareness that our all-wise Father knows better than we.

The secularistic view of all things has blinded most of us to an elementary aspect of all medical services: essentially, they are an outgrowth of the healing ministry of Jesus. He, and only he, showed the way to religious concern for physical ills. In doing so, however, Jesus set concern for sickness within the larger needs of the entire person. “Take up your bed and walk” is forever linked with “Your sins are forgiven.”

Today’s illnesses, as then, are of both body and soul. To treat either by itself is to play ostrich, burying one’s head in the sand as far as the other part of the person is concerned. This Jesus did not do.

The modern hospital chaplain therefore has a basic function in the ministry of healing. He complements the practice of medicine by extending the arts of healing to the whole person. With his aid, one can go to the hospital in the full expectation that the healing ministry of Jesus is being continued there.

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