The Look of Peace

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

The experience of being awakened in the middle of the night by a siren is not at all uncommon. Most of us know what it’s like to be shocked to sudden wakefulness by a sharp sound, a loud bang, or the howling of a police or ambulance siren. But, no matter how often it happens, it always seems to leave me a little shaken.

While I was in seminary I spent a year as a student chaplain in Duke University Medical School’s Clinical-Pastoral-Education Program. After I returned to Texas, in the early 1990s while Pastor at Cockrell Hill United Methodist Church in Dallas, I worked part-time at Methodist Central Hospital as an Adjunct Chaplain; in that capacity, as at Duke, I had many duties, including pastoral care responsibilities for the Neurology Floor. However, one of my most important responsibilities was to serve 3 nights a month as the on-call chaplain. Spending all night in the Hospital gave me new insights into what it means to be awakened by sudden sounds. Usually such sounds are just a nuisance: I sit up in bed, listen to the siren for a moment, and then fall back onto my pillow and into the comfortable arms of sleep. When on-call at the hospital, and the pager would go off at 3 am to alert me to an approaching ambulance or care-flight helicopter, I couldn’t fall back onto my pillow. I was responsible for taking care of what was going on. I had to get up, put on my pants and shoes, shirt, clerical collar, and coat, grab my pad, pager, and bible, and head out the door and down the hall toward the Emergency Department. I went because those being brought in might need help–they might need someone to pray with them, call family or friends, or help them communicate with the hospital staff.

As I road down in the elevator I wondered about what I was going to find when I got there. Each and every time it was a new challenge: from automobile accident to gunshot victim, each patient was different, with different needs, fears, hopes and dreams. I have been welcomed by frightened people who are in need of the comforting experience of the presence of God. I have yelled at with hatred by those who view me, and God, as liars. I have been regarded a nuisance by some of the hospital staff, who delighted in saying “chaplains are worthless fairytale merchants,” while others have looked upon me as a “comforting angel in disguise.” More than once, I have had a weary-eyed nurse or physician turn to me when the evening has gone “to pot,” in hopes of hearing a word that brings some sense of sanity to the insanity of daily living. The way a chaplain is received can be as varied as there are days in the year and people in the world.

The need to be there was great, and so I went; on the one hand I might not have been needed, but on the other hand I might have been as essential in any given situation as any doctor or nurse. I could recount many times in which all a patient needed was prayer. I could also tell of those times when the patient was so close to death that I have been gripped by their dying hand, and have had my head pulled close to theirs so that I might hear a gasped confession of sin as the doctors and nurses frantically worked to save their life. They quickly list any number of sins, some important-sounding, some not, but all important enough to them to expend their last few breaths asking for forgiveness. I can also remember the fear on their faces giving way to peace as I pronounced the ancient words of the Church, the words given to us by our Lord: “In the Name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven.”

And it’s that look of peace which made all of the insanity worth it. It’s the look of peace that we should all feel and know when we hear those same words each and every time we make a public confession of sin to Almighty God (which we do every time we come to the Table of the Lord for Holy Communion). I know that most of us, as Protestants, don’t have the tradition of making confession to God before a priest, and, while I agree that we don’t need a clergy-person to intercede for us, nevertheless there are times when it is helpful to seek guidance along our spiritual journey. Likewise, it is a very powerful experience for me to kneel before an altar and make my confession of sin to God, and then to hear those words that Jesus gave us—those words which wash away guilt and bring assurance: “In the Name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven.”

© 1997 Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from