We were discussing the new patients being admitted to hospice care. One of our chaplains* explained that a patient had “. . . a Baptist background, but couldn’t attend church anymore.”
Moments later, describing the next new patient, the same chaplain said, “She was a Baptist, but hasn’t been in any church since ‘they started projecting those dumb songs on the wall.’” He paused, then smiled. “Her words, not mine.”
And then, about another of his assigned patients: “He was raised Baptist, but said he lost interest in going to church after his children grew up and moved away.”
On that morning, at our patient care meeting**, it seemed each of that particular chaplain’s new patients were raised in, had been affiliated with, or were once deeply involved in churches from the many variations of the Baptist denomination. Hey, how many Baptists can you fit in a room?
But it’s just as likely the next meeting, with the next new patients, will reveal a variety of religious allegiances: Buddhist, Sikh, Muslim . . . along with the vast array of Christian “tribes” (from Armenian Orthodox through Russian Molokan to the Church of the Latter Day Saints). While there may not be as many religions as grains of sand on the beach, counting them would still be intimidating. There are major religions. Minor religions. There are faith traditions that hardly anyone practices anymore. Some denominations are growing and expanding. Certain ones seem quaint (and are often stereotyped) like the Amish. There are examples like Scientology, which may not be considered a religion, or even religious, by many—but it represents the only way to have meaning in life by adherents.
Not too long ago, I visited a hospice patient and he shared a simple list of what mattered most to him: 1) God, 2) his wife. While his cancer has slowed his thinking process, he seemed adamant about the priority of the divine in his life. But he also added that he didn’t think much of organized religion. He was not befuddled by medication. He was not telling half-truths. We all make our choices and our list of priorities in unique ways.
With quite a few patients, indeed with many in the 21st century, there is a difference between a belief in God and connections to a faith community. This occurs regardless of age, health, or upbringing. An oft-used phrase explaining that is: “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” Quite a few in modern America may check “None” for a church affiliation in surveys, but still claim a positive variation of beliefs/thoughts/feelings about a divine presence.
People seek God in nature.
Others may never darken the door of a sanctuary, but will read daily from a sacred text.
Some share a simple faith that is always linked to family and friends: in joy of holding hands with a spouse of six decades, of being surrounded by loving grandchildren and great-grandchildren. For them, the comfort and companionship of family is far more crucial than being identified as “Christian” or “Jewish” or “_________.”
When facing death, it’s possible a patient may return to the religion of their childhood (As in, give me that old time religion). Or perhaps a serious illness inspires a new belief “path” that finally makes sense to them as adults. There are also new admits to hospice, with a sudden, life-limiting disease, who decide their lousy health proves there is no merciful Creator.
Does religion matter to you? Will it matter more or less if you are confronted by an oncologist explaining you have six months or left to live? Or should I ask (instead of “religion”) if faith, spirituality, or a communion with a higher power matters to you?
In truth, I’m not a big fan of the “I’m spiritual, but not religious.” I wonder if it’s become a convenient cliché and frequently stops a conversation. It gives me a chance to point an angry or disappointed finger at organized religion and never talk about essentials, about my true hopes and my true fears.
What of God does matter to you?
One of the quiet advantages to hospice is having a chaplain enter into you and your family’s life. He or she won’t arrive at your doorstep to convince you to believe in God or start attending church or to confess your sins. She or he may serve you communion at your request, or share Muslim or Buddhist prayers that comfort you, or will listen to your prayers, or help you find a Roman Catholic priest who can give you the Sacrament of the Sick.
When, in that morning meeting of many Baptists, the chaplain mentioned folks who’d once gone to a particular church or whose families had once been involved in some Baptist “flavor” (such as the National Baptists or American Baptists or Southern Baptists or . . .), it sounded like a weather report. We say some days are sunny with clouds, or it’s a cloudy day with patches of sun, or it’s a day of clearing skies. There are numerous ways to describe what is mostly the same thing. There is sun and sky and rain and storm and all of it is a grand pattern that creates a living planet. And with the countless faith traditions, don’t they all have a core belief in loving the neighbor, and in not seeing only “me” as the center of the universe?
I hope, if you’re a hospice patient, you consider welcoming a chaplain into your life. If you want, he or she will talk about:
- Old time religion when you were a kid.
- Your fears of dying, or your readiness for death.
- What you resent about religion, or question about spirituality.
- How you despise God or love Buddha, your questions about Jesus, your beliefs or doubts concerning heaven, about the sins of youth or the longings of old age.
Or don’t say one word about anything religious, but enjoy a chat with a caring person who isn’t there with needles or medication or forms to complete . . . but is there for you.
The chaplain, whatever your journey is, will only and always offer support to you.
*Some hospice agencies may have Spiritual Counselors, or other titles.
**Following Medicare guidelines, all hospice patients are discussed and reviewed every two weeks by the clinical staff. Depending on their circumstances, patients may be talked about at every team meeting, but the once every two weeks is the minimum.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by