The Chaplains' Blog

Everything that is Christian must bear some resemblance to the address which a physician makes beside the sick-bed. – Kierkegaard

On Another’s Sorrow

By William Blake (1757-1827)

Can I see another’s woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another’s grief,
And not seek for kind relief?

Can I see a falling tear,
And not feel my sorrow’s share?
Can a father see his child
Weep, nor be with sorrow filled?

Can a mother sit and hear
An infant groan, an infant fear?
No, no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

And can He who smiles on all
Hear the wren with sorrows small,
Hear the small bird’s grief and care,
Hear the woes that infants bear —

And not sit beside the nest,
Pouring pity in their breast,
And not sit the cradle near,
Weeping tear on infant’s tear?

And not sit both night and day,
Wiping all our tears away?
Oh no! never can it be!
Never, never can it be!

He doth give his joy to all:
He becomes an infant small,
He becomes a man of woe,
He doth feel the sorrow too.

Think not thou canst sigh a sigh,
And thy Maker is not by:
Think not thou canst weep a tear,
And thy Maker is not near.

Oh He gives to us his joy,
That our grief He may destroy:
Till our grief is fled and gone
He doth sit by us and moan.


On “Practical Theology”

My point is that a knowledge of God in, through, and as Jesus Christ leads to a Trinitarian way of thinking about God; and a Trinitarian theology is inherently a practical theology in that it is a knowledge of God’s action grounded in God’s being.  The doctrine of the Trinity is the basis for Christian practical theology.

Practical theology is theology that is concerned with action: first, with God’s mission, the mission Dei; and second, with the action or praxis of the church in its life and ministry in faithful communion with the God who acts, the mission of the church.  But God’s acts are always first, and our acts, the church’s acts, are always second, and even then, I argue, our acts are but a participation in the Holy Spirit in our Lord’s human response on our behalf to the prior act of God.  Even in response we find ourselves within the sphere of God’s prevenient grace and the functioning of the Holy Trinity…

As  a broad and inclusive category, practical theology is theology that is concerned with action.  Yet the meaning of the term is not obviously cogent, combining as it does the noun theology with the adjective practical.  Is not theology associated with ideas and arguments that seek to present eternal truths, while the practical tends to be associated with the mundane, ‘where the rubber hits the road’?  The adjective seems to qualify the noun in an odd way.  It is precisely this way of thinking, however, that has led theology to be thought of as ‘pure’ and therefore impractical, and ‘practical theology’ to be thought of as the functional, pragmatic end of the curriculum, where the theory of theology gets applied in churchly work.  Even if, with Schleiermacher, we think of practical theology as the crown of the theological enterprise, it remains a discipline struggling to develop a theory.

So, in what way does it make sense to speak of practical theology?  Practical theology is practical because it is theological: it has to do with God.  All theology, all knowledge of God, by virtue of the subject matter – the acting God – is inherently a practical theology or a practical knowledge of God.  Axiomatically, knowledge of God is knowledge of God creatively, redemptively, and eschatologically active in the world and in human history through Jesus Christ.  Aside from the specific history of revelation and redemption, we would not know God.  Knowledge of God is knowledge of the missio Dei, of Jesus’ ministry to the glory of the Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit, for the sake of the world.  Revelation and the mission of God for reconciliation are held together christologically for the church as practical knowing: ‘All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him’ (Luke 10:22)… Because there is no knowledge of a God absent from history, or of an uninvolved God, there is no such thing as impractical theology, which would be the knowledge of a God notable exactly as a God who is not revealed and who does not act in human history… It is not we by our actions who make theology practical (the old notion of practical theology as applied theology), but it is God, by virtue of what God does, who makes knowledge of God inherently a practical knowledge.  This means that churchly practice arises out of our sharing in the practice of God, and it is only properly and appropriately practical insofar as it does this.  Nothing could be more practical than the teaching about who God is and what God does in relation to us, on the one hand, and the concern to live in that relationship as the fundamental or constitutive basis of what it means to be a human being and the church, on the other.

From Andrew Purves, Reconstructing Pastoral Theology: A Christological Foundation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004), xxv, 8-10 (italics belong to the author; bold belongs to me)

“The Story of My Life”

How would you want someone to tell the story of your life?

What would you want to reflect on in your final moments of living?

As chaplains, we often reflect on what it means to “animate” the walls of a medicalized, industrialized hospital setting… to bring the hospital to life with imagination, prayer, art, stories, friendship, and beauty.

I love Tim Burton’s take on these issues in his film Big Fish.  See the clip above.


By George Herbert

Death, thou wast once an uncouth hideous thing,
Nothing but bones,
The sad effect of sadder grones:
Thy mouth was open, but thou couldst not sing.

For we consider’d thee as at some six
Or ten yeares hence,
After the losse of life and sense,
Flesh being turn’d to dust, and bones to sticks.

We lookt on this side of thee, shooting short;
Where we did finde
The shells of fledge souls left behinde,
Dry dust, which sheds no tears, but may extort.

But since our Saviours death did put some bloud
Into thy face;
Thou art grown fair and full of grace,
Much in request, much sought for, as a good.

For we do now behold thee gay and glad,
As at dooms-day;
When souls shall wear their new aray,
And all thy bones with beautie shall be clad.

Therefore we can go die as sleep, and trust
Half that we have
Unto an honest faithfull grave;
Making our pillows either down, or dust.

Go Down, Death

By James Weldon Johnson

Weep not, weep not,
She is not dead;
She’s resting in the bosom of Jesus.
Heart-broken husband–weep no more;
Grief-stricken son–weep no more;
Left-lonesome daughter –weep no more;
She only just gone home.

Day before yesterday morning,
God was looking down from his great, high heaven,
Looking down on all his children,
And his eye fell of Sister Caroline,
Tossing on her bed of pain.
And God’s big heart was touched with pity,
With the everlasting pity.

And God sat back on his throne,
And he commanded that tall, bright angel standing at his right hand:
Call me Death!
And that tall, bright angel cried in a voice
That broke like a clap of thunder:
Call Death!–Call Death!
And the echo sounded down the streets of heaven
Till it reached away back to that shadowy place,
Where Death waits with his pale, white horses.

And Death heard the summons,
And he leaped on his fastest horse,
Pale as a sheet in the moonlight.
Up the golden street Death galloped,
And the hooves of his horses struck fire from the gold,
But they didn’t make no sound.
Up Death rode to the Great White Throne,
And waited for God’s command.

And God said: Go down, Death, go down,
Go down to Savannah, Georgia,
Down in Yamacraw,
And find Sister Caroline.
She’s borne the burden and heat of the day,
She’s labored long in my vineyard,
And she’s tired–
She’s weary–
Do down, Death, and bring her to me.

And Death didn’t say a word,
But he loosed the reins on his pale, white horse,
And he clamped the spurs to his bloodless sides,
And out and down he rode,
Through heaven’s pearly gates,
Past suns and moons and stars;
on Death rode,
Leaving the lightning’s flash behind;
Straight down he came.

While we were watching round her bed,
She turned her eyes and looked away,
She saw what we couldn’t see;
She saw Old Death.She saw Old Death
Coming like a falling star.
But Death didn’t frighten Sister Caroline;
He looked to her like a welcome friend.
And she whispered to us: I’m going home,
And she smiled and closed her eyes.

And Death took her up like a baby,
And she lay in his icy arms,
But she didn’t feel no chill.
And death began to ride again–
Up beyond the evening star,
Into the glittering light of glory,
On to the Great White Throne.
And there he laid Sister Caroline
On the loving breast of Jesus.

And Jesus took his own hand and wiped away her tears,
And he smoothed the furrows from her face,
And the angels sang a little song,
And Jesus rocked her in his arms,
And kept a-saying: Take your rest,
Take your rest.

Weep not–weep not,
She is not dead;
She’s resting in the bosom of Jesus.

Death is Nothing At All

By Henry Scott Holland

Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away to the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
That, we still are.

Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.

Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect.
Without the trace of a shadow on it.

Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?

I am but waiting for you.
For an interval.
Somewhere. Very near.
Just around the corner.

All is well.

Sources of Clinical Pastoral Education

An Excerpt by Eric L. Johnson

Given liberal Protestantism’s greater willingness to accommodate to to modernism and its own historical-critical skepticism regarding Scripture, it is no surprise that within liberalism’s ranks there arose those interested in soul care who were persuaded that modern psychology’s resources were more valuable than Christianity’s.  In 1905 the Emmanuel Movement became the first attempt to shape pastoral care by “the sciences” rather than by “tradition” (Holifield, 1983).  However, a few decades passed before this new approach became influential.  Involved in the Emmanuel Movement from its earliest days, the Unitarian Richard Cabot, along with Russell Dicks, wrote The Art of Ministering to the Sick, published in 1936, where they “defined God as a power of healing” and advocated listening and looking for the “better parts of the person’s mind,” so that the minister could help persons “discover the direction in which [the] immanent divinity was carrying them” (Holifield, p. 237).  With support from Cabot, Anton Boisen (1876-1965) spearheaded the development of Clinical Pastoral Education, a program of supervision and training of ministers in modern pastoral care, relying on the best of modern psychology.  A former mental patient himself, Boisen (1936) advocated taking seriously the lives and experience of those with whom caregivers worked.  He called patients “living human documents,” recognizing the scientific and therapeutic value of narrative and the textual nature of human life, but also exemplifying the modern preoccupation with the individual subject.  Scripture was virtually absent from his work.

From Eric L. Johnson, Foundations for Soul Care: A Christian Psychology Proposal (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), pp. 69-70.

See, too, E. Brooks Holifield, A History of Pastoral Care in America: From Salvation to Self-Realization

The Case of Coles’s Friend

An Excerpt by Allen Verhey

It is conventional that essays in medical ethics consider a case.  So, consider this: In his Harvard Diary, Robert Coles tells the story of a friend of his, a physician who knows that his own cancer is not likely to be beaten back, a Christian who knows that the final triumph belongs to the risen Christ.[1]  The dying man was visited by a hospital chaplain, who asked how he was “coping.”  “Fine,” he said, in the fashion of all those replies by which people indicate that they are doing reasonably well given their circumstances, and that they would rather not elaborate just now on what those circumstances are.  But this chaplain was unwilling to accept such a reply.  He inquired again about how the man was feeling, how he was managing, how he was dealing with the stress.  Relentlessly he pressed on to questions about denial and anger and acceptance.  But finally he gave up with the suggestion that when the man was ready to discuss things, he should not hesitate to call him.  After the chaplain left, Coles’s friend got angry – not so much about his circumstances or his dying as about the chaplain.  The chaplain, he said, was a psychobabbling fool.  And Robert Coles, the eminent Harvard psychiatrist, agreed.  What his friend needed and wanted, Coles said, was someone with whom to attend to God and to God’s word, not someone who dwelt upon the stages of dying as though they were “stations of the cross.”

Coles’s friend was not finished with the chaplain.  He called for him to return; there were some things, he said, that he wanted “to discuss.”  When the chaplain returned, Coles’s friend had his Bible out, with the bookmark set to Psalm 69.  It is a prayer, a lament, a cry of anguish and a call for help: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck… I have come into deep waters…” If the chaplain read on, he would have discovered what Coles does not mention, that Psalm 69 is an imprecatory psalm, a cry of anguish that vents its anger in curses on those who fail to comfort.  And the curse on the enemy may be no small part of the reason this dying man chose this psalm for this particular representative of the church.  “I looked for pity,” it says, “but there was none; and for comforters, but I found none.  They gave me poison for food and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.  Let their table be a trap for them” (Ps. 69:20-22).

Coles’s friend, of course, was not complaining about the hospital food.  He was complaining about a chaplain who had emptied his role of the practice of piety, who neglected prayer and Scripture, and who filled his visits to the sick with the practices of psychotherapy.  And his curse upon the table of his enemies was not intended, I suppose, to suggest that the skills and language of psychology are useless.  It was intended, rather, to remind the chaplain that at the table set before us we may eat and drink judgment to ourselves if we forget or ignore the gifts of God for the people of God.  And those gifts include not only bread and wine, but also prayer and Scripture and the presence of a suffering and risen Christ.  My concern just now is not that the church or its representatives will forfeit their inheritance for a mess of psychology, neglecting or ignoring talk of God for the sake of psychobabbling talk about “stages” and “phases.”  My concern is rather with medical ethics and with the temptations to forgetfulness when our discourse and deliberation focus on an impartial point of view and the sort of generic principles favored by medical ethicists.

From Allen Verhey, Remembering Jesus: Christian Community, Scripture, and the Moral Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002),pp. 85-86.

[1] Robert Coles, “Psychiatric Stations of the Cross,” in Harvard Diary: Reflections on the Sacred and the Profane (New York: Crossroad, 1990), pp. 10-12.  See also pp. 92-94.

Heaven When We Die?

By Brent White

August 4, 2012 –

When I was a young Christian, no doctrine was clearer to me than the doctrine of heaven: If we accept Christ as savior and Lord, we can be assured of heaven when we die. Heaven was the point of it all, right? Heaven was certainly the theme of every youth retreat I went on—the promise that beckoned unbelievers—”with every head bowed and every eye closed”—to make a tearful decision to repent of their sins and follow Christ.

I don’t mean to be too critical: I made a profession of faith in this kind of emotional setting. And, thank God, it stuck! I’m still following Jesus to this day!

But by the time I was in my twenties, this simplistic idea of heaven began to fall apart for me. It felt like pie-in-the-sky, an “opiate of the masses,” a bribe for good behavior (as C.S. Lewis put it). I didn’t stop believing in the afterlife, only that there must be something more to it. Whatever heaven is, it must be deeper than just the eternal party in the sky—or worse, eternal choir in the sky—that many preachers and evangelists of my youth made it out to be.

In the ’90s, Elvis Costello, a favorite singer-songwriter of mine, wrote a not-very-good song called “This Is Hell,” in which he said that “heaven is hell in reverse.” He meant that while heaven and hell start in very different places, they both reach the same boring steady-state of tedium. I knew that wasn’t true, but I couldn’t exactly say why.

Then I went to seminary. What was missing, I discovered, in my earlier doctrine of heaven wasresurrection, not merely the resurrection of Jesus—which I interpreted to mean that there was life after death—but resurrection of the dead, that phrase at the end of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds: there will come a day (if it even makes sense to speak in temporal terms) when the dead in Christ will be re-embodied. God will give us transformed bodies, in continuity with the bodies that we have now but different: no longer able to suffer decay and death. What Christ is in resurrection now, we will become some day—on the other side of the Second Coming.

In a similar way, all Creation will be redeemed and renewed. Heaven will not be a place far away from our present home. Rather, heaven itself will come down to this earth, a transformed earth, as Revelation 21 describes. Our heavenly home, in other words, is very close to our present home—different but in continuity with the world we know now.

We can’t make this happen ourselves. There’s no sense in talking about the Church’s bringing heaven to earth. That can’t happen apart from God’s miraculous intervention at the end of history. But the good work that we do for God’s kingdom now will somehow become a part of this new Creation. As N.T. Wright has said, “I don’t know what musical instruments we shall have to play Bach in God’s new world, but I’m sure Bach’s music will be there.”[1]

This was a profoundly liberating idea to me. Honestly… grasping the centrality of resurrection to our Christian hope was the single most important thing I learned in seminary.

But that raises a problem: If our ultimate hope is not “heaven when we die,” but resurrection in God’s good future, what about the faithful departed? Where are they?

In seminary, I studied the systematic theology of contemporary German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, who was quite clear on the subject: When you die, you’re just dead, at least untilresurrection. Pannenberg would say that there is no life apart from the body—that the idea of an immortal and immaterial soul is a Platonic idea that the Church unwisely imported into Christian theology.

We are instead psychosomatic creatures, bodies and souls bound together. There’s no sense in talking about a life apart from the body. Therefore, there is no afterlife apart from physical resurrection. Many Christians who’ve never read Pannenberg have called this “soul sleep,” and there are verses in Paul’s letters that suggest this idea.

The weight of tradition, however, says otherwise. The consensus of Christian reflection on the subject says that there is an intermediate state between death and resurrection. I side with tradition. There are plenty of proof-texts to support such belief—accepted by many Christians, disputed by others—but I find Paul’s words in Philippians 1:18-26 most convincing.

We should be very cautious, however, about what we say about this intermediate state. When I counsel grieving families, I say with confidence that departed loved ones are resting safely with God, that God is caring for them, and that through our faith in Christ, we can be confident that we will be reunited with them in resurrection.

I sense that many evangelical Christians who, like me, grew up believing strongly in heaven and less in full-blown resurrection are wavering on the intermediate state. Some reject it altogether. I’m sympathetic, but I disagree with them. To give you an idea of this debate, however, please see this recent post over at Scot McKnight’s blog. Also, read the comments section!

[1] N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 208.


John Calvin on the Soul and Body

Furthermore, that man consists of a soul and a body ought to be beyond controversy.  Now I understand by the term ‘soul’ an immortal yet created essence, which is his nobler part.  Sometimes it is called ‘spirit.’  For even when these terms are joined together, they differ from one another in meaning; yet when the word ‘spirit’ is used by itself, it means the same thing as soul… And when Christ commended his spirit to the Father (Luke 23:46) and Stephen his to Christ (Acts 7:59) they meant only that when the soul is freed from the prison house of the body, God is its perpetual guardian…

Besides, unless souls survive when freed from the prison houses of their bodies, it would be absurd for Christ to induce the soul of Lazarus as enjoying bliss in Abraham’s bosom, and again, the soul of the rich man sentenced to terrible torments (Luke 16:22-23).  Paul confirms this same thing, teaching us that we journey away from God so long as we dwell in the flesh, but that we enjoy his presence outside the flesh (II Cor. 5:6, 8). (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.15.2)

Now it is neither lawful nor expedient to inquire too curiously concerning our souls’ intermediate state.  Many torment themselves overmuch with disputing as to what place the souls occupy and whether or not they already enjoy heavenly glory.  Yet it is foolish and rash to inquire concerning unknown matters more deeply than God permits us to know.  Scripture goes no farther than to say that Christ is present with them, and receives them into paradise (cf. John 12:32) that they may obtain consolation, while the souls of the reprobate suffer such torments as they deserve.  What teacher or master will reveal to us that which God has concealed?  Concerning the place, it is no less foolish and futile to inquire, since we know that the soul does not have the same dimension as the body.  The fact that the blessed gathering of saintly spirits is called ‘Abraham’s bosom’ (Luke 16:22) is enough to assure us of being received after this pilgrimage by the common Father of the faithful, that he may share the fruit of his faith with us. (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.25.6)