Shabbat Shalom Magazine

Written by: Shalom LC

Suffering with suffering people, reflections of a hospital chaplain.

Hospital chaplain, director of “Still Waters,” a special center located in Buchanan, Michigan, where modern men and women can release their stress and renew their spiritual ties, Delcy Kuhlman has chosen to share her heart, her faith, and her life with suffering people. She is the mother of six children whose youngest is thirty-one and the wife of Tom Kuhlman who supports her ministry.

Shabbat Shalom: Mrs. Kuhlman, you have not just the experience of ministering to suffering people, but you also have your own personal experience of suffering. Would you please tell us a little bit about yourself—your experience of suffering, your experience as a chaplain— in general terms, your life.

Delcy Kuhlman: I think my first awareness of suffering was when I became very ill. I was ten years old. During that illness, I was separated from the world for three years (thirteen months of it away from my family in a hospital that was not very friendly to children), and I became very aware—maybe not very articulate— but very much aware of suffering.

Shabbat Shalom: Mrs. Kuhlman, you have not just the experience of ministering to suffering people, but you also have your own personal experience of suffering. Would you please tell us a little bit about yourself—your experience of suffering, your experience as a chaplain— in general terms, your life.

Delcy Kuhlman: I think my first awareness of suffering was when I became very ill. I was ten years old. During that illness, I was separated from the world for three years (thirteen months of it away from my family in a hospital that was not very friendly to children), and I became very aware—maybe not very articulate— but very much aware of suffering.

Shabbat Shalom: Your father being a physician, had you already been exposed to suffering people—hearing something about it from your father?

Delcy Kuhlman: Being isolated so long by my own illness, most of the things were just by hearing. I think my contact with suffering people became more real when I was in my late twenties, early thirties. A very close friend, a young man, father of three small boys, had cancer. We walked with him and his wife through that time till his death, and it was very concentrated within just a few months. I think that was my first experience of suffering outside of myself. I knew he was terminal. I had never had a sense that I was going to die…I might have wanted to…but I did not…there was never a prognosis that my illness  would end my life. And then I think of another woman that I had known, a neighbor who got the news that she had breast cancer. She had not spoken about her diagnosis to anyone including her husband until she was near death. Then she got into a faith healing experience. I walked with her through about three months of becoming better and then dying. And again, with children in the family and all kinds of other relationships, I became very much aware of suffering. Often religion in its organized sense is not terribly helpful. These suffering people seemed to have faith in God, and there were many times in both instances where that ran crosswise with the things that they heard from their faith community. There was incongruency which contributed a lot, then, to confusion, despair, and lack of hope.

Shabbat Shalom: I was just rereading an interview we had done with Abbé Pierre, a French priest, on suffering and he says, “Please do not let a minister speak about suffering, because they don’t know what they are talking about.”

Delcy Kuhlman: Very true.

Shabbat Shalom: So, what would you say to our priests, our ministers, rabbis, and pastors who are exposed to suffering every day? What would you advise them to say about suffering?

Delcy Kuhlman: I’m not so sure that one can give advice. I have had the experience of working with seminarians who were looking at these very questions as they began ministering in the hospital and began seeing face to face the injustice, the unfairness of life and death, and their faith being very shaken. And when I talked with them, I have found advice is not helpful. What has been more helpful is to stay by and listen when they bring up questions…often put a question right back to them.

Shabbat Shalom: Yes, because the temptation of people of religion, very often, is to rationalize, to make sense of something.

Delcy Kuhlman: That’s right. And you cannot.

Shabbat Shalom: To give an answer to the problem, if I ask you, Why suffering? or Is there a reason for suffering?—someone who is in bed, suffering and dying, sometimes asks these questions: “Why am I suffering?” What would you answer?

Delcy Kuhlman: That presents the greatest frustration in ministry for me. In a chaplain’s situation, time is very short. Knowledge of their history, of their belief, is minimal. Again, if you come across with an answer, more times than not that closes the door, and they have no more willingness to listen. I would share with them the question, acknowledge my own lack of certain answers, logical answers, then somehow I would share that I can’t understand their very situation.

If one has walked through life in an open and honest way, they will have gone through periods of suffering themselves and in that developed a faith that somehow can be transmitted. Sometimes it’s not through words, but through a hand holding a hand and just letting them know that you are with them. I can’t explain how, but if the faith is in my heart, if the faith in my heart is genuine, God somehow, I believe, takes that and transmits it in a way that somehow comforts and brings peace. Now if one has time to build a relationship (much as I heard you speaking about building a relationship through this magazine), if one has some time, then you can start looking back through life and encourage them to look back, and see when and where God was in other occasions in their life; just a gentle reminder of their own experience that there is a God that’s bigger than them, that He does care, they then learn to hope in their current suffering; they will learn to look back for themselves.

Shabbat Shalom: So, in other words, try to help them remember the light while they are in darkness.

Delcy Kuhlman: That’s right. Remembering. I think of remembering, a sense of looking back, but in a way it’s a remembering of the person…

Shabbat Shalom: Recreating…

Delcy Kuhlman: Yes, yes.

Shabbat Shalom: You have answered another question I wanted to ask you—if you have something to say about how we can help, how can we comfort those who suffer. So you’ve given some guidelines.

Delcy Kuhlman: I think the first thing I would say is put all your pat answers and clichés in the suitcase and leave them at home. The next thing is to be open and honest and genuine. But under all of that—if you have not struggled and suffered yourself, what you have to offer will not be the best.

Shabbat Shalom: So, those who have never suffered, you would not advise them to enter this ministry…

Delcy Kuhlman: That’s right.

Shabbat Shalom: But would someone who never suffered be interested in or attracted by this ministry?

Delcy Kuhlman: They can be. And with young students, I see this. Younger people have not had as much opportunity to simply be aware of life. They tend to live automatically and sometimes in denial of suffering. Until they experience and acknowledge some of the hardships, some of the injustices, the unfair things, they are not so able to address it. And so it’s, again, learning to challenge, to ask the bigger questions, and not ask for answers, but leave this question…

Shabbat Shalom: In a way, just a few minutes ago you somehow suggested some kind of answers as you referred to your faith and to God. In other words, what would be the part of this religious reference in this ministry of suffering? Is it a solution or how would you define this reference?

Delcy Kuhlman: I cannot say it is a solution, but when I look at the picture of God, when I look at God, I don’t see Him fixing things. We live today in a society and a culture where we believe everything can be fixed. We’ve got so much technology that pervades all of life. And so people immediately expect solutions. And I have to say, I do not have a solution, but in my own experience, in my own dark times and the times of pain and suffering, I have found that believing in God makes the difference. If I can remember who He is and who He’s been in my own life, then I can have the hope to go forward. That has happened for me. I have come to a place where I can say, no matter what, I believe. And then there’s that question, What if there’s nothing to believe in? I guess that question will always exist. But in my own life, I’ve found much more peacefulness peacefulness, much more strength, and much more ability to move on, believing—believing in God— believing that He loves me.

Shabbat Shalom: Now how can God love you? How can you communicate the idea of a loving God to a person who is experiencing His silence?

Delcy Kuhlman: This is something that is an awesomely sacred responsibility, as I see it. Without wanting to become sacrilegious, I would say it’s almost an incarnational responsibility. In some way, my own faith, my own being, has to embody God’s love and presence to someone else. And I can’t go with that purpose in mind. But if I go full of my own faith, of my own struggles, somehow God uses that to embody His presence to someone  else. And it’s not that I as a person am God—not in any way— but there’s a mysterious spiritual, something unexplainable, that happens…

Shabbat Shalom: Does this person then understand that God loves him or her in spite of the present experience of suffering? Is that what you are saying?

Delcy Kuhlman: I cannot say that they will understand in a logical, rational way, but in some way they sense it. And I think that the heart and the head go together.

Shabbat Shalom: I see. Is God responsible, in a way, for suffering?

Delcy Kuhlman: I guess I’ve got to define responsible. If you are asking me, Do I believe God causes suffering, I would say, No. If you ask me, Would we have suffering if it were not for God?, well, I don’t think we would have anything if it were not for God. So that includes the suffering. And I think the awfulest suffering of all is in God’s heart, having to allow us to suffer, to suffer the consequences of what we have done and what we have created. And being held back from making it all okay.


Shabbat Shalom: So you are saying that God is suffering.

Delcy Kuhlman: I believe so. I believe He suffers far more than we can even imagine. And that belief gives me strength in my own times of suffering.

Shabbat Shalom: Is that suffering only because He is rejected or is He also suffering when we are suffering?

Delcy Kuhlman: Both. And, yes, I know God is rejected, and I think that sharpens His longing for us, His children. It is not easy to grasp His hesed, His steadfast, longing love. Somehow we don’t know how to portray that to people. But that’s where the hope is.

Shabbat Shalom: The fact that God is with us whatever…

Delcy Kuhlman: That’s right! If somehow people can know that they are not alone, that God is with them, it doesn’t fix the problem— it doesn’t offer a solution, yet He shares the pain with them.

Shabbat Shalom: Some time ago, I had a father telling me the terrible story of his child, a sixteen- year old boy, who acquired a very rare cancer, and in their religious community were some people trying to explain the illness by saying, for instance, “You (parents) were doing this and that; you should have been kinder with…; you should have eaten more of this vegetable, etc.” Suggesting in fact that they were responsible for this suffering.

Delcy Kuhlman: And that is totally ineffective. It isn’t just a zero—it’s a negative. That will derail and pull people away from hope more quickly than anything else.

Shabbat Shalom: Certainly we are saying that. Just as you were saying before, suffering very often comes out of nothing.

Delcy Kuhlman: That’s right.

Shabbat Shalom: And we have observed that you cannot always explain. So in a way this could be one of the lessons. This is, for instance, Job’s experience. He suffers for nothing. And what would you as a person who has been exposed to suffering in the hospital and elsewhere—certainly you have been thinking about it—what would be the lessons you would draw from this experience of suffering?

Delcy Kuhlman: For a quick answer, I now value being “a wise old woman.” I have learned, and I’ve learned this very well in my head—I still struggle with it in everyday application—I have learned that suffering is, maybe, a gift of God.

Shabbat Shalom: Are you saying that God is sending suffering?

Delcy Kuhlman: No…no.

Shabbat Shalom: It becomes a gift.

Delcy Kuhlman: It becomes a gift in His allowing it. If He zapped it all out, it would totally destroy the whole concept of God’s love.

Shabbat Shalom: Is there something which comes to your mind or from your heart you would say to someone who is frightened of suffering?

Delcy Kuhlman: I would first listen to their pain—their fear. When I sense the person is feeling “heard,” I would communicate to them the possibility—the reality—that God is with them in a loving, healing way, in the middle of suffering.


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