Tucking In My Cross

During my upcoming CPE Residency – a 9-month hospital chaplaincy – the cross I wear every day around my neck will remain tucked under my shirt, at the urging of my supervisor.  "We are here to serve people of all faiths, and it is best that we not wear our religious affiliation on our sleeves," he said.

I have mixed feelings about this.  On one hand, I am glad to tuck my cross under my shirt and present myself to hospital patients and staff as a chaplain serving all members of the hospital community, regardless of their faith (or lack of faith).  Indeed, overtly religious jewelry or clothing – such as my necklace or a clerical collar – can be a turn-off and impediment for non-Christians or to Christians from other traditions.  Thus we chaplains are instructed to dress professionally – a shirt and tie for the men (which pretty much puts the cross under the shirt, anyway) – and let our words and actions, not clothing and symbols, define our role and work with the hospital community.

I see the value in shying away from overt religious symbols in a multi-faith setting, but I wonder if this instruction to shed religious symbols is not based on a well-intentioned but flawed belief that we can somehow be all things to all people.  I don’t want to belabor or exaggerate this point, for I believe that in most situations I will be able to provide some level of spiritual or emotional comfort.  But the truth is that I cannot serve all the people in my hospital.  I cannot be all things to all people.  I can be pretty flexible, and I will listen to and console most anyone who is in grief or pain.  Yet I come to ministry from a particular perspective – cultural, socio-economic, and of course, religious – and these undeniable factors shade how I carry out the ministry of care and comfort to those who suffer.  My patients also have their own experiences and perspectives, shading how they understand suffering, faith, God, life.  I can approach each patient intending to provide the spiritual comfort they need, or I can approach each patient with an honesty and humility that recognizes that I may not have what this person needs.

As I said, I don’t want to belabor this point, but whether in rituals (Hebrew prayers or Catholic sacraments) or in theology (does God suffer along side the patient, or is God powerful and in control?) or in many other ways, there will be times when what I bring to the table won’t feed the patient.  Nonetheless, I believe that God can work through me – even through my particularity – to bring a modicum of comfort to those who suffer.  At least, I pray that this is the case, or its going to be a long 9 months . . .

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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7 Responses to Tucking In My Cross

  1. That really hacks me off…
    I deleted the long comment I was writing and will post on it instead.

  2. David says:

    The nine months will go by before you know it. The best part of CPE is that you will learn more about yourself than you ever thought possible.

  3. LP says:

    Well, what manner of chaplain are you? Were you accepted into the residency as an interfaith chaplain? If you were ordained and doing this residency, would you be allowed to wear a collar, as is normative for ordained folks in our tradition?
    Symbols mean things, and to have you conceal the wearing of a cross that marks you publicly does make me wonder if they will ask you to conceal anything else. The logic does somehow seemed flawed and informed by a theology and hermeneutic that do not seem helpful. If I were in the hospital, and called for a chaplain, I would want to know for certain that he or she were Christian, crosses and all.
    At the same time, perhaps there is a reason for this deeper than I have anticipated…

  4. LP says:

    Sorry, just the clerical collar thing in the post.

  5. LZ, I’ve been a professional chaplain for 25 years, and Board Certified for 15 (APC, for what it’s worth). I have always had some question about the model your supervisor and your department seem to have adopted. Now, I’ve known situations in which students were encouraged to try the unexpected to see what they learned. That’s particularly true about religious symbols. We are called to experience and reflect the authority of God working in us, and not in the collar or the cross we wear. There have always been those students who thought it was the collar or the cross that gave the authority. Sooner or later they either learned otherwise or were lost in the tool. Granted, it’s hard to stay that lost through three units….
    I encourage my staff to provide a spiritually safe place for patients and their families, and to realize that in their crises they are more vulnerable. I don’t think that we deny our identity in that context, but we may go well out of our way to be hospitable, even at some cost to ourselves. Now, I haven’t found as many people to be traumatized by symbols of someone else’s religion as I used to fear. That doesn’t mean I don’t acknowledge the costs that come with being a professional chaplain and wearing a collar all the time. There are some people who can’t get past it; but they’re rare, as long as I take my time and honor their discomfort.
    As for being all things to all people: it’s not required. You will be enough to enough people, in more ways than you now imagine. And one of the first things I think you’ll discover that you can bring what they need. After all, what then need most often isn’t content anyway.

  6. PS says:

    Hopefully, your boss can’t make you take your faith out of you, so why take it off of you? What is his/her reason, I mean, deeper than what he/she apparently said?
    I guess I’d want to know something about who was “ministering” to me if I were in a hospital bed, but I might not have the energy to play 20 questions to find out.

  7. LookUpward says:

    How ironic and hypocritial?! Mainliners criticize evangelicals for numerous reasons, but one major complaint is that many “traditional symbols of our faith” such as crosses and other litgurical paraphernalia have been expunged from the premises in order to not put off the uninitiated (which, by the way, is most of the world.) We are called to be in the world, but not of it. I give thanks for your Lutheran worldview, Zephyr, but also for the fact that we do not worship symbols, rather the living God. Let’s not get mired in the thinking that without symbols we cannot be the hands, voice and heart of a loving Jesus to the world. If I were in the cardiac ward and looking for some soul comfort, I wouldn’t care if the caregiver was wearing cut offs and a ratty Phillie tshirt. It is our words and actions that are our witness, not our vestments. Hey, John the Baptist was nobody’s fashion template – but oh, what a witness he had …

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