Thursday, December 22, 2011

"I like to pray like this"

An Advent Reflection.

When we prayed, she pressed her palms together tight.

"Comforting God," I begin.

"Is it okay if I pray like this?" she asks, holding her hands up to show me, fingers straight, pressed together. "I like to pray like this because then my palms feel warm."

I wanted to cry. Of course, I told her, it is ok to pray like that. Your body knows how you need to pray. And I could not think of any more beautiful reason to pray in any particular way than it makes your palms warm. In a place where there is so much cold isolation, seeking the warmth of your own body that comes as you pray to the One Who Loves You just seemed so absolutely essential to me in that moment. I unkinked my fingers and pressed my palms together too, feeling my palms get warm.

On the day of this conversation, my third with this woman, she was feeling some sunlight breaking through the fog, and she thought by speaking with a chaplain, she could continue to nurture that breaking through. She felt prayer was a tool that could help strengthen her, which is why she focused so intently on how to pray when we talked.

For myself, I could not get over how excited I was to see such a huge improvement in her. The last time I spoke with her she cried the entire time. Every interaction I had had with her made me anxious because it took so long for her to respond to me, as though my words to her got stuck in that fog around her, moving as though through molassas and so taking forever to get to her ears. But despite this anxiety, I feel very close to her. Part of the reason probably is our ages; we are only two years apart. But part of my connection to her too is I feel that deeply spiritual Spanish-speaking patients I had talked with before charged me with her spiritual care. For them, she was someone I was to actively seek out and be actively praying for. And so I was.

And yet, I learned far more from her than I provided for her. She was just so innocent but so knowledgeable at the same time. It reminded me of a poem I liked a lot in high school (printed below) that I still feel drawn to at the same time I find some of its language clumsy. This is what I want for this young woman. I want her to feel that God says yes to her, that God calls her sweetcakes. I want her to feel her belovedness. And I want to feel it too.
God Says Yes to Me 1
by Kaylin Haught

I asked God if it was okay to be melodramatic
and she said yes
I asked her if it was okay to be short
and she said it sure is
I asked her if I could wear nail polish
or not wear nail polish
and she said honey
she calls me that sometimes
she said you can do just exactly
what you want to
Thanks God I said
And is it even okay if I don't paragraph
my letters
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I'm telling you is
Yes Yes Yes

This poem is so joyous, which is again what I want for this patient, but the joy is also what I felt when I saw how much better she was doing. I felt that God was saying yes to her.

I talk about our belovedness a lot, and I talk about hope a lot, but too often the hope I am talking about is the sad hope in something like, to borrow my friend David's words from one of his Advent blog posts, "10-year old children somehow thinking they can oppose militarism and religious fundamentalism just by walking to school."2 There is a hardness to that kind of hope at times, I think. It is hope that if we keep running into the wall at top speeds, we will make a crack in the wall until evenutally it crumbles. And I am the kind of person who gets swept into focusing on that kind of hope, being content with being sad because I am working for change, for something better, never mind if I am miserable now.

Beautiful art by He Qi of Ruth and Naomi.*

This young woman's visible change, the way she so broke through the fog around her to teach me about prayer helped me to feel hope differently, to feel hope as impossibly happy, to feel God saying Yes Yes Yes.

This is what Advent is for me this year: a time of healing and listening for Christmas, a season when God says yes to us.


1 Kaylin Haught, "God Says Yes to Me," from Steve Kowit, In the Palm of Your Hand: The Poet's Portable Workshop (Tilbury House Publishers, 2003).

2 David Hosey, "What is foolish in the world," City of..., 18 December 2011,

*This picture is of Ruth and Naomi (a romanticization of the story that I will be learning about in my January class on Ruth), but, more than that, to me it is about prayer. About finding that closeness, that warmth wrapped up in God. Also check out more of He Qi's work here. He came to visit Drew last semester and is amazing!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

To See Every Bush Afire

After a long and crazy semester, I will be posting a couple stories about my experience in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), a fancy way of saying I have been a student chaplain in a hospital near Drew Theological School, taking classes and working as a chaplain on a geriatric floor and the behavioral health unit, as well as everywhere else in the hospital when I am on-call. It has been a difficult experience for me, but also one in which I have seen God in so many beautiful ways. A reflection from the beginning of my experience is posted here, and in sermon form here.

There is something I find strangely comforting about sitting in the midst of people speaking a foreign language. The quick pace of it, the strange sounds, the occasional familiar word that grabs at your ears and forces you to again try to make sense of these sounds. Okay, maybe that description does not sound comforting at all, but it is to me. It takes me back to places like Bosnia and Herzegovina and Venezuela, where I was able to sit and be in community with others at the same time I could step back and let this foreignness wash over me. I was expected to do nothing but absorb the sounds, watch the way bodies moved to the music of their own words, and in that you find often that words are unnecessary tools of communication.

I found myself again relaxing into this game of uncovering what is said in a foreign language, but this time the setting was far different than smokey kitchens in Bosnia or greenhouses in the side of mountains in Venezuela. This time I sat in the behavioral health unit in the hospital in which I am a chaplain. The unit is really nice, lots of natural light coming in from the windows, more light wood than white walls, and cushy furniture. But for all its attempt at trying to be like home, it is still...not.

I was sitting with three women, one of whom was my roommate and fellow chaplain Lauren, and one man. I had noticed earlier that day that we had at least two people coming to spiritual events on the floor who spoke only Spanish, and I felt it terribly isolating for us not to try and care for their spiritual needs. So I grabbed my roommate, who speaks Spanish, and drug her up the stairs to a floor that generally makes her feel very uncomfortable with the promise that I would stay with her.

Lauren began by asking each person, one a beautiful dynamic mother of three, one a sweet older man who had been taken under the first woman's wing, and a woman who was also older and funny but who also hallucinated, what happened. Trying to get them to share a little of their stories. As I watched, I heard the first woman speak of her babies who were not in the USA yet and give their ages, I heard the man speak of a tumor and a great loneliness, and the third spoke of lost love. And so, they told their stories, but the first woman, the dynamic one who broke into the others' stories to explain something they said, turned the conversation away from their lives. Instead, what concerned them, was another young woman on the unit.

This young woman was one I had met before. She was in a lot of pain, and speaking to her was off-putting as it took her several seconds to respond to you, as though your words had a distance to travel before they got to her. She was certainly a sweet woman, but--- and I made Lauren ask them to double check--- she was not Spanish-speaking at all.

But it was a really beautiful moment for me, the way that these patients were so concerned about another patient. I guess it is even more beautiful because in Spirituality Group we talk about how depression (which is what two of the three were seeking treatment for) is such an inward-focusing disease. That it is so isolating. And here, people were breaking out of that isolation that had wrapped them up so tightly to love a young woman who could not even speak their language.

Throughout scripture there are continually stories of how God chooses to reveal Godself in the "least of these" (to use language from Matthew 25), and yet because I come from a culture that is so hierarchical and oppressive I am always surprised when I see God in these places so clearly. When I hear God in these strange sounds that I do not understand so clearly by looking at the concern on one of the women's faces, concern not for herself but for another young woman, one she saw as needing someone to talk to, someone who had something to say and was not getting the help she needed from doctors.

Burning Bush by Seth Weaver

Earlier last week, I prayed a prayer with some of my classmates:

"now, not next time, now is the occasion to take off my shoes, to see every bush afire"1

This prayer disarmed me when I prayed it, took away from me the to do list I was agonizing over in my head and forced me to see these bushes afire all around me. I sat listening, watching, even though I don't know Spanish, rather than letting my mind wander back to all the things I have to get done before Christmas. Instead I heard Christ in the music of a language I do not know, I saw Christ in the concern for a young woman struggling for healing in the midst of inward struggles for their own healing.

And so I was reminded to take off my shoes and let God in.


1 Ted Loder Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle (Innisfree Press, 1984).