One of my favorite pastoral experiences is volunteering at the local hospital as a chaplain. I go most Tuesdays, spend an hour or two in hospital rooms with patients and their families, mostly just chatting, occasionally praying with and for patients and families.
There's a sense of being needed and valued in this role and I feel more useful every time I go. It took awhile to get my feet on the ground because I'd heard that the nurses were so busy they couldn't be bothered with the chaplain, that it was important not to get in the way. I proceeded very gingerly when I began.
After several months now, I know nurses by name, they recognize me, give me a roster of patients right away without even blinking, even ask me to pray with them. It has changed my experience there considerably to feel so comfortable with the nursing staff.
Today in CCU, two nurses asked me to spend some time with their patients and families; two persons were in the last days of their lives, families were present and feeling stressed, and it felt like I offered something tangible and caring, beyond what a busy nurse could give.
I held the icy hand of a woman who was far away physically by now and asked God to hold her close and to let her know that her life mattered to many people. I held the feverish hand of a man who was barely conscious, in pain, held hands with his daughters and wife, and again prayed that God would hold him close and give him and his family strength and healing.
One of the things I learned in my chaplaincy training in seminary was that it's the patient who matters, not my doctrines or doubts. If the patient needs prayer, if the family needs prayer, if the nursing staff needs prayer, that's what happens----prayer. It's my calling as a pastor, as a chaplain, to give what the human being before me needs.
Some UU chaplain interns have a hard time with that at first. I wondered if I could pray an authentic prayer with folks who didn't believe as I do. But the first time an elderly Mormon woman asked me to pray with her, I found that I had the words and, more importantly, I had the desire.
It helps that I'm religiously bi-lingual, able to speak Christian fluently, but when you're in a life and death situation with another human being, the words don't matter so much. The person who is there in the bed or the chair is what matters and my presence is enough.