Monday, December 7, 2009

Chaplain, Can You Pray?

The other day we received a note, "Hey, y'all, in about one hour a group of people were gathering for a memorial service and perhaps y'all might want to go."

What memorial service, we asked?

  • Every year at this time, a Christmas tree is placed in the lobby of the hospital.
  • Every year, ornaments are placed on the tree by family members of patients who have died and have given their bodies to science.
  • Every year for at least the last 15 years, family members show up and place their ornaments on the tree, commemorating their loved one ("for Johnny, my 18 year old son, who was killed by a drunk driver," or "for Suzanne, my fiance, who died in a terrible car wreck," or "for Pamela, my cousin, who had a brain aneurysm and died suddenly.")
  • Every year, the organization that works with organ donation families holds this memorial service and some dozen or so families show up to remember their loved one.
  • Every year, the medical team (nurses, case managers, physicians, staff) assists in this memorial service as they, too, remember these families and their loved ones.
Of course we'd go to this service. In the somewhat awkward lobby of the hospital, just behind the information booth and next to the cafe, the audio equipment was set up and began projecting soft music to set the mood. Danish and coffee was being served while the families gathered. Several small groups of people stood near each other and tearfully shared stories of their ornament and why they come back every year.

I recognized "my" nurses from one of my floors. That's the floor with the most number of brain injuries or deaths and those nurses see many of these families. That's when the nurse manager suddenly called out, Chaplain, can you pray to open our ceremony?

And two minutes later, I began...O, most gracious and loving God...

In those moments, I realized that if I had more than two minutes to think about this, I might have been a little more freaked out. In some strange way, it was a bit like an initial visit or a middle-of-the-night call to pray with a family in the midst of some crisis. I asked in a sort of round about way what would be appropriate to pray for/about. The MC gave me just a few short words. That's all I needed and out came the prayer for courage and strength and gratitude...

I felt that the prayer was not about me, it was about God's presence in that moment for those people and for all the cloud of witnesses in whose memory we hung the ornaments. Okay, it was a bit bumble-y and so what. Just as soon as my inner critic began to work, I shoved her back in the box. Hey, I showed up. So did God.

Coincidentally, just a few days later, my colleague Erin presented this reading. (She had not been at this spontaneous entry-way memorial service and was simply commenting on how often we Chaplains are asked to pray.)

The following comes from Eugene Peterson's Living the Message.

"One of the indignities to which pastors are routinely subjected is to be approached, as a group of people are gathering for a meeting or a meal with the request, "Reverend, get things started for us with a little prayer, will ya?" It would be wonderful if we would counter by bellowing William McNamara's fantasized response: "I will not! There are no little prayers! Prayer enters the lion's den, brings us before the holy where it is uncertain whether we will come back alive or sane, for 'it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God.'"

Don't be flip with the sacred. Banter and silliness give no honor to God. Don't reduce holy mysteries to slogans. In trying to be relevant, you're only being cute and inviting sacrilege. Matthew 7:7

How do you show up for prayer in this moment?


  1. Ha! Fun to know the rest of the story. And I bet you weren't one bit bumbly.