I visited a woman who had just given birth. The family was part of the church where I worked. The pastors took turns visiting. It was my day. I had been a pastor, with the title officially in front of my name, for a few months.
I went to the room, I talked with the mom and the dad. I held the baby. I thanked them. I left.
When I got to the lobby I said, “I never prayed for them!” I looked around. No one heard me. I was pretty sure I had failed as a pastor making a hospital visit. I went back to the room.
“I’m sorry. I’m new at this. I forgot to pray for you!”
I took the baby. I asked for God’s blessing on this baby, on this family. I gave the baby back. I walked out.
That baby graduated from high school recently. I sometimes work in that same hospital, though those rooms are now hospice rooms, full of people at the other end of life. Though that baby has changed more than I have, I am changing, learning to overcome my sense of failure that day.
I thought that the measure of a pastoral visit was praying. If I didn’t pray, the visit wouldn’t count, the people wouldn’t think I was spiritual enough to be a pastor, I would lose credibility, maybe my job. As a newly-hired, second career pastor, the fear was real, though the reasons for it were not.
As I review the sense of failure and missed expectations, I’m surprised to discover there is nothing about God. Nothing about why it might matter to have a conversation with God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth, while holding this baby. Nothing about what God might expect of me or invite from me in those moments.
I think in images. The image I have of my re-appearance in that room is of a kid preacher, tie and sport coat dragging on the floor, rushing around, tripping on everything. A kid trying to measure up.
Other images are available. There could be the image of Simeon, taking Jesus from the arms of Mary, offering a blessing.There could be the image of Jesus, laying his hand on a child in the presence of the child’s parents. There could be the glorious image of holding this child and stepping from the hospital room to Mount Zion, surrounded by angels, by the throne of God, welcomed by Jesus.
Any of those images is moving us from a routine hospital visit, from a ritual prayer, into an acknowledgement of the holiness of life and family and this moment.
As a pastor then, as a chaplain now, I often navigate in a space bounded by positional obligations and patient (and family) expectations, and God’s invitation. So in that space, when it occurs in hospitals (or other places of pastoral care), what does it look like to talk to God on behalf of and in the presence of other people? And, perhaps, to talk to people on behalf of, and in the presence, of God.
There isn’t a right answer, of course. A friend of a friend is a hospital chaplain. She never prays with patients. A friend is a hospital chaplain. He always prays with patients. I am a hospital chaplain. I sometimes pray with patients.
Years ago, I remember reading Eugene Peterson write, “my primary educational task as a pastor was to teach people to pray.” [footnote]The Contemplative Pastor.[/footnote]I think that’s true for chaplains, too.
It’s not our only task. But it may be our primary educational task, the thing that we can teach.
The challenge in teaching about prayer is that many people want to learn how to pray. I say challenge because of why people want to learn how to pray.
We want to learn so that we can get God to pay attention.
We want to learn to pray right so that we can get God to fix our problems.
We want to learn to pray exactly right so that we can get God to make our lives better.
Some people try to give people formulas for praying. “Get this many people to pray, say this many prayers, use this exact outline or wording, and God will pay attention, God will fix our problems, God will make our lives better.”
Some of those formulas quote Jesus: “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.”
I struggled with the formulas when I went to see Ed.
Ed had a heart attack. I know now that’s a generic word for several different problems, leading to several different treatments with several different outcomes. At the time, I didn’t know any of those things. I just knew Ed. And I knew Carol, his wife.
I knew that Ed was laying in the bed in ICU, not moving, not awake. I knew that Carol was standing by the bed, anxious, awake. I knew that I was the pastor coming to the room, supposed to know what to do, what to say, how to move heaven and earth to bring Ed back. This was a decade after my baby visit. I was more comfortable in the hospital. But this was still hard.
I don’t remember the conversation much. We talked about family, informed but far away. We talked about church, about Ed. And I knew that it was time to leave. So I asked if I could pray.
“God,” I said. And I stopped. And I started to choke up.
“God,” I said, “We know that you know what is going on. We know that you have power and you will do what you will do. We don’t want to tell you what to do. We always say that we want your will. But we can tell you what we want. And Carol wants Ed back. So please, can she have Ed back?”
I wiped my eyes. I said good-bye. I didn’t know what to expect.
It felt like an honest prayer in a hospital room, finding the space between God’s will and our wants. I grew up asking God for things, but I always gave him an out. “Not my will, but thine”, the words Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemane hours before his death shaped my thinking. We can ask, but we’ll probably get the most painful outcome, and that will prove that we are as good as Jesus. In that moment, I let go of the expectation of a bad outcome, exchanging it for an openness in conversation.
I’m not sure Carol knew what was happening in me, this conversation rather than ultimatum or resignation. For her, she simply wanted Ed back. But it has changed my hospital prayer.
At the same time, I grew up hearing people saying that God has blessed them. They only said it after they recovered from the illness, after they got the good job, after they got the good parking place. They never said it after they lost the job, after their family member died, after they missed the appointment. And they said that if we have enough faith, we can move trees and mountains, that with enough faith God will do whatever we ask.
So if we ask for healing and it’s not given, then we feel like we must have asked wrong, that we failed. I’ve heard that. Or if we’ve asked for healing and it’s not given, then we feel like God must have done wrong, that God’s not keeping the contract.
Evelyn grew up with some kind of understanding of God. “I used to go to church,” is how she described it.
Evelyn and Robbie and I were talking. Robbie’s cancer wasn’t responding to treatment anymore. The three of us were talking in that sacred space that sometimes is found when we shift from “maybe it will work” to “time to get ready to go.”
“My dad died when I was ten,” Evelyn said. “He had a heart attack. The neighbor said, ‘Pray hard,’ and I did. But he never came home.”
I looked at her across the bed. “It’s not your fault that your dad died,” I said. “He didn’t die because you didn’t pray hard enough.”
She cried. Three decades or more she had born this burden. Maybe God was mean. But maybe she hadn’t prayed hard enough, been good enough.
What do we teach about God and about prayer that leaves a young girl thinking she didn’t pray hard enough?
What I’m pretty sure is that God’s not testing our exact phrasing. I’m pretty sure that Jesus wasn’t creating a contractual obligation between knocking on the door and getting healing. Because we won’t get everything we ask for if we pound on the door long enough and look hard enough. In fact, at least once Jesus didn’t get what he asked for.
And even when people know how to pray, it still feels like we don’t have God’s attention. It still feels like he’s not fixing our problems. It still feels like our life isn’t better.
So what is the balance between knowing that God can do everything and knowing that everything may not include fixing this situation the way I want? What’s the place for claiming the miracle that the family wants and knowing that the patient’s choices since the last hospital visit have made a miracle the only thing that would work now? How do I help the family understand that though a miracle is possible, it is not likely?
I can’t teach whole theological systems in a moment. The prayer at bedside isn’t the place for a sermon.
But I can ask God for what God says to ask for, what others in scripture have asked for. I can ask for wisdom in making decisions. I can ask for courage. I can ask for comfort. I can ask for an awareness of God’s presence. I tell God what we would like without joining in the family ultimatums. I can ask God for clarity in what to ask God for. And I can with my voice and with my silence create some space in the chaos of the room.
And in those moments, we can discover that prayer isn’t a formula, it’s a word we use to when we really could mean being in the conversational presence of the one who has power to change things and foresight to see how they will turn out and wisdom to know that what he sees is better than what we see and experience to know that that feels excruciating and unfair and compassion to breath with us and sit with us and weep with us and laugh with us and remember with us.
The disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, in the same way that John the Baptist had taught his disciples to pray. Andrew and John, two of the disciples, would have known what John taught, though we don’t know.
But Jesus didn’t offer what we call “The Lord’s Prayer” as a mantra, as a formula to be repeated exactly right to get something from God. If that were true, we wouldn’t read all the other ways that he talks to his Father in the Gospels, times when he didn’t use these words.
Instead, I think, he wants to give us training wheels. He wants to have a framework, a theme to use for improvisation. He gives us something to focus on in rooms where we cannot focus.
He gives us a hospital prayer, when all else fails.