An Hour in the Life of a Chaplain

by Rev. Joel Hempel

While making morning rounds in a nursing home several years ago, a nurse looked up from her station as I leaned over the counter. “Anything going on I should know about?” I asked.

“Chaplain Hempel, I was just going to call you,” the nurse said. “Mrs. Tumoch is a new resident. She just found out her daughter died in a car accident.”

“How awful! Is she in her room?” I asked.

“No, she’s in the sunroom. Someone should be with her. Her other daughter will not arrive until this afternoon.”

“I’m on my way,” I replied.

I found Mrs. Tumoch alone. She was sitting in a wheelchair, staring out a window. “Mrs. Tumoch?” I asked. She looked up. Her moist eyes were sufficient confirmation.

“I’m Chaplain Hempel. The nurse told me where to find you.”

“Oh, Chaplain, my daughter!” She couldn’t get out the rest of the sentence. More tears flowed. I dropped to my knees and put an arm around her. “The nurse just told me. I am so sorry.”

Mrs. Tumoch had outlived all of her siblings and many of her friends. Now she had outlived a daughter. She wept, and so did I.

“I can’t imagine anything more awful. I am so very sorry,” I repeated.

After a few minutes, Mrs. Tumoch managed to put words to her pain: “Why, Chaplain? I don’t understand! Does God not understand that I’m the one who should have died? Not my Sarah! Doesn’t God care?”

Throughout my years as an LCMS chaplain and as someone trained in clinical pastoral education, I’ve heard the why question many times. It is always preceded by anguish. This time, however, the one in pain let out what so many others keep bottled up.

To be honest, part of me felt defensive for God. Part of me wanted to attempt an answer—a theologically sound and biblically based answer, of course. But the wiser part of me—this time—kept my mouth shut.

“I’m sorry, Chaplain. I don’t mean to offend you. I just don’t understand!” Mrs. Tumoch repeated. She took my hand. After a few minutes, I pulled a chair alongside her, and we sat together.

Time passed. We shared only a few more sentences. Before leaving, I risked a question: “Shall we pray and ask God to comfort you and the rest of your family—and maybe even ask God to give us some answers? Or is it too early for that prayer?”

“No, Chaplain, it’s not too early. Prayer is the way I’ve gotten through hard times. I’m not going to give up on God now. Please go ahead!”

So we prayed. We asked for God’s care of Sarah’s husband and children. We held nothing back. We shared with God our sadness and anger, as well as our confusion. We sought understanding and then thanked God for our hope in the resurrection. We ended our prayer in the name of Jesus, who Himself knew suffering and grief.

“Thank you for coming to see me, Chaplain,” Mrs. Tumoch said. I promised to visit again in a day or two. We exchanged smiles and said goodbye.

LCMS chaplains are blessed people. We serve beside God’s beloved children in good times and bad. We are privileged to receive the intense post-graduate training we need to be faithful in our calling, whether in hospitals, nursing homes, prisons or other institutions. We are honored to represent God’s love to people who are in pain; and thankfully, on occasion, we get to celebrate and share in their joy.

> The names and circumstances in this story have been changed to maintain the privacy of the individuals involved.

About the Author: The Rev. Joel Hempel is a retired chaplain and clinical pastoral educator.

September 2011

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