I may have made a mistake today. I took a walk with a gentle young man who used to live on the streets of this town. He knew me back in my Street Chaplaincy years. He has a small, cluttered apartment now, where he spends a lot of time alone. Since I like him and he struggles with some health challenges, I usually try to encourage him. We get together for a walk now and then. Today we sat on a wobbly bench under a huge tree at a local university and talked about life. At one point I told him about my teaching and about this blog. He was puzzled when I said I consider myself a Nature or Secular Chaplain. Here’s how the conversation unfolded:
“That doesn’t make sense. A Chaplain is grounded in a historic world religion.”
“Yes, traditionally, but the word ‘Chaplain’ is now used by people of many faiths and no faiths–remember, I was an ‘Interfaith’ Chaplain, and now we have ‘Humanist’ Chaplains. They have those at Stanford, Harvard, Rutgers and other schools now.”
“So you don’t have a religion, but you’re grounded in Humanism or Humanities?”
“Yes, kinda. I’m more a Nature person. Aren’t we all grounded in the natural world?”
“I suppose. But ‘Chaplain’ means spiritual, doesn’t it?”
“Usually, but now it’s used in some new ways. It’s really about caring, listening, being with people to help.”
He was skeptical, and I welcomed his questions.
“So you don’t believe there’s a God?”
“No, not anymore. I don’t believe in the super-natural. . .something greater than Nature.”
“No other life; no heaven?”
“No. I think this is it. We are ‘compost,’ as Whitman put it. And I think that’s wonderful and good enough.”
He was quiet for a moment.
I asked, “What do You believe?”
My friend looked up at the sun filtering through the trees. He grew pensive.
“I don’t know. Isn’t it kinda nice to think there’s a heaven? I like to think there is. My life has been pretty shitty. I haven’t really lived.”
This was the moment I wondered if I’d said too much. I took a breath.
“That’s very honest. I hear you. I understand. It’s good to have hope, and life can be pretty shitty sometimes. There are millions who live that, and believing gives them hope.”
We decided to walk back into town and the conversation drifted away from those things. I asked him to play one of his songs he wrote back when I first met him. I was smiling and singing along. It brought back some good memories, when I was his Chaplain. I thanked him, encouraging him to write more music. He smiled and hugged me.
As I left him and walked down the street, I had to ask myself some hard questions:
Are there times when it may be best to keep my disbeliefs to myself?
Was I taking my friend’s hope away, causing him to doubt the beliefs he holds to, beliefs that help him get through a difficult life?
Usually, I’m ok with stirring up some hard thinking about these issues, but when an “issue” or a question hurts another person in some way, maybe it’s best to hold it back and simply listen?
I’m not sure if I made a mistake. Maybe you have a thought?