“Would I have to understand all religions to become a chaplain?” asked a woman considering a career change. I shook my head, chuckling at this question I’m so often asked.
I’m always tempted to reply, “Honestly, do you have any earthly idea how many religions are on this planet? ‘Cause all I know is there are far too many to learn.”
But I didn’t say that. “My policy is to just ask them,” I said. “I call it, ‘Do Ask. They’ll tell.’”
My answer sent her head to tilt, like a dog trying to understand a high-pitched sound.
I kept talking, as I tend to do.
“When you meet a person from an unfamiliar religion, you should simply ask them what they believe or how they practice their religion. If you are willing to wait for the answers, the question will prompt most folks to tell you all you need to know.”
I took her silence as an invitation to continue.
“But, I caution you to ask with respectful curiosity. You must express a sincerity that outweighs your determination to convert them to your way of thinking.
“If they sense that you are willing to honor their beliefs, they will be forthcoming. If you genuinely seek to be helpful, you will squash all temptations to debate their beliefs.
“This process involves initiating a two-way discourse my theology teacher called 'Listening Love.' The strategy has served me well as a health care chaplain where I often ask a patient, ‘How does your faith inform you about dying?’
“The answers sprouting from that question have offered me an impromptu course in world religions.”
“For instance?” she asked, giving her head an opposite tilt.
I told her about a Hmong couple who asked me to help them retrieve a placenta after they lost their newborn. The grieving couple said they would bury the placenta under a tree so the baby’s soul could journey back through the past and become reborn.
When I asked a Muslim father what we could do for his dying child in a combat hospital in Iraq, he asked me to place a Koran in bed with the child.
When I asked my question of two brothers at the bedside of their dying mother, they described a New Age belief quite foreign to me. Nonetheless, I listened for what they found comforting, and together, we tied a crystal around their mother’s wrist.
When I asked a Chinese man what his faith taught him about consoling his dying wife, he suggested we move the hospital bed in the healing direction of feng shui. He saw this movement as the best way to use energy forces to harmonize individuals with their surrounding environment.
I know, these practices seem a bit odd to our Western sense of mainstream religion. Believe me, these encounters pushed me far out of my Christian comfort zone, too.
But when it came down to someone dying, I had to ask myself, “Do I want to know about their religion so I can target them for conversion or because I want to comfort them?”
“If you really want to become a chaplain,” I told the woman, “then I suggest you adopt a strategy that opens the faith dialogue. Listen to those of other faiths. Only by showing respect will you be given the opportunity to demonstrate the love taught by your own faith.”
The woman rubbed her chin, releasing some thoughtful tones, but I’m really not sure what her thoughts were. Next time I see her, maybe I’ll employ my own advice and simply ask her. After all, “listening love” is probably a strategy for most all circumstances.