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A Conversation with Jenette Blair Lambert

By Shelah Miner

Jenette Blair Lambert has spent her adult life as a nurse, ministering to those with mental and terminal illness, yet until a few years ago, she never considered that she’d become involved in a literal ministry. While working as a hospice nurse in the Salt Lake Valley, Jen heard about a chaplaincy program run at the VA hospital and encouraged a friend to apply. To Jen’s surprise, the friend convinced her to apply herself.

 

“I’d never even considered it,” Jen says, “but it hit me like a ton of bricks that that’s what I needed to do.”

 

Working as a chaplain would allow her to talk about spiritual things with her patients, something she often longed to do in her current job, but had to avoid.

 

“People have been fired for praying with their patients because it’s not within the licensing, “ Jen explains, “but in hospice, and also within mental health, the ability and the openness to address spirituality is a huge component of wellness and healing, especially when the healing is not going to be a medicine.”

 

Jen applied and was accepted to the chaplaincy program, and took a job as a nurse case manager with the VA that would combine nursing with chaplaincy.

 

“They were more than supportive,” she remembers. “They said, ‘This is wonderful. We want to embrace holistic treatment as part of what we offer here at the VA.’”

 

Those outside the military often misunderstand what the role of a chaplain entails.

 

“People often think of a chaplain as a priest or a missionary or something,” Jen says. “What I learned is that a chaplain is an advocate for whatever your spiritual grounding and perspective is. A chaplain’s job is to enhance and expand your spirituality so it can be part of your healing and wholeness.”

 

Going through the chaplaincy training was an eye-opening experience for Jen.

 

“I’m a Utah Valley girl, so I was not exposed to a lot of other religions,” she says. “In my naïveté, I didn’t recognize how profoundly other people felt about their religions and how they led their lives in service of the Lord. In my chaplaincy training I was able to get close to Catholics, Buddhists, Lutherans, and Anglicans, and I came to adore their testimonies and their power and their ability to be healers and really honor other faiths. Within the LDS church, with our strong proselyting effort it’s sometimes hard to recognize that we also need to honor others’ beliefs and accept them as being powerful, meaningful and transcendent.”

 

Mormons who have been taught that they belong to the “one true church” often assume that they have the corner on the market on spiritual experiences. During Jen’s chaplaincy training she came to a new realization.

 

“I don’t know that our religious experiences are any more profound than the experiences of people of other faiths,” she says. “I think God works in many ways. The truth is in so many contexts, and I learned to honor that. As a Mormon, I was never taught not to honor other religions, but it was just that I was not exposed to them; I didn’t know people of other religions.”

 

While Jen grew up in a place where all of her neighbors and teachers were LDS, she doesn’t feel that she was taught to be fearful of people who were different, especially not at home, where she arrived fourth in a family of eight children.

 

“It was a wonderful, devout LDS family with prayer and scriptures and all those things,” she says of her childhood. “My best friends have always been my siblings and they still are. When growing up I was a fat child, and I had some of the rejection that goes along with being a big girl. Early on in my life I made the commitment that I would be a kind person. With medicine, it’s ‘first do no harm.’ With me, it’s ‘first you be kind; love, don’t hurt people.’”

 

Although everyone else in her family had pursued degrees in the humanities, she says she “always knew” she was going to be a nurse. She became particularly interested in psychiatry because she “recognized early on that psychiatric problems were disease processes and not spiritual flaws.” At age twenty she took a position at the state mental hospital in Utah County, where she worked with severely ill patients, some of whom had done horrible things. It was sometimes difficult for Jen to reconcile the actions of some of her mentally ill patients with the idea that these people were good at heart.

 

“I remember struggling with this a little bit, and then just having an epiphany in the sense of God’s justice,” she says. “Ultimately, He knows and sees all, the genetic errors, the impact of disease. His judgment is going to be fair.”

 

Jen is usually able to keep an eternal perspective when dealing with her dying and mentally ill patients.

 

“There are times when I will literally cry with a patient and say, ‘This is not fair.’ [But] I believe God sees all and that the hills may be laid low and the valleys lifted, that there will be an evening out, even if it isn’t in this life. My deep faith and conviction of God’s awareness and his willingness and absolute plan to make things right is really comforting to me.”

 

She’s found that this perspective helps her when she talks to her daughters, who are 18 and 22, about her faith.

 

“I can talk to my girls about the fact that sometimes when nothing more can be done—when some of these soldiers come back and are so wounded—all I can offer is prayer and faith. But that is everything. There is healing in that.” She continues, “I appreciate being able to talk to them about the fact that in this life, not everything is going to be fixed; injuries happen, things are going to defeat us, but we can still have faith in God, we still continue, we still believe, and we still move, because this life is not what it’s all about; this is just part of the journey.”

 

When Jen began her career as a nurse, she administered medications and aided recovery for patients who’d had diseased parts of their bodies removed. But as she’s worked with mental health patients, especially as a chaplain, her focus has changed from the physical to the spiritual.

 

“Being able to address the spiritual is the one thing I can do. Ultimately you’re just a conduit, but if I know that this person is literally going to have a lifetime of pain and sorrow and disability, the best I can offer him is a higher power, however he/she defines that. As a nurse, I was trained to think, ‘Give this medicine and the pain will go away.’ But I’ve realized that sometimes you get to a place of complete helplessness. You cannot fix it. That is a point where you think, ‘but I can turn it over to God.’ That’s a relief to me because I tend to want to fix things. ‘Let me get the antibiotic, let me get some more morphine’—that’s what we want to do. But when you get some of these illnesses—and mental health is one of them, and chronic pain and terminal illness are others—medicine is not going to be able to fix it all, and accepting that is actually quite freeing.”

 

Jen feels a great sense of purpose in simply being there for her patients.

 

“A lot of what a chaplain does, and actually a nurse does this too, is simply to be present—to stand by and to witness, to be a witness to the pain, to be a witness to the injustice, and to love that person.”

 

She often doesn’t worry about praying for the right thing, or even getting hung up on saying exactly the right thing. Instead, she focuses on being more than just a visitor in the room by being “fully present,” which she calls “a profound experience for me, and I think for them also.”

 

Even though her religion of preference is LDS, Jen works as a nondenominational chaplain and consequently helps many people who are not of her faith. In all her interactions, she actively seeks to understand each person’s spiritual foundation.

 

“I learned that the best I could offer was to acknowledge God’s presence and pray with a patient. If they’re Catholic, I often do the Lord’s Prayer first and try to honor who they are. There is a profound power in calling, out loud, on God’s presence and love. To invite this higher power in changes it from my ministry to Gods.”

 

Jen realizes that many patients only receive care for their physical ailments, even when some might long for spiritual or emotional attention. When she offers to pray with her patients, “Ninety-five percent of the time, they say, ‘Yes, please.’ Even if I’d been visiting for an hour and then had a prayer, it was the prayer that brought the tears. We seek God’s presence. We seek his support. He probably isn’t going to take away the pain or make us stand up and run, but he can be present there, and that is healing.”

 

Surprisingly, Jen hasn’t encountered much resistance to her spiritual guidance, even among people who don’t consider themselves religious.

 

“I’ve had people say ‘I’m not religious’ and I’ll respond by saying, ‘Well, does that mean you’re not spiritual?’ And they’ll say, ‘No, it doesn’t mean that at all.’ Of course it doesn’t. You’re a spiritual person. You live in a world with profound spiritual aspects to everything. Humans experience love and compassion, joy and sorrow. All these feelings don’t make any sense on a purely evolutionary basis. There is something higher in us. It can’t be discounted.”

 

Jen says her work as a chaplain has helped others feel more willing to share their spiritual sides, and she hopes she honors that openness.

 

“We all have spiritual sides, and we’re very short sighted not to recognize that even an atheist has a spiritual side that perhaps finds beauty and goodness and order in nature or the profound depth of the love of a parent to a child,” Jen says.

 

She finds common ground with many of the veterans who don’t consider themselves religious by talking to them about the beauty of nature. They recognize “the profound beauty of God’s world,” Jen says. “They can draw on a sense of the divine even if it’s not in a concrete form in their mind, such as a God, the divinity and beauty of order, of the natural state.”

 

Jen’s work in hospice care prepared her well for her chaplaincy work with dying patients. She says that when people ask her why she believes in God, “probably the most tangible thing I [mention] is that as you care for a person that has died, they are so ‘not there.’ If you see a person who is dead in a coffin, even though every aspect of that body looks like that person, it doesn’t look like them. And what is that? It’s the spirit. Whatever it is that is gone, it’s obviously gone. You almost don’t even have to check a heartbeat when someone has died because you can tell. Their essence is gone and only the vessel is left. We bury the ‘remains’, not the wholeness, not the soul.”

 

Unlike many twenty-first century Americans, Jen is very comfortable with death.

 

“There’s no fear, there’s no terror there; I’ve been with many people as they’ve died,” she says. “I’ve taken care of people after they have died, and [experienced] all those scary things that at one time I really didn’t like, that seemed so unnatural. It’s not hard for me to talk openly about death. It’s not something to be afraid of. Not something that you seek, but also not something that you run away from. When death comes, it comes. And that’s okay.”

 

Although Jen frequently works with people who are confronting their own mortality, she’s quick to insist that a chaplain isn’t just for the dying.

 

“Everybody has spiritual issues all the time; they affect our health; they affect our physical state in a very real way,” she says. “I really believe that the physical is spiritual also, and acknowledging that as a chaplain just validates our humanness.”

 

Jen’s husband, a psychiatrist, has battled serious medical problems over the course of their marriage, and going through her husband’s struggles with disability have undoubtedly given her some of the empathy she needs to work with people who can’t be easily cured of their ills.

 

“I had to recognize what I could and couldn’t control, and at some point get to realize that I’m not going to be able to fix things,” Jen says. “So I need God’s presence in my life on a truly daily basis. If I can offer someone else that recognition and that possibility, I want to do it.”

 

Jen realizes that every person is, or will be, touched by illness and death.

 

“Everyone knows someone who has a mental illness,” she says. “Everyone has friends, family, and ward members with disabilities. None of us gets through this life unscathed. Sometimes it’s harder for the person on the outside watching. You are your brother’s keeper. You love and cherish and build and lift, and then you are loved and cherished and built and lifted, and that’s what allows us to make it.”

 

While she entered the chaplaincy training hoping to be able to give patients solace and comfort as they encountered difficult health challenges, Jen has found that her work has changed her in invaluable ways.

 

“It’s transformed me by bringing even more to the forefront of my mind the incredible dependence and need for God in our world—in my world and in everyone’s world,” she says. “We are taught to be independent and self-sufficient. We honor self-sufficiency, and yet we’re just little kids out here floundering around. We must be able to recognize that there are things we can’t control and can’t fix, but there is a being who is higher than us, and He can be trusted.”

 

About Shelah Miner

(Co-Editor-in-Chief) teaches English at BYU and French at a Salt Lake City middle school. She has an addiction to her Audible account, hates making dinner, and embraces the chaos of life with a husband, six kids, a dog, a lizard and four rabbits.

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