“Well hello, Mark. What have you got on your mind today?” This said in a dull tone as he looked at me from the corner of his eye. I knew him well enough to understand the sarcasm.
I had been visiting Gerardo (not his real name) for almost a month and this greeting stopped me dead in my tracks. I felt my stomach knot as I saw my carefully crafted chaplain’s case study on the verge of collapse. Things that he had said to me in that month coupled with observations my clinical supervisor made about my work with Gerardo suddenly came crashing home. For a long moment I felt paralyzed.
How we got to that weary, cynical moment from an initial visit in which the two of us seemed to have really made a connection is a long story, but one that can be boiled down to the ten word title of this essay. The slightly longer version has me eagerly trying to diagnose and fix one psychological and spiritual error after the other, leading rather inevitably to this moment.
That encounter was twenty-eight years ago. It happened right here on the hospital campus that I have called my work home for twenty-four of those years. I can remember it now just as clearly as though it were this morning. Not because the encounter was all that unusual. Quite the contrary. I am embarrassed to say that back then that kind of encounter was happening to me on a regular if infrequent basis.
I thank God that I had a mentor who didn’t attempt to salve my wounded ego with platitudes. He didn’t encourage me to blame my rejections on the people I was supposed to be helping. Quite the contrary. Coyle Stephenson challenged me in that Southern gentleman’s drawl of his to listen to what the patient was telling me.
Coyle would have to tell you exactly what he thought the patient was trying to say. I am no mind reader (another helpful realization I gained from taking Clinical Pastoral Education at Baylor University Medical Center). What I can report to you is that whatever he saw caused him to ask me repeatedly, “What do you think this man is asking for?” And, “What do you have to offer him, especially him?”
In my eagerness to build the perfect case study- I was awfully accomplished at building academic cases back in those days- I lost sight of the human being in front of me. I kept attempting to find a problem that I could fix with a nice word of wisdom, a fitting Bible verse, an appropriate challenge.
Thank God Gerardo and Coyle hung in with me long enough for me to arrive at that moment of paralysis. I’m sure it didn’t last more than a few seconds but it felt like an eternity.
Something- I’m calling it the Holy Spirit- drew my attention to a child’s drawing hanging on the wall at the foot of Gerardo’s bed. My son Nate was less than two years old at the time.
“You know,” I finally responded, “I don’t seem to have a thing in the world on my plate today. I’d just like to spend a little time with you- no hidden agendas. I noticed your girl’s drawing . . .”
How we got from the conversation about his daughter to our tears together and a long, sweet prayer of healing for Gerardo and repentance for an overeager preacher boy is an interesting story. Maybe I’ll write about it some time.
What I can tell you right now is this. Since that day I have come to a particular belief with a conviction goes to my very bones. No one is meant to be a means to someone else’s end. God did not intend for anyone to become someone else’s project, no matter how noble and high sounding the project might be. As Kierkegaard stated in his prophetic masterpiece, Attack Upon Christendom, forcing someone’s surrender to Christ by making it a condition of culture or citizenship in the face of that “Love which suffered and Love which in dying entrusted its cause to human honesty” is no less a fraud than selling counterfeit Gucci shoes, to use a modern equivalent of K’s analogy. (p.147).
We conservative evangelicals- and I say “we” with all my heart- seem to have come a point in history where we have forgotten that our forebears shed blood for this simple idea. They endured pain and torture, exile and derision for the sake of the simple principle that no one should be manipulated, shamed, or forced to make a confession they themselves did not believe. Some folks might even say that is what Christ was dying for on the cross, at the very least as evidenced by his response to the two men who died with him.
Tomorrow I’ll write about the ways in which I believe too many conservative evangelicals, in their eagerness to accomplish certain outcomes are violating a basic principle I learned to call “soul liberty,” to use Roger Williams’ turn of phrase.
P.S. In the meantime you may find it helpful to take a look at the way that one respected evangelical organization seeks to be accountable not just for the message they are spreading but the means they use to spread it, here.