The phone rang. "Office of the chaplain. How can I help you?" Mrs. Leon's greeting always sounded like her buoyant smile. In many ways she was more chaplain than secretary.
"It's for you, Dick." The nursing supervisor's voice was friendly yet professional. "Mrs. Castillo isn't going to last more than a couple of hours. Her family is here, and I think they could use the services of a chaplain. Would you please come down?"
I put on my light-blue sport coat, the one with the black plastic name tag that proclaimed me to be the assistant chaplain at this hospital in Puerto Rico. Then I grabbed my Bible and stumbled down the stairs, wondering why I had chosen to be a student chaplain.
The whole family was there. Nine people. Eighteen eyes boring into me as I slipped around the curtain and joined them beside grandma's bed. Each face demanded words that would help them accept the death that was devouring the one who loved them. Each one cried desperately for hope.
I cleared my throat and mumbled a simple Spanish greeting. But no more words would come. All my carefully practiced speeches became dust in my throat. These people wanted hope that only God could give. And I had come into their room without Him! My uniform was right. My Bible was right. My smile was right. But my life was empty, and I had nothing to give them. Nothing at all!
I tried desperately to dredge up a few more words. Nothing came. All I could see was me standing empty before God. All I could hear were condemning words. "You're supposed to be the preacher, but you don't even know the God you're supposed to talk about. How can you give hope when you know no hope?"
The eyes of grandpa, son, daughters, and grandchildren all pierced me deeply, calling for something I didn't have and couldn't provide.
I broke down. Collapsing onto the stiffly starched sheets, I put both hands near Mrs. Castillo and called out to God. It was a simple prayer, each word choked with tears of brokenness. "God, I'm no good. I don't even know You. Please forgive. Help me!"
Then I ran. Around the curtain. Out of the room. Out of the hospital. Into the gardens. Alone. A 21-year-old theology major who had just blown it--failed as a student chaplain. I had failed my parents and my God. And as soon as the hospital administrator heard of my failure, I would be sent home.
I was no good. Ruined! I collapsed among the poinsettias and felt my future crashing in around me.
I wish I could say that I prayed much and eloquently in the garden. But I did not. I simply lived and relived the scene by the bed again and again. My prayer of empty desperation hung too heavily for me to form new words.
Two hours later I stumbled slowly back toward the hospital, ready to face the end. Dr. Ivan Angell met me at the lobby doors. "Dick!" He grabbed my shoulders and began to shake me. "What did you say to the Castillos? What did you say to my patient's family?"
Sobs so masked my words that neither of us could understand my apology. Suddenly, the Castillo family surrounded us. Grandpa smothered me with a full Hispanic "abrazo" while children and grandchildren grabbed my arms, hugged my legs, and joined their tears with mine.
"Mama is gone," I heard her son say. "Thank you for praying such hope for us. Your words made it so much easier to let Mama go." We cried together, hugged some more, and then they were gone.
Dr. Angell spoke first. "Dick, what language did you use when you prayed with the Castillos?" "English," I whispered, wishing no one had heard my cry for help. "Dick," Dr. Angell's words blew a sweet breeze of hope, "the Castillos heard you pray in perfect Spanish! Whatever words you used, God translated them into a prayer of peace."
The doctor shook me once more, wiped away his own tears, and walked toward the poinsettias. Stunned, I walked into the hospital, where now the cancer ward smelled like spring roses. And my heart overflowed with wonder. God had transformed my fumbling efforts into just the hope and comfort that a grieving family needed. That day I experienced Amazing Grace.
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