During my seminary days, the Board of Ordained Ministry of my denomination decided it would be a good idea for me to take Clinical Pastoral Education. The Powers-That-Were saw fit to place me on the pediatrics floor of a research hospital where I would serve as chaplain.
Pediatric units at certain research hospitals don’t deal so much with setting broken arms or removing tonsils. The cases that stood out to me were those of motorcycle wrecks, of brain tumors, of leukemia, of attempted suicide. And, of course, those parents in the neonatal unit asking me to baptize their infants before they died.
During that one semester I dealt with 36 patients and their families, all dealing with a death that seemed to come prematurely and unfairly, all asking questions of God and having their understanding of the Deity formed or re-formed by their experiences.
Perhaps one family would best describe the roller coaster of emotions and questions during those weeks. They were a clergy family that greeted me on a Monday morning telling me how their child had been spared from a car wreck with another fatality. Doctors had said earlier during the weekend that the boy would die. A prayer vigil by the church had “proved the mighty hand of God,” that the boy had not only been spared, he was actually getting ready to go home that very Monday morning.
I rejoiced with the family, the mother, the father and the boy’s older sister. It was perhaps one of two legitimate miracles I witnessed during the semester.
As the semester wound down, though, the very last week, this same family was back. One was dead; the older sister suffered an aneurism and was brain dead, but still hooked to life support. Again, followed the prayer vigil, again came the fervent prayers. I’ll never forget the preacher saying, "You owe me this, God. I have served you. I have proclaimed your name.” That preacher went through a litany of doctrine explaining to God why the daughter should live.
The doctors asked me to persuade them to take their daughter off life-support. They looked at me like I was a faithless son of the devil. They continued their vigil of prayer and fasting. They wanted their daughter alive. So did I. We all did.
They were still present when I left for home that afternoon. I’m not sure when they finally admitted that she was dead. For the preacher and family, it was not only the loss of their daughter, but a loss of their doctrine of God.
When such families were passing through such travail, they wanted answers. But the chaplain had no answers. Any attempt at an answer sounded hollow and thin, like the pious answers of those three comforters of Job in the Old Testament book.
As a member of the clergy, you can find yourself pointing families not to God but to your own pre-conceived doctrines of God, what you believe God to be like. In truth, you can never know exactly what God will do based on His past actions. God’s hands are not tied by any of my beliefs about Him. Some people don’t believe in God so much as they believe their beliefs.
Sometimes He heals, and sometimes He doesn’t, and as Job understood it, what God decides to do isn’t always based on my own character. Sometimes God just lets things happen.
But even if God is causing the tumult, true faith rests on trusting in Him regardless of the circumstances. As Job put it, “Though he slay me, yet will I serve Him.”
I know that the woods — and some of the cathedrals, too — are full of those who would take exception to what I say. I’ve heard some pastors say, “I don’t make hospital calls.” Good for you. You can stick to your convictions, unchallenged, about who God is and how He operates His universe, when a good semester spent in the trenches might prove that God is even greater and bigger — and certainly different — than the God you have been presenting.
I often wondered why God would use that Board of Ordained Ministry to put me in such a painful and soul-searching situation. Professionally, I found out later that the course qualified me to serve as a hospice chaplain. I did that service for five years, as late as 2015. And I wrote the fictitious book, "Through Fear of Death," inspired by many of those experiences.
But as I dealt with families every day, I knew my purpose was not to explain their situations to them. Only Job’s comforters would try to explain their pain.
My role was to pray that God show them much more of His love than I knew how to tell them about. I didn’t care where they’d been, or what they’d done, or what disease was taking them out of the world — I wanted them to see within me the same acceptance offered by the God who calls and redeems and forgives.
And I approached with this suspicion about my own beliefs — that there would be no use in explaining this merciful God if they couldn’t see His mercy in me.
Retired now, I also suspect that there are far fewer people running from God than there are people running from Job’s comforters and their confident assertions they have about their faith in their doctrines.