Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Why Ask? Because Sometimes the Question is Clearer than the Answer.

Jay Westbrook, portrait of his wife, Nancy, and the dogs.
Jay Westbrook recently led a session during the 2014 conference of the California Hospice and Palliative Care Association (CHAPCA). (You can read more about Jay's journey here: As part of his presentation, he shared statistics relating to how patients would prefer to receive information from their care providers. Among the study results he shared was that 70% of elderly Koreans would prefer that their eldest son be the one to receive and then convey the details necessary. Later in the presentation he asked how we would convey bad news, for example, about the diagnosis, treatment results, and/or prognosis for an elderly Korean man. Some of us congratulated ourselves on our excellent short-term memory and began to explain a process by which the eldest son, or child, would be identified, contacted, and informed, all within the boundaries of HIPAA’s privacy regulations. After allowing us to work through the related issues, he asked, “But how do you know if that’s how the patient wants to get their information? What if they’re not part of the 70%? Because that statistic means that 30% of elderly Koreans want to get their news in some other way.”

During the exercise, I remember feeling a bit smug myself. I was recalling my studies under Jason Kim (a Korean pastor and church leader whose dissertation explored generational issues in the Korean church). Dr. Kim’s doctoral supervisor had been Paul G. Hiebert. I am indebted, as are the congregations and communities I have subsequently served, to both Dr. Kim and Dr. Hiebert for a number of things. The most influential factors are from Dr. Hiebert’s Understanding Folk Religion, which Dr. Kim applied to our tendency to make assumptions in various ministry venues.

Those issues have been especially helpful in two of my current ministry contexts. As a Hospice chaplain, for example, I sometimes deal with expectations and stereotypes about our patients, often based on evidence as scant as just one word. In the course of our admittance procedures, a patient may identify themselves as “Catholic,” or “Baptist,” or “Buddhist,” or any number of other labels. As a chaplain who frequently has no direct access to patients (for the reasons behind this, see my post, “Hospice Chapliancy – Equally Available and Avoided by Both Adherents and Atheists,” found here:, I am occasionally asked “What do (insert spiritually identifying label here) believe about (insert ethical quandary or spiritual care issue here)?” so that our staff can provide appropriate support to the patient and family in those areas.

What Drs. Kim and Hiebert alerted me to, though, is that the label one chooses may not be as communicative as we imagine. Those who attend even the most rigidly dogmatic examples of particular religious traditions are often influenced by a number of other, outside, and perhaps incompatible beliefs and behaviors. We tend to compile and compress those influences in such a way that our religious preferences and practices may not reflect “what (we) believe about (whatever),” but a uniquely individual perspective instead.

Not a bad list to start with.
It is my primary ministry context where this factor is most acutely felt. In an independent, non-denominational community church (see for some idea of who we are), visitors often ask us to label our particular tradition, branch, denomination, or other theological designation. Likewise, we sometimes hear from those attending that they are (label), as though that single word carries specific meaning for us. It doesn’t. And that is a very good thing. One of the reasons that we practice “theology in community” is that it can be both a means and an end to deepening our relationship with God through Christ. Learning how others understand beliefs and behaviors, both ours and their own, leads us into broadening and deepening our own understanding, also of theirs and our own, as well.

(This isn't how you should ask the questions, by the way.)
And so, during his conference presentation, I anticipated Mr. Westbrook’s question, and answer. Because the question “How do you know how a patient wants to receive their information?” should prompt the same answer as “How do you know what a Christian believes about baptism?” or “What does a Hindu believe about reincarnation?” or “Why does an atheist believe that there is no god?” The answer, I believe, should always be: “I don’t know. Ask the patient, the Christian, the Hindu, the atheist, or whomever else you want to know about.”

So, even when I am the one asking myself, “How do you know anything about others?” I try to remember: “I don’t know. So ask them.”

4 comments: said...

Excellent reminder. The humility expressed in the honest question and willingness to engage and listen communicates the best characteristics of diplomacy. Follow up questions are also helpful, are they not? If someone tells me they are spiritual but not religious, I ask them what that means to them. Often, they start by expressing some dissatisfaction with some form of religious observance they found unhelpful, if not hurtful. Then, I ask them to describe those practices they engage in or times that they have felt spiritually alive. The response to this question often leads to a point of connection and mutual experience that we can then use as a basis for our further interactions.

nschaak said...

Bill, I like this. It is so true. I grew up in a tradition that pretty much painted Catholics as not Christian. As I met some Catholics, and even attended a Catholic university, I started to realize that not every "Catholic" fit my preconceived category. I started to think more in terms, "most Catholics think this," or "official Catholic doctrine teaches this." However, to actually know what an individual person who happens to be Catholic believes, the best thing to do is to get to know that person and ask him. I do not think that studies or generalities are not useful, but they must not be applied to a whole group of people. Just like I do not like for people to assume they know what I believe on various topics just because I am part of a certain group, I am sure other people appreciate the same courtesy. A good reminder Bill, thanks!

Wm. Darius Myers said...

Good progression of questions. I leave things more open-ended in the ministry contexts where my ethical boundaries are more stringent. But I believe your question about those practices they have found helpful might apply well to even our Hospice patients and families. Thanks so much!

Wm. Darius Myers said...

Thanks, Noel. As I've learned to ask questions, I still find myself tempted to correct others' self-identification. "But that's not what (fill in the religious label here) believe!" Then I remember that I have the right to label myself as a Theologically-Conservative Evangelical, despite others' suggestion to me that "Evangelicals don't believe like you do." (Usually, they mean it as a compliment, in that they find public- or celebrity-Evangelicals to hold beliefs that differ from my own.) I have noted a great advantage to confusions like these, though. In Colorado, where I worked toward and/or against certain community and political issues, I regularly got apologies from friends for not having invited me to their regular political party breakfasts, since I was (insert name of the alternative party here). My Democrat friends were sure I was Republican, because when we discussed their litmus test issues, I sought to broaden their perspectives I did the same for my Republican friends, and they were just as sure that I was a Democrat. Being pro-life from conception onward, for example, makes me, in some people's estimation, an anti-abortion Republican. Meanwhile, being pro-life through the point of natural death makes me appear to be an anti-death-penalty Democrat. Best of all, though, is that I get to be both Trinitarian and a Thanatologist, and nearly no one knows what either of those things are supposed to mean! Thanks for your comment!

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