I ran across this clip from the television show ER on another blog and I was surprised at the mixed reaction that I had after watching it. The clip features a confrontation between the show’s hospital chaplain and a dying man - a doctor who had worked as a prison executioner. The man was convinced that God would not forgive him for the ‘murders’ he had committed and he had no hope for salvation.
Watch the clip and then read on:
My first reaction after seeing this clip was: “Oh my God, that’s going to be me.”
During seminary I’ll be required to do a semester of training as a hospital chaplain, and I’ve heard from other pastors that it really is a trial by fire. As in, ‘here’s your name badge, here’s a list of patients who may or may not be happy to see you, now go visit them.’ It’s literally all about walking blindly into hospital rooms, not knowing anything about the patient you’re approaching, what their illness is or what their religious beliefs are, or whether they even have any desire to see a chaplain or not.
When I saw this clip from ER it frightened me.
What would I say to this man?
Being a progressive Christian, my theology is not based on a need to have all the answers.
My theology is of the fluid, ambiguous, we-can’t-possibly-know-what-God-is-thinking variety.
I compare it to the feeling one gets when standing on wet sand at the edge of the shoreline, as the waves roll in and out. As the water rolls past your ankles you can feel the sand shifting beneath your feet. You’d swear that you’re moving along with the waves, being pulled first away from the shore and then further onto it, you fight to keep your balance but when the water recedes you find that you haven’t moved at all.
This is what theology feels like to me.
Constantly shifting and moving around me, occasionally throwing me off balance, but in the end the movement is all an illusion. Regardless of how my beliefs evolve or change I’m still standing right where God intends me to be, centered within the unmovable mover.
I have no need for black and white theological dogmas or set in stone creeds. I don’t have concrete beliefs about sin, suffering, evil, or the existence of hell. I have an understanding of what others believe, and I’m hoping that seminary will help me to solidify what it is that ‘I Believe’ so that I can better articulate it, but I don’t expect to come out of seminary with a renewed certainty about anything.
Do I believe that Hell is an actual place where evil doers are destined to be tortured for eternity while a vengeful God turns his back on them?
Do I believe that Hell is a self-imposed state in which lost souls find themselves when they’ve turned away from God, but all they need to do is choose love over fear and they will be released from their hellish state and discover that God’s love, forgiveness, mercy, and grace had never left them, they had only failed to see it while encased in the darkness that their own fear had created?
Yes I do believe this. At this point in my life.
Does this make me a wishy-washy, new-age, God-is-only-Love type of Christian?
I guess it does.
So how will I respond to those who DO need concrete answers?
What do I say to those who see my ambiguity as a sign of weakness, a symptom of an ‘unreal’ faith?
What would I say to a dying man who shouts out in his pain:
“I want a real chaplain who believes in a real God and a real hell!”
Interestingly enough, when I did a search for this quote from the clip on Google to find out what other bloggers were saying about it, I found it mentioned primarily on sites that are of the more biblical-fundamentalist variety. These bloggers were championing the words of the dying man in this clip, giving each other spiritual high fives over the fact that the man spoke ‘the truth’ and made the wimpy, post-modernistic female chaplain run from the room in tears. One blogger wrote:
“I want to be that REAL chaplain that this man is searching for.”
I’m not sure which scares me more - having OTHERS expect me to have all the answers when I believe I do not, or believing that I DO have all the answers and that God will somehow become ‘unreal’ to me if I do not.
Thankfully, my google search also brought me to the blog of a woman who has been a hospital chaplain for over 30 years. She too was disturbed by the clip, not because the female chaplain was espousing the ‘wrong’ theology, but because she was trying to ease the fears of dying man using a theological language that was not his own.
“I learned early on in my training that it isn’t about me and what I believe. It is about the patient and what he or she believes.”
A ‘real’ chaplain knows to “put aside her personal theology and give the patient what he or she needs to be at peace. If that means going against a personal belief, so be it.”
Words of wisdom that I will not soon forget.
I may not believe in a vengeful God, an eternal Hell, or the existence of an unforgivable sin, but that doesn’t make the loving, merciful God that I do believe in any less real.
And it doesn’t mean I can’t learn to speak the theological language of those who feel more comfortable with beliefs that are set in concrete rather than scratched into sand, and learn what it is they need to hear to feel the loving presence of God.