Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Tell Me About God and Stuff

I had a very humbling experience yesterday during Clinical Pastoral Education that’s worth some reflection.  About a week ago I was called in to work with an older man who was facing very difficult decisions about end of life care… he kept asking me what heaven would be like while trying to figure out whether or not he wanted to be switched over to ‘comfort measures only.’  After a couple days of talking with him, we were able to pinpoint exactly what he was afraid of and work with that fear.  We were also able to get a lawyer to write up a will and I also was fortunate enough to spend some time with the patient’s family.  Late last week the patient was at peace enough with his decision to switch over to ‘comfort measures only’ and I guess I thought the hardest part of my job with that patient was done.  I assumed I would accompany the patient as he approached death over the coming days, working with whatever fears and losses he was facing yet not really facing any specifically new challenges myself.

Boy, was I wrong!  When I stopped in to visit yesterday, the patient was unconscious, but I had a great opportunity to spend some additional time with the patient’s sister in-law and nephew.  The patient’s sister in-law had been a lifelong infrequently attending member of a Baptist church in the area but I soon discovered that the patient’s nephew, a man roughly forty years old, thought he knew very little about God, and even less about Christianity.  He said that he always had questions and always was accepting of other folk’s beliefs, but simply hadn’t been taught much himself… he sort of remembered carving a pumpkin at some church fair as child, and that was the only time he ever participated in any type of organized religion.  The nephew did say though that he was concerned that his twelve year old daughter wouldn’t be brought up with any religion, and that it was hard for him to answer some of the basic human questions she was beginning to ask.  After explaining his situation, he asked abruptly: “Could you tell me about God and stuff?”  He then followed that question up with another: “What do Christians believe?”

Could I tell this guy about ‘God and stuff?’  One would think I should be able to… I am studying to be a pastor and have already gotten through one year of seminary.  I’m fairly comfortable giving sermons, leading adult forums and teaching confirmation classes… of course I should be able to tell him about ‘God and stuff.’  I completely froze though… living in what I assumed to be at least a nominally Christian culture, I had taken it for granted that folks would at least know the very basics.  I then quickly realized it was somewhat difficult for me even to separate out 'the basics' from everything else; what beliefs did I feel a bit more comfortable speaking on behalf of all Christians for?  When discussing preaching and teaching with my colleagues at seminary, it always seemed a given that those we’d be working with would remember at least some simple Bible stories… Noah’s Ark maybe? The Garden of Eden?  At least a rough idea about the Passion?  This poor man, facing the impending death of his beloved uncle, wanted to know about God, and simply didn’t believe he had ever been told anything at all.

For about a minute or so (it seemed to last a whole lot longer) I had no idea what to say.  Eventually I somewhat recovered, and we began by exploring the embedded theology he did have and then finding some related Bible verses.  I gave him some simple resources on what Christianity has to say about loss and I plan to meet with him again later this week… ideally I’ll be able to give him a referral to a church in the area.  I did okay… I think.  Still though, I learned a great lesson yesterday about not being presumptuous.  What a pompous, counter-productive and in the end destructive notion I had to assume that everyone at least ‘knew the basics.’ While Christianity’s place in the majority may be waning, people are still hungry. They’re still really hungry for a stronger sense of community and hungry to understand that which is bigger than themselves.  My experience yesterday helped me consider how many more hungry folks I may have been able to help over the years, if only I hadn’t assumed that everyone still at least ‘knew the basics.’  Wow, I love CPE.

God’s peace,

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