She came walking down the hallway of the locked unit, looking stiff and suspicious. I was newly serving as a chaplain in a Christian psychiatric hospital. I was trying to figure out what it means to be a pastor to a continually changing “congregation” comprised of folks experiencing some sort of mental health crisis. I asked the woman if she wanted to talk and she nodded, mutely. We sat down in a nearby room and she began to verbally examine me to understand if I was one of “them.” She didn’t trust the staff in this foreign land and she was furious that family members dropped her off in this place. I did my best to reflect her feelings, validating her emotions rather than getting pulled into a defensive posture. I named anger, frustration, sadness and betrayal as possible emotions she felt as she sat in a sitting area where furniture is intentionally so heavy that it cannot be thrown. Her shoelaces had been removed, a risk factor in an institution where patients can get very clever about how to harm themselves or others. Her phone had been confiscated and she didn’t know or trust any of the other women in her unit. She did not wish to be there and was suspicious of all of us. She even railed at God who was, in some way, to blame for her psychiatric imprisonment.
Much to my surprise, she began to talk about her own mother, a woman who paired up with a number of violent men over the course of this woman’s childhood. She condemned her mom for being willing to put the well-being of her children second to her desire for male companionship. “I never let any of my children get hurt by anyone I was dating,” she proclaimed. She had decided not to imitate the mistakes of her mother. She missed her children and worried how they would fare without her. She wept…and the defensive shield came down.
I was new to these “spiritual consults” with patients and had a seasoned chaplain with me for this visit. As our conversation was reaching its natural conclusion, I was ready to wish her well and move on. This encounter had sapped my energy! The other chaplain who had been largely quiet asked if she would like to end our conversation in prayer. I was surprised. She had given no indication that she was a person of faith. She had made it clear that she was mad at God so why would she want to pray? By this time she sat limply in the chair, drained from the emotional impact of recounting her story. She heard the chaplain’s question and simply nodded her head, eyes lowered to the ground. He motioned to me to pray and I spoke words to God that I thought might resonate with her. With the “Amen” she opened her eyes and, with a flat affect, thanked us and moved down the hallway to resume her pacing. Our encounter with the suspicious, angry, guarded in-patient ended with prayer. My understanding of chaplaincy grew in that moment.
While serving as a parish pastor, whether preaching, leading a Bible study, or meeting with someone for pastoral care, I have always wanted to answer the question, “So what?” In order for a sermon to land, there has to be an application to our present situation. For the Bible to come alive, as it has for countless generations, we need to cull from the text a meaning that connects with us. The work of our Christian faith is to make the ancient Judeo-Christian story our story. What I need to hear is different from someone else. When we believe that there is good news to share from our own faith perspective, we look for ways to interpret it so that others with different life experiences will grasp it–and find peace!
This has become more crucial in recent decades. Fewer and fewer people are seeking meaning for their lives in houses of worship. Congregations that were depleted five years ago have been decimated by COVID. Pews are empty while on-line motivational TED talks and podcasts draw rave reviews. Listeners repost them with evangelistic zeal. Folks who have been hurt by the Church will probably never walk through the doors of a gathering that goes by that name. Do we give up? Do we preach our message more loudly, letting them know just what they need to do to be saved? Do we type-cast strangers into categories and withhold our own belief system accordingly?
Or do we love them? Do we sit with them and listen to their stories? Do we validate their feelings and affirm their dignity? Do we rail at our neighbors for not going to church or do we let the light of Christ shine through us so that they meet Him through our actions? In our increasingly secular society that is suspicious of the Christian faith, we must extend our outreach to others through the filter of “So what?” How can my belief system and life experiences bring hope and joy to those who aren’t looking for God? Can we be contented to live it and not insist on always preaching it with words?
That’s a question we chaplains in a Christian mental health hospital had to wrestle with. There were countless times that I was amazed at who asked to meet with me for “a spiritual consult.” One woman had fled from her abusive husband, bringing three children under the age of eight to a new state so that the four of them could be safe. With her head resting in her arms, she disparaged the possibility of God being real since her life was so difficult. As we talked, she spoke of the women’s shelter where she lived and the generosity of that institution that raised over $10,000 to defray the cost of her legal bills that kept her children away from a violent father. She wept and told me she was grateful to God for their kindness. We closed our conversation with a prayer. God bless the shelter workers who reflected the love of Christ to battered and broken women!
Now that I work as a grief counselor for hospice, I continue to stretch in the ways I extend Christ’s healing mercy to the broken-hearted. Many of those I serve do not know Him or seek Him out. So I listen. I reflect their feelings back to them so that they feel heard (a complete novelty for many of the youth I met with at the psych hospital). I accept them and listen to what they have to teach me. I thank them for sharing their gifts and quietly offer my own. When we do that with each other, some of our questions are answered. For the unanswerable dilemmas, being heard and valued will allow for some of those questions to be laid to rest. We don’t have to have the answers or give our advice. We listen. We affirm. We love.
That’s the “So what?” of the Gospel!