Gordon first met John a few months ago, when John was dying of cancer. John was a crusty and profane old man, a veteran and a recovering alcoholic, uninterested in God or religion. As a hospice chaplain, Gordon often met patients like John, and most of the time they wanted nothing to do with chaplains. John was different, though.
“He just wanted my presence and friendship,” said Gordon. “He certainly did not want prayer or any spiritual conversation. [But] he kept wanting me to return.”
John, like many hospice patients, just wanted someone to listen to him. His life was ending, and he wanted to relive his memories, pass on his stories, and not be alone or forgotten. He and Gordon never talked about religion. Instead, John spent most of the time talking about cars and auto repair. Gordon knew little about these things, but he would listen to John for hours. At the end of each visit, Gordon would ask John if he wanted to pray together. John always said no, but Gordon kept coming back.
“That was the way of being as Christ to him,” said Gordon. “Take an interest in him. Value him as a person. Listen to his stories. And just leave it at that.”
For Gordon, the best part about being a chaplain is bringing the presence of Christ to others, even if it’s just for a little while. Many of the people he serves are like John: uninterested in Christ due to having another religion or no faith at all. This is sometimes a challenge. Chaplains do not evangelize or convert people on their deathbeds. Instead, they must help meet patients’ spiritual needs. But even if they have different religions, Gordon believes he can share the presence of Christ with others.
He prepares his heart for this every day by praying:
“Lord, guide me in who I see today;
To all those to whom you send me,
let me be a channel of your blessing.
Let me be as Christ to each person I meet.
May I be at peace knowing
you are there before I arrive,
you are there while I am there,
you remain there after I leave,
and at the end of the day
I ask you to mark my work with your success”
Now, John is actively dying. He is bed bound and sleeping often. He struggles to communicate. His body is shutting down. He is scared.
And in this transition he has allowed Gordon to pray with him.
“I read to him Psalm 23,” says Gordon, “and I had a prayer with him. I held his hand, and gave him some words of assurance.
It took time, but Gordon’s ministry of presence has had a far more profound impact on John than any preaching would have.
Gordon says, “If this had happened earlier, it would have been forced. Now it is natural and it is of God.”
Gordon is deeply thankful for these moments. For many patients, it doesn’t end this way: with him getting to pray for them or bless them. But Gordon trusts in God’s power and timing, and he takes comfort in simply being Christ’s tool of grace and acceptance. They don’t need words. They need Christ’s love. And it is the mission of the chaplain to bring it to them, even if it’s just for a little while.