Friday, January 12, 2007

Very, very cold here

Getting a real Winter here this year; still lots of snow and now below-zero temperatures. No pseudo-winter, not this time!

Am taking church's training class by which pastoral caregivers are trained. Vast majority of pastoral care is provided by these volunteers. Found myself somewhat horrified at content; mainly based on a training handbook for crisis line volunteers from a secular organization. Some religious content added, but inconsistent theology, not surprising based on our theologically-diverse population. "How to offer prayer" took up about 30 minutes. I offered feedback on the feedback sheet stating that I was not comfortable with some of the theological assertions (God always answers prayer; God is in charge of everything; God has a plan--these can be immensely comforting to those who find such assertions seem to fit the pattern of their lives, but as the theology profs at school so aptly point out, every theological assertion has its downside). The instructor and director of ministries asked me about my feedback this afternoon and I tried to collect my thoughts and gave them and one other volunteer some ideas based on chaplaincy etc., and suggested some of the downsides to some of these assertions in certain situations. It was dicey because the instructor is very comfortable with "God always answers prayers" and the director of ministries has the "God has a plan" notion as a core of his own theology.

I hope I was able to make the points without seeming critical of THEM--I framed my comments as, each of us, when we speak of God and how God works, naturally speak of how we have experienced God in OUR lives, but of course the fact that God is greater than human comprehension means that our experiences are not the whole of God, and we have to be cautious about sending unintentional messages even with the kindest possible intent. Like, telling someone who has been praying for years that a beloved child could successfully get off drugs, that "God always answers prayers; you just have to ask for what you want." That may be true to us but may not be as helpful as staying with the anguished parent in the moment of anguish. Or, telling someone who has suffered a staggering loss that "God is in charge of everything that happens," which raises the question of why a loving God would have chosen to inflict the loss.

It is that pesky problem of evil that rises up at annoying times, and the temptation to offer a religious platitude -- especially if those are comforting in one's own life -- can be so strong. But so many people have been damaged by religious platitudes; even being told, in the wildness of grief for a loved one, that said loved one "is in a better place" can send the message that grief is selfish and wrong, rather than offer support. I do remember one couple in hospice during my CPE unit, who were reeling with the shock of a sudden diagnosis and only days left together. Perhaps the most connecting thing any of us did for them was validate their rage and devastation. I remember saying, with tears in my own eyes, "This sucks for you. It just does." We told them it was perfectly fine and even Biblical to be angry at God. I remember the surviving spouse, at the memorial service, catching me in a fierce hug, saying, "Thank you. Thank you." over and over, and I have to think it was because we all just stayed with them and gave them no talk about "God's plan" or "God's will." (I think they'd have chased us out of the room if we had tried that, anyhow.)

Anyhow I hope I was able to offer some constructive suggestions without giving personal offense.

Wait till we get to the topic of forgiveness. And my viewpoint that pushing people to forgive before injury has even been acknowledged is a power play, not a supportive gesture. They'll LOVE me then.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I completely agree with everything you've said here!

I never talk to patients about "God's will," and when they use the phrase, I tell them, "That doesn't mean you have to like it." I often encourage patients to express their anger and grief; a wise friend of mine once said that raging at God is a form of prayer, and I pass that on to a lot of patients.

As for God answering prayers -- well, I think She always does, but sometimes the answer is "no," and even more often, it's "not yet."

10:45 AM  

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