FIRST-PERSON: Confronting sickness & death
CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (BP) -- A hospital chaplain is called to minister to the sick and to give spiritual care along with the clinical care provided by doctors, nurses and medical technicians. The reality of life is that, like the poor, there will always be among us those who suffer from illness and disease.
Luke, himself a physician, wrote in his Gospel about a woman suffering from bleeding for 12 years who spent all her money on doctors but could not find a cure.
By faith she approached Jesus from behind, touched the hem of His robe and was instantly healed. Although the crowd was oblivious to what happened, she knew it was a miracle of God. Even with all the advancements in medical care and technology, medical professionals are humbled before God, who is the Great Physician.
After I finished my seminary education, I returned home to the Big Island of Hawaii to start a new house church in a nearby beach community. Soon after, I began a second house church plant across the campus of my alma mater, the University of Hawaii at Hilo.
It was during this time that I felt the conviction to serve as a hospital chaplain, so I began my studies in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) for pastoral care and counseling in the fall of 1977. I spent one year in CPE at Memorial Hospital Medical Center in Long Beach, Calif., and at South Carolina Baptist Hospital (now, Palmetto Health Baptist Hospital) in Columbia, S.C.
I remember vividly when the wife of a patient came by the hospital chaplain's office of Memorial Hospital Medical Center one afternoon in October 1977.
She wanted a chaplain to visit her husband who was in his late 60s. She told me that he had refused to take any medicine and had not eaten for a few days. She wanted me to convince him to change his mind, but that he was not up for any religious dialogue.
At her request I went to his bedside and quietly introduced myself. I just wanted to listen. He shared with me that he was afraid he was going to die. As I listened to his emotional pain I encouraged him to have hope. I prayed for him silently on my own. I found out later that he was discharged from the hospital. Sometimes all we can do is show that we care -- and pray.
On another night when I was on call at South Carolina Baptist Hospital, the phone rang in my room. It was from the operator who received an urgent request to have a chaplain visit a patient who had a second heart attack.
I hurried to the ICU to see a man in his mid-50s. He was so scared as he kept watching the heart monitor over his bed. I listened to his worries and I shared a few Bible verses that could speak to his heart and provide comfort. After a few days he was discharged. A few months later, the man came to visit me to say thank you, saying how my presence helped him so much on that night. I gave thanks to God for using me to be a source of encouragement to that man.
I may not have fully realized it at the time, but my residency as a hospital chaplain taught me lifelong lessons in pastoral ministry. Until then I had never experienced sickness and death so closely. In fact, I had never seen a person dying with my very own eyes.
But over time I learned how to be in the presence of the sick and dying, to listen to them and just be with them and their family members. With their permission, I offered many tearful prayers of biblical hope and comfort, especially Psalm 46:1: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble."
Confronting the reality of suffering and death as a hospital chaplain helped me to grow emotionally, spiritually, theologically and professionally.
And as a survivor of quadruple bypass heart surgery, I know that God has numbered each one of our days and I cannot take for granted even one more day of good health. We will all succumb to death one day, but we who trust in Christ do not fear because He has overcome death on the cross.
That is why we can always take courage and hope in the resurrection. As 1 Corinthians 15:55 says: “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” We have ultimate victory in Jesus Christ our Lord.