Thursday, May 22, 2008
Praying About Sex
People have weird ideas about chaplains. I've had patients scold me for admiring their tattoos: "Chaplains aren't supposed to do that!" Some folks seem to think that we aren't allowed to have senses of humor; others believe that we're all required to be male. And, of course, everyone knows that we're all prudes. I knew that I'd been more-or-less accepted by the staff of the ED where I volunteer when they stopped apologizing for cursing in front of me. "If God cared about bad language," I always tell them, "we'd all be charcoal briquettes. God has more important things to worry about." Nurses and techs still sometimes try to shield me from particularly unpleasant medical details, to which my response is always, "Y'know, if I didn't have a reasonably strong stomach, I couldn't work here in the first place."
And then there's sex, of which, apparently, all Christians disapprove.
I know that some Christians disapprove of any sex that isn't marital and procreative. I'm not one of them. The Bible suggests that God is far more concerned about what we do with our money than about what we do with our genitals. Jesus mentioned poverty countless times, but homosexuality not once. The Hebrew Bible, although it contains a purity code, is still more concerned with economic inequality than with what people do in bed.
Does that mean that I think anything goes? No. I abhor any act that violates consent (rape, incest, child abuse). I disapprove of adultery because it involves a broken promise to a marriage partner: trust is the issue, not sex. But basically, if you and your partner(s) are consenting, fully informed adults who are taking any necessary health precautions, I think that what you do with your genitals is your own business. If your sexual practices turn out to be unhealthy for you, you need to address them. But that would also be true if you were having trouble with food, alcohol, or work.
Enter the ED patient I saw recently, a chatty woman who, midway through a prayer about her health, opened her eyes and added, "Oh, and please pray that I don't go to hell."
"Why do you think you're going to hell?" I asked her.
"Fornication. I've slept with my boyfriend."
My husband and I shared a bed for years before we got married, and both of us had had active dating lives before we met. I don't believe that was a sin; furthermore, I don't believe in hellfire-and-brimstone damnation. (There are multiple forms of hell here on earth, but that's another story.) In contrast, I become very judgmental indeed about certain uses of money. But, oddly, no one has ever said, "Please pray that I won't go to hell because I've been living above my means when millions of people in the world are starving."
In chaplaincy training, we were warned that it's important to honor our own beliefs even as we respect those of our patients. So I said to the patient, "Dear Lord, help this woman know that you love her and will welcome her with open arms."
Her eyes flew open again. "No, no, that's not what we believe." Her tone was that of an adult scolding a small child. "God makes people wait in Purgatory until they've worked off their sins."
"Okay," I said, somewhat weakly. "Dear Lord, Help this woman overcome her distance from you." That seemed to be acceptable. But I left the room knowing that if she'd known my own history, she'd have thrown me out of the building.
Later during the same shift, I prayed about more conventional issues with another patient. A few minutes later, I was standing in the hall chatting with a nurse when a tech who'd overheard the prayer walked up to me and said, with a smirk, "Hey, while you're at it, would you pray that I have success with the ladies?"
"Sure," I said. The tech looked mildly shocked, and the nurse and some other witnesses laughed.
"You would? You'd pray for that?"
"Why not?" I said. "I want people to be happy."
The tech rolled his eyes. A male nurse standing across the hall piped in. "So would you pray for the same thing for me?"
"Absolutely," I told him. I've never been able to figure out why this particular nurse is single: he's proof that not all the good ones are taken.
Of course, my version of "success with the ladies" may not be the same as the tech's, and I'd have been happier if he'd said, "Please pray that I do the best for my patients." But I pray that for all the staff, anyway. It's covered.
After this exchange, though, I got the distinct impression that the other staff who'd overheard the conversation were disappointed in me, as if I wasn't acting like a proper chaplain.
Oh well. Watch those stereotypes crash and burn.