As I finished up my first of three units of study for my chaplain in residence program, I was required to write a “theological position paper.” This was one of the hardest papers I have written, but one I am most grateful for having suffered through…literally. It made me think about how I think about God. That was the easy part. But more importantly, it helped me to think through how my theology informs my ministry as a chaplain. This was the challenging part.
As I processed my theology, three simple things surfaced that I know to be consistently true:
- My theology will continue to evolve as my relationship with God deepens.
- The more I know God, the more I realize, I do not know what I do not know.
- God uses me, right where I am, with my current understanding of who God is, to meet the people God has put in my path.
This has been freeing beyond measure to me as I learn to minister to people in crisis.
As I moved from the church into chaplaincy, I experienced an immediate sense of new freedom. I am no longer bound by the doctrine of the church. I can focus on being more like Jesus, ministering freely, and truly meeting people where they are, not where I would like them to be. This has been a huge help in my ministry as it frees me to listen and to be open to where the patient needs to go for their own healing and freedom.
As chaplains we become pastor to every person we meet – regardless of their faith, their lifestyle, or their world view. I have heard it said that “a chaplain is the bridge between the secular and the sacred.” I am just beginning to learn what that looks like in ministry.
I have come to realize the most important part of my job as a chaplain is to meet people where they are, not where I am. While this is freeing, it is also a challenge. There are times in this ministry I find myself wrestling with my own personal theology even as I invite the Holy Spirit to take the lead. “Not my will, but your will be done.”
For example, recently I was engaged in ongoing ministry with a dying man. This man just happened to be incarcerated for murder and kidnapping. He was shackled to the bed, with two armed guards, even as his cancer increasingly took over his strength and energy.
I praise God I had freedom to meet him where he was without judgement. I felt led by Jesus, my heart breaking, as he shared his traumatic childhood and eventually, the details of his crime. His heart cry was to have his name cleared.
While I had no pull with the state and could not help him clear his name in this world, as a follower of Jesus I knew I could help him clear his name in the next. While I awaited the Holy Spirit to direct me to officially lead him to Christ, I heard, instead, a voice telling me to meet him in his theology – where he was – not where I was.
This is where my sense of freedom in chaplaincy ends and my theological dilemma begins. See, in the church it would be expected of me to lead him to Christ in the traditional manor – the salvation prayer. Done. Name cleared for all eternity. But that is not at all how this went.
His theology was different from mine. His agenda was different from mine.
In that exchange, I found myself in a theological dilemma. As a follower of Jesus, I believe and am committed to sharing the Gospel – the truth of the saving grace of Jesus for all who would believe and receive him as Lord and Savior. How can I personally believe something and then not share with others? On the other hand, what if I were to plow through and inflict my theology on another who is not ready to receive it? This is the theological dilemma I must wrestle with.
I find it ironic that while I have found freedom from the church and have loved being able to minister to people of all faith, lifestyles, and world views, that even here in chaplaincy there are difficult waters to navigate.
As I continue this journey as a chaplain in residency, not sharing my faith is one challenge I had not previously considered. As I meet this dilemma head on and wrestle through, I find it not only strengthens my faith but renews my relationship with God, firming up my faith foundation. A firm theological foundation allows me a stable place to stand as I help others navigate their own understanding of God.
My theology assures me, that even in my quandary, I can pray for the person, invite the Holy Spirit into the interaction, and trust a God who is bigger than me and can navigate even the death bed clearing of a name – with or without me. I know Salvation comes not by what I do or do not do; it is God who speaks to our heart, our heart is softened, and then we respond.
Just before we ended what I now know to be our final conversation the patient asked me, “are you one of those little Christian girls?” I didn’t know if I should be amused or annoyed. I chose to dig deeper and responded, “is that how you see me?” He said, “No, I see you as a messenger from God.”
Weeks later as I reflect on that final exchange, my guilt (for not having plowed through with the salvation prayer) begins to melt into hope. My theology reminds me that God had been there before I ever showed up, and God continued to work in this patient’s heart after I left the room. My theology gives me peace as I trust God spoke to his heart and his name is cleared in heaven – and he is free for all eternity.