How Chaplains Change the World for Good

Dr. Craig von BuseckBy Dr. Craig von Buseck9 Minutes

Some of the most unsung heroes in the world today are chaplains – ministers who serve in various capacities, from hospitals, to the military, to corporations and even sports teams. Chaplains are ‘in the trenches’ servants who minister to individuals and families, often in the most difficult circumstances. They are often the unseen and sometimes underappreciated oil of many organizations that help to bring comfort, emotional healing, and a listening ear in times of trouble.

The word “chaplain” comes from a story from medieval times of a Roman soldier named Martin of Tours who converted to Christianity after an encounter with Christ, who first appeared in the form of a half-naked beggar. Martin was at the gate of the city of Amiens in northern France when he saw this shivering and pathetic person. Moved with compassion, the Roman soldier cut his cloak in half in order to share it with the beggar. That night, Jesus appeared to Martin in a dream-vision and revealed that the beggar was actually Him. The cloak or “cape” is from the Latin word cappella, a derivative of cappa — from which we get the word “chaplain.”

In response to this heavenly vision, Martin left the army and eventually founded the first monastery in Gaul. This act of compassion in the name of Jesus by Martin became the example for all who would follow in the calling of chaplaincy. It hearkens back to the words of Christ:

Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. (Matthew 25:34-36, ESV)

Some have said being a chaplain is like being a fire fighter or police officer – you run in as others are running out. While chaplains rejoice when someone recovers from an illness or an accident, or at the birth of a baby, often these brave ministers are called on to give comfort in times of trauma and at the bedside of a dying patient.

The ‘Why’ Question

At times, when believers face a chronic disease, a debilitating accident, or a sudden illness, many will cry out, “Why has God done this to me?” This question was posed to me as a hospital chaplain by an angry woman lying in a hospital bed.

“I’m only in my late 50s,” she continued, “but I’m stuck in a body that’s getting weaker and weaker. While my friends are out having fun and enjoying their lives, I’m trapped in this body and in this bed.”

There are many ways I could have responded. I could have told her to “cheer up” and stop complaining. I could have told her that “God works in mysterious ways.” I could have told her that she could get better if she only had enough faith. Or I could have told her that everything was going to be OK.

None of those are good responses. The best response was to listen and allow her to pour out her heart of pain.

After she was done, I simply acknowledged her pain and said I was sorry that she had such a difficult burden to bear. I assured her of God’s love for her, despite the health challenges she was facing.

As we continued to talk, I reminded her that there were many people in the Bible who experienced different kinds of pain – some physical, some emotional – and they also brought their sorrow, grief, and questions to God. I shared how David often cried out to God in the Psalms. I assured her that God didn’t mind her sharing truthfully from her heart.

After nearly an hour of sharing, she ended our conversation with, “Thank you, I needed to share that. Despite my pain, I still believe.” We prayed together and I said goodbye.

Two days later, I received an emergency message on my pager asking me to return to this woman’s room. She was actively dying and she had no family or friends with her.

By the time I arrived in her room, she had already fallen into a coma and the death struggle had begun. The nurse was getting ready to give her some morphine to ease her pain.

I took hold of the woman’s hand and spoke to her, “It’s Chaplain Craig. I was here a couple days ago. I want you to know you’re not alone. I’m here, the nurse is here, and God is here with us.”

I started to sing some hymns that were stirring in my heart. When I got to “Amazing Grace” the nurse said, “Oh, that is my favorite. Can I sing along?”

“Of course,” I responded and the two of us sang the beloved hymn together. Then I started quoting what is probably the best known of David’s writings – the 23rd Psalm.

When I spoke the comforting words, “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me…” this dear woman – who had not moved at all up until that point – suddenly squeezed my hand. I experienced then what I had had been told in my chaplain training, that those in a coma can usually hear and understand what is happening around them.

Though she had questioned God in the midst of her difficult trial, she had held on to her faith. In the end, it was God’s Word and His presence that brought her comfort as she said goodbye to this world.

The Bible gives us this comforting glimpse at God’s perspective of earthly death:

Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his godly ones. (Psalm 116:15, NASB)

I was honored to be there for this precious moment in the life of this godly one. And I was blessed to witness the power of God’s Word to bring peace in the valley of the shadow of death. For this woman, healing was completed with her entry into the loving arms of Jesus.

Being a chaplain is a difficult, yet highly rewarding job. If you know a chaplain, take some time to honor and encourage them. Chaplains do so much to shine the light of God’s love. Perhaps your church or ministry could adopt a chaplain to pray for, encourage, and maybe even support with a gift from time to time. As you minister to them, you are also ministering to those they care for in Jesus’ name.