Jesus’ ministry often involved interacting with those who were ill, dying, and marginalized by society. These were the people that Jesus favored though, calling them “blessed”. I feel that in the same way, the dying today are marginalized, dehumanized, and feared by our culture. However, Jesus still favors these over the mighty and powerful. Caring for the dying not only mirrors Christ’s ministry, but fulfills his call to “mourn with those who mourn” and to care for “the least of these”.
Those who are terminally ill and dying remain creations of God, and still maintain His image. They therefore have dignity, value and honor that are not destroyed by their illness, and deserve to be treated accordingly. Not only do the ill maintain their value as part of creation, but are also a means by which God reveals himself.
The ill and dying approach God just as they are. Yet they may mask themselves because of their illness. Disease can carry feelings of fear, anger and loss among others, all of which may be hidden by shame. Jesus’ reaction was not to shame the dying, but to approach them in that shame and take its power away through touch, association and healing.
As a chaplain, I function as a witness of Jesus and an agent of grace with those I encounter. Just as in some traditions the sacraments are a means of transmitting and transferring God’s grace, my presence can be sacramental as well. I believe that a major part of being a chaplain with the dying is in the role of shepherd. While a shepherd protects the sheep, this is only part of the role. Shepherds also provide safe environments where the sheep can flourish. Shepherds also do not try to change the sheep into something other than they are. Being a sheep is not a problem, so trying to fix the “sheepiness” of another will not only frustrate the shepherd but devalues the sheep.
I also approach my position as a servant, as Jesus came as a servant to all, and led through that service.
As the ill approach God just as they are, I approach God just as I am as well. I bring my own gifts, stories, fears and sin to the encounter. Shame causes me to want to hide as well, but recognizing this can allow me to empathize with them as a fellow sufferer. God chooses to use people within history and within their own history for His work, and these particularities are significant to each encounter I have.
Finally, working with the ill and dying is a way that I encounter the living Christ in the world, for in caring for “the least of these” I care for the suffering and dying Christ.
The relationship is not merely a one-on-one relationship, for God is present and active in every relationship as well. The other is, as a teacher of mine stated, just as much in God’s hands as I am. I can hold loosely to my own agendas and be more at peace when I recognize this.