General CBF

Celebrating Pastoral Care Week — Finding and nourishing spiritual well-being

Below is Part 3 in the 2014 Pastoral Care Week (Oct. 19-25) series here at CBFblog. Be sure to read Part 1 by Gerry Hutchinson, CBF’s endorser for chaplains and pastoral counselors as well as Part 2 by Tommy Deal, a volunteer police chaplain in Dalton, Ga.

I have spent a career in chaplaincy, helping people in crisis to identify meaning and purpose in spite of their temporary conditions and circumstances. Just as a medical professional works with patients to seek physical well-being, a healthcare chaplain is privileged to walk alongside patients as they pursue spiritual well-being.

Spirituality has been defined as a connection with someone or something (beyond oneself) that gives meaning and purpose to life. A patient’s spirituality can positively or negatively affect his/her holistic health. Spiritual disease is as real as physical disease and can be every bit as painful. Research continues to uphold what Victor Frankl told us years ago: That having a strong sense of meaning and purpose in life can sustain life in the most dire of situations, and it certainly contributes to quality of life at all times. A healthy spirituality is a vital component of life and overall health.

While we can sometimes recognize healthy spirituality when someone exhibits it, or when we experience it ourselves, the struggle to evaluate it is elusive. Spiritual well-being is more complicated to define than spirituality. Over the course of the past 30-plus years, healthcare chaplains have developed a variety of “spiritual assessments.” The intent of the assessment is to identify areas for potential spiritual growth or healing. Patient consent to spiritual assessment—and the patient’s willingness to participate in the pastoral care plan—is vital to a successful outcome.

The first real challenge for the chaplain is to gain rapport with, and the trust of, the patient. When a member of a church congregation takes a problem to his/her pastor, consent can be assumed, and trust has already been demonstrated. A healthcare chaplain, on the other hand, must create a trusting rapport with a patient quickly, as this relationship is not likely to be long-term.

As Christians, most of us would define our own spirituality in the context of our personal relationship with God, by faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ, and assurance of the presence of the Holy Spirit. But assessing our own spiritual well-being is not so simple either.

How do we recognize it? How do we measure it? How do we know when we are getting off track, or spiritually “sick”? In our human condition, danger lurks in both underestimating and in overestimating our own spiritual health.

How do we know we’re at a healthy balance? These questions are worthy of contemplation and prayer, and can only be answered in connection and relationship with God.

Crisis can turn anyone’s world upside down. Physical, mental, emotional, relational, financial crises often bring on spiritual confusion, grief and anger. Additionally, apart from any crisis, sometimes our spiritual lives can just seem to dry up or become depleted. We can find ourselves in an undefined spiritual desert.

In Ecclesiastes 1:2, the Teacher sounds this frustration:  “Nothing makes sense! Everything is nonsense. I have seen it all – nothing makes sense!” In these words, we recognize the antithesis of spiritual well-being.

The Teacher picks up this theme again in chapter 3, verse 9:  “What do we gain by all of our hard work?”  (Meaninglessness drips from his question.) In verse 10, he continues to grumble, “I have seen what difficult things God demands of us.” Not only does this writer believe that hard work gains us nothing; God demands more than we could ever hope to accomplish! The Teacher’s progression of thought drives the reader further into despair, toward a state of total hopelessness. So, what is the use in trying?

And yet, the Teacher finds still a sliver of light, stated in verse 11:  “God makes everything happen at the right time. Yet none of us can ever fully understand all he has done, and he puts questions in our minds about the past and the future.”

Sick patients in a healthcare setting want to know what to anticipate about their future. How will their illness or injury affect their future life? How much life remains?

The primary focus of their hope is usually to just “get through” this illness/injury/pain/anxiety as soon as possible and return to a previous baseline of health. But notice that the scripture says, “[God] puts questions in our minds about the past and the future.”

If we believe this to be true—that God put those questions in our minds—then there must be value in dealing honestly and thoroughly with them! Our state of disequilibrium is not something to put behind us as fast as possible. There is divine purpose, even in the most unpleasant of life’s seasons. A healthy spirituality will seek meaning and learning in the best and the worst of times.

The most widely known passage in Ecclesiastes is about the seasons of our lives.  The Teacher writes in chapter 3:

1 Everything on earth
has its own time
and its own season.
There is a time
for birth and death,
planting and reaping,
for killing and healing,
destroying and building,
for crying and laughing,
weeping and dancing,
for throwing stones
and gathering stones,
embracing and parting.
There is a time
for finding and losing,
keeping and giving,
for tearing and sewing,
listening and speaking.
There is also a time
for love and hate,
for war and peace.

As much as we resist it, sometimes our lives bring all of us to very difficult seasons. How we deal with these most painful times says much about our spiritual condition. Spiritual well-being may be less about measuring illness and more about learning to accept and learn from the current season. As cold as some seasons are, we can find shelter in our God who controls all types of weather and teaches us how to adapt accordingly. God will provide the protection we need—and in confident hope, we can remind ourselves that spring inevitably follows winter.

The Psalmist had enough sense to “come in out of the (bad) weather.”  In the 57th Psalm, we read:

1 God Most High, have pity on me! Have mercy.
I run to you for safety.
In the shadow of your wings,
I seek protection till danger dies down.
I pray to you, my protector.
You will send help from heaven
and save me…
You are faithful, and you can be trusted.

A sense of spiritual well-being can be developed (much like muscles can be developed through exercise) by repeatedly seeking refuge under the wing of God’s protection in all kinds of weather. Whether during a life crisis, a spiritual drought, or times of healing, laughing and love, we know God is faithful. We can be as confident as the Psalmist that God will send help from heaven to protect us.

This is how and where believers find their spirituality consistently nourished—“I run to you for safety. In the shadow of your wings I seek protection…” In all seasons and all weather conditions, God is our spiritual well-spring that never runs dry.

It is only in the context of a relationship with God that we can truly find spiritual well-being.  As limited beings, we will never fully or adequately assess our own, or anyone else’s spiritual well-being. Our spiritual responsibility is only to continue growing, trusting and learning, and do all we can to support others in doing the same.

Ecclesiastes 1:2-4a (Despair); Ecclesiastes 3:9-11 (Purpose); Psalm 57:1-3

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