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Joan Paddock Maxwell: Soul Support

Joan Paddock Maxwell, Soul Support: Spiritual Encounters at Life’s End (Resource Publications, 2017), 230 pages, ISBN 9781532618741.

Having served as a chaplain in two Pennsylvania State psychiatric hospitals for twenty-nine years, I was interested in reading the memoirs of hospital chaplain, Joan Paddock Maxwell’s, Soul Support: Spiritual Encounters at Life’s End. Maxwell chronicles her reminiscences and descriptions of the numerous experiences she faced as a chaplain from 1999 to 2011, in a Washington D.C. hospital. The majority of stories come from the edge of death, as she writes in the context of palliative and hospice care about what she learned in hospital chaplaincy situations. I realize that as I work with the most vulnerable persons in our society—those with mental health issues and struggles, I understood that the accounts she disclosed were an honest depiction of people at life’s end. After she related the personal stories with patients, she did not give answers to the situation but rather, allowed the reader to sit back and consider what and how they would react in the situation. In the structure of the book, the author shares a story and offers a reflection of the experience. Because of my involvement as a chaplain for many years, I then imagined and created my own consideration of the incident. Maxwell notes that she was an agnostic who eventually, through reflection and theological study, became a hospital chaplain. She speaks of God as the Mystery at work, and in that understanding, she relates what she experiences of God through peoples’ lives.

The vignettes in her book are divided into three levels of understanding. One set of vignettes is under the title of listening. A second group of stories is designated under learning. The third group’s heading is called loving. At the conclusion of the writing is an appendix on surviving a hospital stay and assisting patients who are terminally ill. These three values of listening, learning, and loving are the core characteristics of the work which hospital chaplains serve, in the context of the ministry of presence. In being present with a person in that holy moment, one needs to earnestly listen, learn, and love a human being with the deepest depths of their being.

Maxwell quotes Psalm 88, a lament psalm, as a complaint to God. I believe that was an appropriate psalm to express the feelings of many people in these situations. At one point in the psalm we read,

O Lord, why do you cast me off?

Why do you hide your face from me?

Wretched and close to death from my youth up,

I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.

Good reading for anyone who is a care-giver dealing with end of life issues.

I recall in my situation at the psychiatric hospital, we held a Psalm Reading group, which recited aloud the lament psalms of the Bible. The meeting became a popular gathering and increased in size through the years. I do believe the lament psalms speak to what hospital chaplaincy is all about—the search for meaning amid suffering. Maxwell’s book is not only good reading for a hospital chaplain, but also for anyone who is a care-giver, dealing with the end of life issues with a loved one.

Reviewed by Cletus Hull


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Category: Ministry, Spring 2018

About the Author: Cletus L. Hull, III, M.Div. (Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry), D.Min. (Fuller Theological Seminary), Ph.D. (Regent University), has served as a pastor with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) for 36 years and psychiatric chaplain for 34 years. He is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Biblical Studies in the Oral Roberts University College of Theology and Ministry. He has researched the growing Disciples of Christ churches in Puerto Rico and has an interest in the significance of the Stone-Campbell churches in American Christianity. His article, "My Church is a Mental Hospital" appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Healing Line. He is the author of The Wisdom of the Cross and the Power of the Spirit in the Corinthian Church: Grounding Pneumatic Experiences and Renewal Studies in the Cross of Christ (Pickwick, 2018) and The Call: My Mission and Our Ministry at Trinity United Christian Church, Lower Burrell, PA (Word Association, 2019). Twitter: @cletus_hull, Facebook,

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