Skye Jethani: What an Alcoholic Pastor Taught Me About Administering the Presence of God

Before entering the hospital room I pulled the patient’s chart from the nurses’ station, so I knew I was about to enter the room of a 54-years-old male with multiple arm, shoulder, and facial fractures. I had been conditioned by my chaplain supervisor to silently repeat a phrase whenever I held the handle of a hospital room door: “When I enter this room I represent the presence of God.” It was an intimidating and ill-fitting role for a 26-year-old, like wearing someone else’s suit—someone with more gray hair and gravitas.

I entered and introduced myself as the chaplain. Bill was immobilized, his arm and shoulder in a cast and his face badly bruised and swollen. He gently turned his head to look at me.

“I can’t talk very well,” he said through clenched teeth. “They’ve wired my jaw shut.”

“I understand you took a nasty fall yesterday. What happened?”

“I don’t remember,” Bill said. “I was drunk.” His speech was difficult to understand, so I drew my chair closer to his head.

“You’re young,” he said. He suspected I was wearing someone else’s suit, too.

“I’m a seminary student,” I said. Bill looked away, his eyes wet. I assumed his pain meds were wearing off.

“You’re here to talk about God?”

“If you’d like to,” I said, “or we can talk about whatever’s on your mind.”

“I used to talk to people about God,” Bill said. “I’m a pastor.” I tried to hide my surprise.

He was now crying steadily. I moved the tissue box closer to his mobile arm.

“When I was your age I never thought I would end up here—like this. I’ve lost everything. Everything. My ministry, my marriage, my kids.”

Through tears and clenched teeth, Bill confessed his sins and his alcoholism. Despite my training and experience with hundreds of patients, including any number of alcoholics, I was lost for words.

“Take a good look at me,” Bill said. “Don’t make the same mistakes. Don’t end up like me.” With almost no prompting, he began to share at length about his life and his struggles, laced with warnings and advice for the green seminarian at his bedside. Maybe he opened up to me because I had never known Pastor Bill the strong Christian leader. I only saw Alcoholic Bill the broken hospital patient. Unlike his congregation or family, I could only assume what his life used to be, and maybe in his mind that made me safer and my unspoken judgments slightly more tolerable.

“Are you married?” he asked. “Yes,” I said.

“Kids?”

“Not yet.”

“There’s nothing more important than your family,” he said. “The church is not more important.” He talked about his experience as a pastor, the stresses he faced, the pressures of running a church, and the solace he sought in alcohol. As I listened to Bill’s advice I felt that he wasn’t really talking to me but to a younger version of himself. He looked at me and saw his past. I looked at him and wondered, AmI looking at my future?

How many times had he stood authoritatively before a congregation to lead them in worship? Now he lay helpless in a hospital bed of his own making. How many people had looked up to him with respect and admiration? Now he was looked down upon with pity or contempt. How many divine truths had he boldly preached from the pulpit? Now his mouth was wired shut with only confessions leaking out in muddled whispers.

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Source: Christianity Today