Now that I am done with Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), I can admit that there were times, especially around 3:30 in the morning when I was the only hospital chaplain on call and was being called to my 18th or 20th call of the shift–I can admit that I wondered if God cared about how I was doing. Do you see me down here, trying to help grieving families and very young people with irreparable brain injuries, God? Do you know how tired I am? Have you heard any of my prayers for the patients and families? Alas, I am seasoned enough at struggling with God to know that when one asks the question, “Does God answer prayers?” what one is really asking is, “Does God deliver exactly what I want in the timeframe I want?”
Well, I DO have proof that God cares and listens, even to a whining chaplain. Last week, as I was doing some of my final rounds on the “step down” unit for people who are recovering from heart surgery, I met an elderly couple that I had seen in the Cardio-Thoracic ICU. I had not been able to visit the patient because she was intubated or asleep whenever I stopped by. So I was excited to see her awake and visiting with her husband and began chatting with them.
A few minutes into my visit with the couple, she told me that they were celebrating that very day their 60th wedding anniversary. She gestured to the vase of long-stemmed red roses on her hospital tray table, and then she said that they were supposed to have a big blessing and 60th anniversary celebration at her Baptist church the following Sunday, but they had had to delay the church celebration until she got out of the hospital and was well enough to attend a celebration. The roses were from their pastor.
Then she said, “Would you bless our union?” And I said, “Of course!” And then I prayed with the couple. Why is this so remarkable? Well, avid readers may note that in my blog of June 19 (“Watch out what you pray for…”), I wrote near the end about wishing that I would get called to “a couple that has decided to commit to one another and wants a random blessing.” I also prayed that I would get called to the bedside of a couple that has just given birth to a full-term healthy baby. And in fact, that happened, when my fellow seminarian and his wife had a baby this summer and invited me to come up and meet their baby daughter.
I admit that it’s poor theology to consider God present and caring and merciful only if we get the exact thing we asked for in a timely manner. But you have to admit that it’s a funny coincidence, perhaps too MUCH of a coincidence, that I encountered these two joyous events that I prayed for so soon after I prayed for them. (After all, it is pretty rare for someone to ask a hospital chaplain to bless their relationship.) Maybe God just wanted to make something obvious to me.
I feel some chagrin that I regressed to what I call a “Tom Sawyer” theology this summer: becoming fed up with God when I don’t get what I ask for. I thought that I had abandoned that thinking back in my early 20’s. Back then, a priest at UC Davis had recommended that when we’re fed up at God for not delivering, that we stop all prayers of petition and pray only in thanksgiving. It’s wonderful advice that I forget now and then.
But I remembered it in my fifth week of CPE, when I felt grateful for being almost halfway through CPE, and when I visited with a patient who was very grateful for a highly successful outcome. I prayed in gratitude. And now, of course, I can recall quite easily all the patients I met who were healed in the hospital. I can recall all the patients who were grateful for the blessings in their lives despite their current misfortunes. I can recall all the patients who shared their laughter with me, their amazing spiritual experiences, their healing scars, their beautiful children and grandchildren. I also am grateful for all the doctors and nurses who worked so hard to heal these patients and to inform and console family members.
And I am grateful that, foolish as I am, God throws an obvious sign down to me now and then to remind me that of course, of course, of course God listens and cares. I am so grateful for the many patients and families that shared their lives with me in such trust, such vulnerability. I am grateful that I noticed what a gift these encounters were.
Thank you, God. Thank you for lifting my sleepy eyelids and saying, “Look, Janine.”