A ministry at the bedside

By Marshall Scott

He stopped me because he saw my clerical collar: “You’re the chaplain here, aren’t you?” I nodded and introduced myself. “Do you get to help a lot of people?” Once again I nodded; but I knew that wasn’t where this was going to end. “But, do you get to lead a lot of people to Christ?”

That, of course, was the question he’d had from the beginning. He wanted to know whether – hoped it was the case that – I was meeting my patients in their moment of crisis and anxiety, and helping them to understand that a personal relationship with Jesus Christ would meet their needs, assure their spiritual safety, and resolve their fear. He was certain of what God would want, would want me to do, for the sick and suffering – even though Jesus never asked it of those he healed.

This was one of those moments when I was most aware of Jesus’ instruction not to plan what I would say, but to allow the Holy Spirit to speak. This time I said, “Sometimes I get to talk about Christ; but I think it’s important that they see Christ in me first.”

He walked away, his smile fixed and noncommittal. That wasn’t the answer he’d wanted. It wasn’t something he could really argue with, but it wasn’t what he wanted.

I have that conversation from time to time. There are those who are just certain that the bedside of the ailing and frightened patient is the place to introduce the saving love of Jesus. After all, what better time to secure one’s place in the afterlife than the moment one stares it in the face?

That’s not a new thought, and for more than one reason. I have certainly done my share of emergency baptisms (usually but not always of infants), providing comfort to families in crisis. And then there’s the legend that Constantine himself postponed his baptism till his deathbed, taking seriously the thought that baptism should lead to amendment of life, amendment that he might not have managed perfectly (or might not have wanted to manage in the first place).

Still, these conversations make me sad. In the first place, they imply something I don’t want to affirm: that somehow God can’t accept a person who’s not baptized. I appreciate that there are some who do want to affirm just that; but, to use the Biblical language, I can’t believe that somehow “God’s hand is shortened.” I appreciate what God wants of us. I just can’t believe God’s ultimate love and saving grace are somehow dependent on our success.

In the second, evangelizing at the bedside runs counter to the ethics of my profession. I am Board Certified by the Association of Professional Chaplains (APC). The Common Code of Ethics for Chaplains, Pastoral Counselors, Pastoral Educators and Students, adopted by APC and a number of other pastoral care organizations, includes these injunctions:

“Spiritual Care Professionals understand clients to be any counselees, patients, family members, students or staff to whom they provide spiritual care. In relationships with clients, Spiritual Care Professionals uphold the following standards of professional ethics. Spiritual Care Professionals:

1.1 Speak and act in ways that honor the dignity and value of every individual.

1.2 Provide care that is intended to promote the best interest of the client and to foster strength, integrity and healing.

1.3 Demonstrate respect for the cultural and religious values of those they serve and refrain from imposing their own values and beliefs on those served.

1.4 Are mindful of the imbalance of power in the professional/client relationship and refrain from exploitation of that imbalance.

1.8 Refrain from any form of harassment, coercion, intimidation or otherwise abusive words or actions in relationships with clients.”

In light of these commitments, I couldn’t as a professional evangelize at the bedside.

As an Episcopal priest, I look at these commitments and appreciate just how similar they are to portions of the Baptismal Covenant. I am committed, and frequently recommitted, to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving neighbor as self,” and to “respect the dignity of every human being.” When I put myself in the hospital bed (and I have been there), I would hardly feel loved or respected by someone seeking to impose a new spiritual tradition or technology, however strong their conviction that God would want it for me.

Now, I appreciate that the Baptismal Covenant also includes commitments to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,” and to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” At the same time, in light of some sort of “last chance for salvation” attitude, proclamation by word can indeed become abusive and coercive. We have heard much lately about how coerced confessions fail, because the coerced prisoner will say what the torturer wants to hear, whether it’s accurate or not. We have a much longer history of discovering that coerced conversions don’t change hearts (sadly, forced baptisms go back at least to Carolingian times).

No, instead I find myself appreciating the opportunity to proclaim by example the accepting love of Christ that the apostles taught. To do my best to love the person before me, just as the person is, seems to me the best proclamation I can offer of what Christ wants for the person, and of what Christ wants of me as a Christian.

It would, of course, also be bad clinical practice. That is, for the patient in crisis, the most dependable resources for spiritual and emotional support are those the patient knows and trusts best. If I want to help the patient rally the spiritual and emotional strength that will support physical healing and comfort, I do best to help the patient appreciate or rediscover what he or she already knows.

But first and foremost, to do otherwise, to seek to impose some Christian content and coerce some Christian behavioral response, is to deny and preempt God. We trust, after all, that the Holy Spirit is constantly working in the world, calling all to God’s purposes, including those who don’t know it. We trust that God can work in frail creatures, frail people – indeed, it is central to our theology of sacraments. In that crisis, at that bedside, I am called to discern, and as best I can affirm, what God is already doing in and around and through this person, not to somehow take control myself. That would indeed be pride of place, expressed in abuse of power; and it would evil, which in the Baptismal Covenant I am called to resist.

As I said, my conversation did not satisfy my questioner. Nor would all this reflection have made any difference. As a wise mentor once told me, sometime you just can’t get your point heard. And so we parted: he out of the hospital and I back into it. I hope he prayed for me as I prayed for him. And in the meantime, I continue to pray for the many that I cannot pray with, hoping that they experience in my work some poor reflection of the love of God that someday – perhaps someday soon – they will experience face to face, in ways beyond my imagining.

The Rev. Marshall Scott is a chaplain in the Saint Luke’s Health System, a ministry of the Diocese of West Missouri. A past president of the Assembly of Episcopal Healthcare Chaplains, and an associate of the Order of the Holy Cross, he keeps the blog Episcopal Chaplain at the Bedside.

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