The Zen of a Chaplain’s Sacrilegious Remarks

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Being a chaplain is a great career for people who like to skip the small talk and get straight to what is on a person’s mind. I was meeting Kenneth for the first time last week, one of the newly admitted patients in the hospice residence. He was in bed, a thin white beard vainly trying to obscure his gaunt face. After I explained who I was, he said, “I’m pretty old. But my buddies did not get to be old. Why would God let my buddies in the Second World War die and then let me live so many years?” He could not dismiss this theological quandary easily, because, “Anyhow me and God are on the same page.” The unfairness of some people dying young while others like him do not troubled him greatly, because he kept turning this over and over in his mind. Then he talked about the senselessness of war, and pondered why God would let that go on. Finally, as I listened to his litany of complaints, I asked,

“Do you think God should be fired?”

I did not say that to be cute or contrary. I asked that unlikely question to jostle him into being more aware of the religious conflict that was haunting him, and to help him articulate his unresolved spiritual issues. For the moment, he came up with saying he felt God’s care despite the Supreme Commander’s inscrutable behavior. He could live with ambiguity, as we all must to some extent.

Even curse words can have a curative effect. Some years ago, I recall helping a patient express his anger. I validated it by chiming in with some strong language about the Lord our God. This made him feel that I was not making excuses for God, and so he felt free to continue venting his spiritual pain.

Resisting the temptation to put oneself squarely in God’s corner may be especially challenging to volunteers helping mourners, because  such volunteers are drawn to it in the main for deeply spiritual reasons. They may be primed to see religion as a great comfort and as a source of wisdom. They may feel passionately that it is a resource they must let mourners know about. That may be the best path for some mourners, but there will be times when it is what the mourners themselves know about and want to impress upon the volunteer that will lay the groundwork for a truly spiritual encounter

This article was adapted and reprinted with permission from the blog,”Expired and Inspired,” published in the Jewish Journal on February 10th, 2016. The link is here: