Most traditional views see preaching coming from a pulpit, lessons taking place in a classroom, and worship with a group in a “holy place.”
However, some sermons take place at the side of the road, at a burning building, beside a cot, or in a room where someone has just learned of the death of a loved one.
Commonly referred to as chaplains, these men and women do not stand behind a pulpit, but go into the field amidst the pain and misery. Commonly referred to as a ministry of presence, these chaplains—who most commonly work with police, sheriff, fire, emergency medical services, or in a hospital—reach out and respond to all manner of emergencies.
Whether standing by a family watching their lives go up in smoke or delivering the news of the loss of a loved one, the chaplain is called to look beyond personal beliefs and offer spiritual comfort and solace to any and all persons without regard to race, creed, or ethnic background.
While sitting with a family in the waiting room at the emergency department, many questions arise. Why our child? Where is God in all of this? How could God let this happen?
When tragedy strikes, many people find their faith shaken, have doubts about God, and experience hopelessness and despair.
At this time, the chaplain has the greatest opportunity to bring comfort, not necessarily in magical words, but with words of reassurance or a mere quiet presence. Sometimes it is a prayer; at times it is a scripture, at other times calm, comforting words, and maybe even just a personal presence in silence. These are the sermons, the lessons, and the worship of a chaplain.
The chaplain cannot always have his or her roadside sermon prepared because they come at the most inopportune and unexpected times. Yet those words of scripture, comfort, and assurance proclaim God’s love to the hurting and distressed. The good news is not necessarily from the gospel, it is the news that someone cares enough to spend this lonely seemingly god-forsaken time with you. These are the sermons that the chaplain preaches.
Choirs, organs, pianos, and singing are not available while waiting for the news from the doctor. However, silent reflection or audible prayer while waiting brings about worship in the most down-to-earth manner. This is worship from the heart, worship that transcends lofty buildings or lowly chapels.
Not to be forgotten are those who minister physically to the needs of these victims. The chaplain must pay keen attention to the needs of the first responders and medical personnel who experience the sights, sounds, and smells of tragic scenes. They, too, need to experience the comfort of a quieting prayer, or an uplifting word. Here especially the chaplain has the opportunity to provide the lessons of the importance of loving care and helping one another.
In short, the absence of a building does not preclude the opportunity for the chaplain to minister to others.
Darrell L. Cook is an ordained elder of The United Methodist Church. A retired lieutenant colonel, he served 24.5 years in the United States Air Force, and he currently serves as chaplain to the Anderson County Emergency Medical Services and the Anderson County Sheriff’s Department. He attends First United Methodist Church Oak Ridge.