Being a Chaplain
Tuesday 23rd February 2021 @ 2:49 pm
The writing below is an article written at the request of the Methodist Newsletter – now that it is public, here it is for ye also …
Once in a while two emails arrive into my inbox on the same day asking for the same thing – more or less. Take this article for example. A polite request comes from the editor to write an article on the work of chaplains – primarily I suspect a university chaplaincy view as that is what I am. And then within minutes an email from a friend and colleague arrives saying “Would you be able to put down on an A4 page some pointers of what you think works as a university Chaplin and some pointers of what doesn’t?”
Bingo. Two in one. Write the article, and answer the query. Except it’s never quite that easy – much as defining chaplaincy roles itself is not easy. However, let’s have an attempt at least.
Forget fake news, it’s fake friendships that are the challenge. It was 1990 when a book called ‘Friendship Evangelism’ was published and the idea first began to spread. “Simple, practical ways to share the language of caring with people around you—to let them know that God loves them, that hope is not lost” (p.6 Monte Sahlin) is how it was defined. It seemed like a great idea – but one problem with a conservative evangelical outworking of this approach is people are then encountered in order to have them believe a correct theology. So straightaway, there is the danger of mixed motivations – ‘I will be your friend, because I am wanting you to believe what I do, in order that you might be saved by grace.’ The parsing out of that sentence could have us here for days. The point however is simple, for friendship to be real friendship, it cannot be sustained on the basis of hidden agendas.
While talking recently with Martin McAleese (husband of former President of Ireland, Mary McAleese) for an event I run called The Good Summit, he spoke of his engagement with loyalist paramilitaries during his time living in Áras an Uachtaráin. What impressed me most was not the considerable risks he undertook to create meaningful conversations for peace and justice – work which ultimately helped lead to loyalist cessation of violence. Rather it was the reality that he still has those phone numbers in his phone. “The friendship had to be genuine,” he told me, “and that means they still are – I could call any of them today.” To be clear, the people he engaged were people of the tribe who caused Martin and his family much pain and suffering. As a child his family was forced out of their home by loyalists. His friendships in later years took risks, crossed boundaries, called upon him to do work on his own inner life and prejudices, as well as lay the ground for meaningful moves toward a more peaceful island. He still has the numbers in his phone, and remains in contact with these men. The relationships therefore were authentic – not forced, coerced or infused with hidden agendas. There was a mission involved – an end to violence on this island. And what it took was authentic engagement with ‘the other.’ Lasting, honest, purposeful engagement.
This is how I view chaplaincy.
Purposeful engagement with the world, in honest, authentic, presence fuelled ways. If I am a carrier of the Spirit of God – as I believe we all are – and if I am called to live a life in the world that produces love joy peace patience kindness goodness faithfulness gentleness and self–control – as I believe we all are – then being present to the world as a chaplain does not need better programs or procedures, it needs better presence. Present to God, present to others. It means bridging the gap, and more often than not learning that God is already hanging out in the space you are walking into. We firmly believe that this is God’s world, it follows then that God’s presence is everywhere in it. Often it is our understanding of what God is up to that needs the tuning. Chaplains get this joy every day. The joy of recognising the work of the Spirit everywhere outside the church. God is at work in God’s world, and we as chaplains get to be a translator, creating links to the sacred for people through conversation, hospitality, generosity and honest human engagement. Friendships must be genuine – and lasting. People will see through fake.
There is of course a list of things chaplains do / create / run in order to help the mission of recognising what God is up to in the world. Some have been mentioned already, but a list might encompass aspects of life such as hospitality, practicing empathy, being a translator of the sacred into life outside church, acting as a purveyor of religious ritual and thought into groups of people who may not even recognise that this is what is happening, sharing the sacred, and being Present. Present to deep loss and to crazy joy, present to questions and present to discoveries, present to frivolity and present to profundity. Present in other words, to a real God in real life in the real world.
Yes, there are mistakes we make as chaplains, things we wish we had not done, or could not do. And almost all of them come from holding a position of pomposity, and pedalling pious proclamations from a great height. People want authenticity – we as chaplains are at our worst when we are inauthentic, trying to get people to behave and believe in certain ways because ‘I say so.’ Everything changes when people recognise we are with them, alongside them, for them. No hidden agenda. If we believe that being alongside people is where Christ would invite us to be, then we trust that the Spirit is working, challenging, changing, and ultimately bringing about the world God desires – it’s a work of God. A work of Grace. It’s not the work of any minister. It’s the Spirit who meets and transforms humans. Chaplains are privileged to walk the world being present to the God who is present in it. I thank God for the wonder of it all, and continue to be expectant that the Spirit is up to something …
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