Theology is… Hope: poetic reflections on hospital chaplaincy

“Saint Thecla Praying for the Plague-Stricken” by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo 1758-5

The theologian, Filipe Maia once suggested that “Theology is critical reflection on hope.”1 I read this line, “Theology is critical reflection on hope” before I ever started chaplaincy, but it wasn’t until the hospital that I witnessed the critical shifts of hope in such palpable ways. So, in reflecting on the many thoughts, images, emotions and stories that I have encountered as a chaplain, I thought I would explore them by way of this quote.

“Theology is critical reflection on hope.”

Word of God, 
God Talk,
The Order of the Divine.
The holy play of language.
You ask me, as your father dies, if God thinks you a sinner for loving him enough to let him go.
My sentences fail…
Words expire,
Sacred silence. 
I feel like an idiot reading a victorious Psalm to a dying man,
But your mother whispering it back to him in his native tongue challenged my ignorance. 
Thank you for letting me be with you in grief.
In your groans, cries, and shouts that transcend human language,
Invocations of Spirit.
That hospital room was holy ground. 

“Theology is…” 
Being together,
Being human,
Being broken,
Beginnings and endings. 
Being broken together with the past, present, and future.
Being broken with the One who was, is, and is to come. 
Being with the ghosts of the past and the spirits of the future,
Between the already but not yet, we are caught in the middle awaiting their fulfillment. 
We are in the dash of the not—yet,
Like those waiting rooms,
Like those waiting for death,
Like those in labor awaiting life. 
Like you, waiting.
Waiting for your new born baby to be big enough for heart surgery. 
I visit you every Thursday for a month. 
We don’t speak the same language, but translation is fine. 
An iPad interpreter between us,
you simply ask me to be with you,
To pray with you.
You keep watch over him every night.
You ask, “Will you remain here with me again next week?”
But I won’t be there, and your baby’s surgery was moved up two months.
I can’t tell if that’s good news, so 
I still pray for you, with you. 
I am with you in Spirit. 

“Theology is critical…” 
Critical care
life and death
I.C.U.  &  E.D. 
I see you in the E.D. 
Fifty miles per hour into a pole. 
Social work calls your husband, 
“Suicidal ideation…” he says with a curse, hanging up the phone. 
They tell me that no one is coming to see you, so I see you in the hallway. 
There is no room for you. 
You tell me you don’t feel anything,
No emotions, no thoughts but your head hurts.
I tell you that’s normal, you just experienced a trauma. 
You weep, but unable to move,
I wipe your tears away. 

“Theology is critical reflection…” 
Like that’s all you can do in a hospital bed
Hours upon hours to reflect. 
You tell me how you just want to go home,
How reflecting in the hospital is killing you.  
But you are literally dying and making it difficult for staff to care for you. 
I think I am to fix that, 
That I am there to fix you, 
That is until I understand you through reflections. 
Your sibling, your only visitor, blames you for your disease,
And your best friend in life, the one you called “sister,” 
She refuses to come see you and won’t even call. 
I wonder if that’s her own way of grieving.
You tell me, 
“I just want to die at home, on my lawn, face down in the grass. 
For from the ground I came and to it I would like to return.
But, for the love of God, don’t let me die in this bed!” 

“Theology is critical reflection on…” 
On, on, on,
Like the medical staff, someone is always on duty. 
On call, on their feet, responding to something. 
Like the machines that keep going, and going and going and then beeping.
Something is beeping when I walk in your room.
You greet me,
But you are asleep by the time I make it to the bed. 
I look at the machine, but something seems off. 
Then, more machines start beeping, and lines are going down. 
You’re Pentecostal but these weren’t the tongues I expected and I don’t have their translation. 
I search for a nurse…  none nearby. 
I run a station over to find anyone who knows the medical language.
A nurse, who calls another and another. 
They pinch you hard, twist the skin.
You bolt up off the bed and then back on it, 
Then they are on you,
shifting you around, preparing to work on your body. 
Your nurse says you were fine a few minutes ago. 
“Are you with Spiritual” asks another to me.
“Yes” I reply. 
“Thanks, you can take off. Come back another time.” 
I Hope they cared for you well. 

“Theology is critical reflection on hope.
Like false hope,
hope in man-made promises,
hope in our own biases toward the pleasant,
hope in my will, 
hope that falters,
hope that’s differed, that makes the heart sick.
But also, everlasting Hope. 
Hope like God’s will, 
Hope that knows suffering, 
Hope that carries on, 
Hope that accompanies us in the shadow of death telling us,
“There is still a chance to say goodbye.” 
Hope in new beginnings, 
New revelations, a new day, 
A new Heaven,
A new Earth.
Hope that’s both on its way and here now, 
Like the Hope you gave me. 
They said you were lonely so I asked about your hope. 
You told me about the kingdom you built. 
A respected business man with a big house on the hill. 
You tell me that it was a waste compared to what was to—come. 
The holy Kin-dom, that was on its way. 
Your near-death experiences revealed true Hope to you: 
Your wife and daughter. 
You are lonely because they are not there, now, 
As you become aware of the depth of Love you have for them. 
“It’s the loneliness of Love,” you tell me. 
“But, do not pity me. They are on their way;
My Hope will be fulfilled in 20 minutes when they come through that door.” 
Like a Tree of Life,
You say, “Son, these are lonely tears but they are filled with Joy,
Because this disease has allowed me to find that which is truly everlasting, 
The Love we have for one another.”

Theology is critical reflection on hope, but chaplaincy made that real for me. Thank you to the chaplains, educators, staff, and most of all to the patients, for the opportunity to be a witness of hope. 


  1. Maia, Filipe. Trading Futures. Duke University Press, 2022. pg, 10.

4 thoughts on “Theology is… Hope: poetic reflections on hospital chaplaincy”

  1. This was truly an amazing piece of art .. I’ll never again over look the job of a Chaplin. How difficult the job must be mentally. How u must love ppl to do the job of a Chaplin.


  2. Nathan, I find your poetic descent into the heart of chaplaincy most sensitive and vivid, a verbatim revealing fragile mysteries. Consider submitting this to the Journal of Pastoral Care and Counseling (JPCC) which has a long tradition of publishing such worthy poetic material.


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