Dorothy walked into the hospital lobby, signed in on the Volunteer Pastoral logbook, and made her way to the chapel. There, she prayed, asking God's Spirit to open her heart and lead her through the next four hours to patients who were in need of comfort and hope.
Dorothy was excited to be a part of the Volunteer Pastoral Caregiver Team at San Joaquin Community Hospital in Bakersfield, California. She had taken the two-day volunteer chaplaincy training just one month before in response to a profound sense of personal calling to represent God's presence to patients and families who were in crisis. She was very involved in her own local Christian church, helping every Sunday in various ministries. And yet there was something about ministering to the sick and discouraged in the hospital that she said "feels even closer to the ministry that Christ did while on earth."
After her prayer, Dorothy made her way to one of her favorite nursing units favorite because she had made friends with many of the nurses there. Those nurses knew they could trust Dorothy to be effective in her compassionate care of their patients.
She made her way into the room of a 64- year-old woman. As she entered the room, she breathed a prayer, committing herself to God's purpose and leading in the human connection that would follow. Her recent training had taught her about the ministry of presence: to be present to the pain of another without needing to fix it or to flee from it; to listen without judgment; to not impose her own spiritual path on another; to meet the other person where they are.
She learned that to be the presence of God is far better than just talking about it; that the definition of compassion is "your pain in my heart." She had learned new communication skills, including being comfortable with silence. She had learned about the nature of grief and crisis and how to be most effective; she had learned that people actually need the spiritual struggle so that in the presence of compassion, they can safely explore their own fears and life meanings, and come to experience God's comfort and hope.
And so with this garment of grace ready to be donned, Dorothy entered the room. A pleasant exchange ensued. In the course of conversation, Dorothy learned that this patient's spiritual tradition was very important to her. The woman described herself as a Seventh-day Adventist, which she believed to be God's true church. Dorothy listened and validated the woman's courage and faith. As the visit drew to a close, Dorothy offered the opportunity for prayer. She said to the woman, "Would a prayer be helpful to you?"
Prayer and earrings
Although her training had prepared her for the possibility that the patient would decline prayer, she was very surprised at the patient's response to her question. "No, you can't pray for me." Dorothy kindly responded, "That's all right, I wish you God's peace and I will remember you in my own prayers."
The patient emphatically responded, "No, you can't pray for me ... because you're wearing earrings."
Dorothy, still stunned by the experience, shared the incident with me. I confess that I felt a little heartsick that someone from my own denomination would respond with such a closed heart to a sincere kindness from another Christian.
This experience brought to the surface a concern I've had for some time. I'm concerned that my denomination may be more fervent about being right than it is about being relational. For example, how many friends from other communities of faith does each of us have? Friends, that is, with whom we actually associate, talk deeply with, and whom we allow to help us in our times of need?
I know that many of us Adventists came up through our own culture of churches and schools, so our circles of associations have been quite polarized. But if we are really honest, the paradigm we grew up with seemed to suggest that we associate with non- Adventists primarily to "straighten them out" and "bring them into the fold."
Us and them?
And so, in the case of many of us, we create an "us and them" mentality. If we go to them, it is with an agenda, an assignment. It's a lot easier to pass out a flyer inviting people to an evangelistic meeting, or to debate the right day of worship, than it is to roll up our sleeves and enter into the hurting lives of real people.
After all, we too are pained and puzzled by the deep questions of life, of suffering, and of spirituality that just can't be completely answered. And we don't know how to be with that which we can't explain.
While I deeply value and embrace my Adventist heritage and beliefs, propositional "truth" in itself does not make me Christlike. Nor is truth my savior. Cherished truth does not give me a corner on God's favor or grace. I believe that God raised up the Adventist Church with a powerful message for these pressing times, but I wonder if we've created a theology that says we are saved by our right understanding of these truths.
Can we admit that we don't have an answer for everything, that we can't explain God and are not called to? That He does not need our defense or our protection? Do we understand that He lives to love and impart grace through His Spirit so that we can become His grace to others? Can we attest that we have experienced His grace and that we know in whom we have believed?
Dorothy knows these things. And although Adventist beliefs are precious to discover, Dorothy does not need to understand everything as we do in order for God to hear her prayers or work through her to advance His kingdom or comfort sinners even Adventist sinners.
When we quote the text, "If they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them," the "word" referred to here is not the 27 fundamental beliefs of Adventism. The Word is Jesus Christ, that is, God Himself (John 1:1, 14).
Doctrine and relationship
I truly believe that when we stand before our Savior on that final, nearing day, our invitation to enter into His eternal kingdom will have more to do with how we have treated others, and less about our right understanding of time prophecy and doctrine (see Matt. 25:31-46).
For my part, I can honestly say that as a nurse for 25 years, and now having been a chaplain for six years, I have been deeply blessed and inspired by allowing the patients of many faiths to be my teachers and to touch my life. Allowing myself to have an open heart to receive from them actually strengthens my own walk of faith and creates a much more profound mutual connection. And I think I'm a better Adventist a better person because of this interfaith connection.
Let us not be ashamed of what we believe, but let us share it as His Spirit leads us. Let us not be arrogant or think for one moment that we are the only ones God is using to build up His kingdom.
So who is the Dorothy God wants to use in your life?