Monday, May 11, 2015

Chaplaincy series: a new kind of praying

A.Hanson, Boulder, CO 2010
A long time ago, probably when I was a teenager or something. I read a magazine article that stated that it was cruel to say that you were going to pray for someone and then not actually do that. At the time, prayer to me was a very specific practice.  It was undoubtedly shaped by the Bible, and probably a few zealous sunday school teachers, and my own family that insisted that if your eyes were not closed during the prayer said before a meal, it didn't count.  In my mind, prayer was kneeling down, folding your hands, closing your eyes and bowing your head.  You could pray your prayer silently, but it was better if you prayed out loud.  I also had a particularly formative experience regarding prayer at Bible camp.  There as a well-meaning (if probably wrong) pastor who did a sermon illustration.  He held the end of a long rope and the other end was being held by someone on top of a tall rock at the side of the outdoor chapel. He would wave the rope up and down, and the person playing God, on top of the rock, would wave the rope back.  He implied that prayer was a transactional communication process and you had to put something in to get something out.  And that is how most of us think of prayer.  We put in some intercessory effort and God gives us an answer.

I am the witness to thousands of unanswered prayers. Fervent, pained, hoping against hope kind of prayers for something, anything, to be different. Prayer as a transaction just doesn't stand up to the rigor of a trauma center.  I need a different understanding.

About seven or eight years ago, when I was in the midst of one of the myriad faith crises of my twenties, I told a friend that I would "keep her in the forefront of my consciousness."  This was the closest that I could get to saying that I would pray for her. I didn't think that my humble words to some far off deity would change anything, but somehow I instinctively knew that I could hold her and her pain together with something greater than myself. As I got more involved in the church in recent years, this kind of hippy-trippy sort of prayer was shoved to the back burner in favor of liturgical prayers and ancient words that felt more meaningful to me. Many of the prayers that I heard being offered and even spoke myself in church were offered in earnest, but were without any real teeth.  Prayers like "courage", "wisdom", "understanding", and "acceptance."  These sort of blasé prayers happen without really putting God's feet to the fire.  They are general enough that it is possible to interpret any variety of outcomes as God's answering prayer.

The trauma ICU doesn't have time for well-intentioned prayers for understanding. Part of what I adore (and simultaneously abhor) about my work in the ICU is that all extraneous stuff is stripped away. There is literally no time for small talk or euphemism.  Life and death are so real that you can smell them. The prayers that are offered in the ICU are for life in the midst of death, relief in the midst of unimaginable suffering, and merciful and quick deaths.

I can no longer see prayer as a transactional form of communication with God.  Because most of the time, medical conditions in the ICU are more comparable to a runaway train than they are to a polite conversational exchange. Everything chaotic seems to happen at once, and time seems to stop and pile up on itself.  I, along with my patients, need a more comprehensive understanding of prayer.

I will continue to speak the intercessory words, because that alone is an act of pastoral care.  But I will hold them, and you, with a spirit of consciousness, along with the God of the universe. My tears are a prayer. That I carry you home with me and think about you when I am not at the hospital is a prayer.  When I hold your hand, careful not to disrupt your IV, that is a prayer. Prayer doesn't require wearing out the knees of your jeans, but it does require getting your hands dirty.

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