Why Hospital Chaplaincy?

Since I’ve noticed that hospital chaplaincy can actually be quite a mysterious vocation, I thought I’d write a bit about why this ministry has so moved my heart.

The first time I encountered a chaplain was when I was twelve years old, six months after my sister Katie suddenly died. After being in a grief program at Little Company of Mary Hospital – facilitated by my now dear friend Peg – I saw how meaningful pastoral care was in my own life. Through several years and many God-ordered opportunities and movements, I know deep in my heart that this is the kind of ministry He has created me to do – the kind of person He’s created me to be: being on a pastoral care team at a hospital.

I’ve been shocked time and time again, when a sterile room filled with monitors blaring and IVs dripping, becomes a sweet sanctuary – a place where God’s presence is thick and almost tangible. How can a hospital room become a sacred space? It’s honestly a mystery to me, I must confess, that a place so unexpected can become a place where God’s glory dwells.

I think about the joy of simply holding one’s hand – perhaps frail or shaky or strong. But still, human connection. Gazing into the eyes of another who is made in the image of God – unique, sweet, and beautiful. Holy conversations over room temperature meatloaf and applesauce – as well as those plastic bottles of chocolate Ensure (the kind that never look like actual chocolate, though I’ve never actually tasted a sip).

In my role, I have seen faithful marriages in their most brilliant light. I’ve seen elderly wives sitting by their husbands’ beds – for hours and hours on end. I’ve seen them faithfully keep watch, sentries of every discomfort they notice in their spouses. “In sickness and in health…” when the sickness is deep and the symptoms distressing. Still present, still faithful. As a chaplain, I observe husbands blessing their spouses, demonstrated by an action as simple as spoon feeding. Still, I offer my presence and echo the love of God, asking Him to strengthen, uphold, and grant His peace.

I’ve encountered the ‘religious’ and ‘non-religious’ alike, learning from so many what it means to offer the ministry of presence. I distinctly remember a specific visit with an older man whose chart designated him as ‘nonreligious.’ My internal assumption was that surely he wouldn’t want prayer. However, after a ten minute visit with him, I asked if he wanted me to say a prayer before heading out. He very quickly replied, “That won’t be necessary.” Just as I thought. But as I was about to respond with an “Okay” and a quick exit, he continued,

“Your presence has been prayer enough already.”

I was speechless. Absolutely speechless. My constructs of prayer were immediately altered. Could I really embody a prayer simply by being physically present? At least to this man, the answer was a hearty, “Yes.”

In chaplaincy, I’ve had to reconstruct (or perhaps construct for the first time) a robust theology of the body. If I believe with all my heart that Jesus became human in the Incarnation, literally putting on human skin and feeling what we feel – then I must reasonably begin to see that God deeply values the body as being the place from and in which Jesus redeemed humanity – the body literally being part of the redemption of the entire human race. When in the Bible Jesus ministers to individuals around Him, it seems as if He often reaches others’ souls by first affirming that He cares for the whole of who others are: all their messy and earthy humanity. He heals a man born blind, showing him he cared for his entire wholeness. Jesus heals Mary Magdalene by freeing her from demons – freeing her physically so she can be free, including spiritually. Jesus heals lepers and others who are infirmed, helping them physically flourish to aid in their spiritual well-being, ultimately drawing them to Himself.

I believe that because God honors the body, I can honor others and Him by embodying my ministry to others – being present in the most earthy of ways amidst blood draws and physical therapy sessions – knowing that even this work of being present is deeply spiritual and sneakily meaningful.

So, this is my heart for chaplaincy. I’m moved to tears when I think about this ministry, knowing that I’m passionate to live in the intersection of physical and spiritual health. This is exactly where I feel the Holy Spirit has led me and has equipped me to be present with the sick in mind or in body, present with the dying, holding reverence in the presence of those already dead – privileged to share these moments with family members.