It was four in the morning when I got the page. Looking at the time, I noticed only 35 minutes had passed since I collapsed into the recliner in our on-call chaplain room at the hospital following a busy night of codes and calls.
“Patient needs YOU now in room 431,” the pager read.
After I threw water on my face and took a sip of warm Diet Coke, I headed for the fourth floor seeking God’s strength to help me be a spiritual presence for whom I was about to meet.
“Hello, I am the chaplain,” I said to the patient. “How may I help you?”
“Hi, chaplain, I had the nurse page you. I am sitting here trying to fall asleep and I figure maybe you can read some Scripture or something.”
“What? This is what you paged me at 4:00 a.m. to do? I’ve been up since 8:00 a.m. yesterday with family members who had lost loved ones to drug overdoses, with patients who were hospitalized after suicide attempts, and with three small children as they watched their mother die of cancer… and you want a bedtime story?”
Of course, this is something I did not say to the patient. But I would be lying to you if this wasn’t going through my head as the patient wanted me to read the first few chapters from the book of Revelation, something I couldn’t see as being a book that would give anyone “sweet dreams.”
Much like those who do ministry in churches, I’m discovering the need for boundaries and self-care as I continue in my hospital chaplain residency program in Portsmouth, Virginia. But I’m also learning about how those in ministry are perceived – not just in the pulpit, but next to hospital beds.
From perceptions that chaplains go into rooms to evangelize to perceptions that it’s my job to reassure patients their painful health diagnosis is part of God’s plan and they should not express anger or frustrations to God. I’ve even found perceptions that chaplains are spiritual superheroes and are immune to personal suffering and the suffering of others. I think most of my patients would be surprised to know that even though they see that my badge reads “chaplain,” my badge also reads “overburdened,” “overwhelmed” and “often doubt the presence of the divine in the world and in my life.”
Yet while those of us in ministry need to seek presence and support in our own lives outside the context of where we do ministry, I have experienced in my residency moments where I had patients seek to be supportive of me when they can read beyond the words “chaplain” on my badge.
In the case of the particular patient who couldn’t sleep, despite my initial frustration of reading the Book of Revelation at four in the morning, I was taken off-guard when the patient asked if I could not only pray for him, but asked if he could also pray for me.
“God, give this man the strength he needs to be a witness to you for others and allow others be a witness of you to him,” he said while holding my hand.
It was these words that allowed me to leave his room not with the same frustration I had when I entered, but with tears in my eyes.
For those in ministry, particularly for my fellow colleagues who are beginning their journey in ministry and are feeling the overwhelming responsibilities and the overexposure to a world in such much brokenness and pain that our seminaries could not prepare us for, I encourage you to give yourself the permission to be the patient or the congregant with their own chaplains, pastors and support system of partners, friends and family in your life.
But most of all, I think its important for all of us no matter if we are ordained pastors, student chaplains, or those who just seek to be spiritual presences in our churches, homes and communities, we don’t have to wear capes like Superman or Superwoman and leap from buildings to save humanity. Because after all, humanity has already been saved from a spiritual superhero who leaped down from the cross. We just need to remind each other to look up and point.