When I was a young seminarian I trained as a chaplain under the tutelage of a local pastor who volunteered in the Pastoral Care Department at the hospital where I was working. He was a man of few words, kind, non-assuming. He was also a smoker and had been reprimanded on more than one occasion to remove his cigarettes from his shirt’s front pocket while he worked as the on-call chaplain. “It sends the wrong message,” he was told, “it's unbecoming of a hospital representative.”
Most of the time the minister was compliant and kept his cigarettes in his locker while at work but there was one day when he forgot. Having just returned from a smoke break he was called to the Emergency Department after the arrival of several people involved in a serious automobile accident. He was paged to sit with a passenger from one of the cars, a husband whose wife, the driver, was severely injured.
The chaplain met the man in the waiting room. “Is she going to die?” the man immediately asked. The chaplain answered, “It didn’t look good when they brought her in. I guess you know that she was hurt pretty bad.” The young man nodded and a long silence followed.
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“I was supposed to be driving,” he finally said. “I’d been drinking when she came to get me and even though she didn’t like to drive at night she had to. She was driving because I was too drunk to drive myself.” He paused.
“So, my question is this, Chaplain, do you think God can forgive that?”
The chaplain answered, “Yeah, I think God can forgive that.”
The young man dropped his head in his hands. “I don’t believe what most preachers tell me,” he said. “But I reckon’ I can trust you. I reckon’ one day I’ll be able to believe that.”
The chaplain was glad that the husband was willing to receive the pardon for his sins but he was also curious as to why the man trusted him.
The man explained, “You’re a man of God and you smoke. I always heard smoking was a sin, desecration to the temple of God, but you smoke.”
“It’s true,” the minister replied. “I’m addicted to cigarettes,” he confessed.
“I figure if you’re willing to show your sin, bear it like that on the front of your chest, and still stand up as a preacher of the word, I guess you’d tell me the truth about getting forgiveness. I reckon anybody who struggles with something like smoking probably understands how I struggle with drinking. I just figure you’d understand.”
It turns out that I witnessed a lot that summer while training as a chaplain, learned more about theology than I ever did in any classroom. And decades later, even as I no longer remember that local minister’s name, I remember that conversation he shared. I’ll never forget this lesson. Grace, it seems, has a better shot of showing up when we’re willing to tell the truth.
Lynne Hinton is a co-pastor of Mt. Hope United Church of Christ in Whitsett (Guilford County) and author. Her newest book is called Traveling Light. Learn more: www.lynnehinton.com