Title: Please Pray With Me
Texts: Job 42:1-9, Hebrews 7:23-28
Date: October 25, 2009
Author: Dave Nickel
Jane’s Story: It’s a Friday afternoon in late August. Jane has just finished mowing the lawn at her two acres in “the county.” Her mobile home shines in the bright North Carolina sunshine. As she surveys the surroundings, Jane remembers that she wanted to make a grocery run, before it gets too late. She hops in her 89’ Camaro, and heads to town, “real quick.” She still smells of cut grass as she hits up Food Lion, and turns back home. But, on his way, she veers off the road, hits a guy wire on an electrical pole, and her car flips, end-over-end some eight times. She breaks bones: arms, legs, ribs, her pelvis. Things inside her chest and gut are messed up. In her own words, she’s “lucky to be alive.”
I first visited Jane, in her hospital room, around a month ago. It was about four weeks after she was admitted. Her body is contorted in an “s-shape” that screams pain. She tells me this story, and tears flow freely down her face as she continues. She talks about God saving her, in this very hospital bed, during these past few lonely weeks. She says that she has been on her knees at the altar in her home church more times than she can count. But it’s for real this time. This time it’s more than just “confessing it with her lips,” Jane says, she “believes it in her heart.” “God saved me for a purpose,” she says. I sit there in the chair a few feet from her bed. I don’t know what to say. I don’t say anything. I just sit and listen as Jane talks. The topic changes quickly, but her monologue focuses mainly on her accident, her home town, her work, and her family. Eventually I offer a short, unmemorable prayer; I get up; and I exit.
While I write in Jane’s chart her nurse comes by. She is a character – someone who seems to be joking around constantly. With a mischievous look on her face, she encourages me, once I’ve finished writing, to flip the pages and do some reading. Odd advice, I think, but I follow it, and I get more details. Jane was driving in excess of 100 miles per hour, the report from the law enforcement official says. According to the tox screen, Jane was high on cocaine, and her blood-alcohol was well over twice the legal limit. The report from the social worker says that her car crashed into someone else’s trailer home. The note by the patient resource manager says that Jane’s insurance will not pay: something about loss of coverage if one fails either to pass a tox screen or to wear a seatbelt, let alone both. All the pages in the chart seem to concur: Jane is in trouble.
Clarification: The next day, I visit Jane again. Selfishly, I want Jane to tell me the info in the chart, but with her own mouth. I wonder what it all means. This time I talk, but not that much. Throughout the course of the conversation, I ask a few clarifying questions: “What is it that God saved you from?” “Was it death in a car accident, or something else?” “What do you hope is different now?” “Do you belong to any sort of faith community?”
For some reason, in my interactions with Jane this second visit, I am incredibly concerned about her speaking “right.” I feel privileged that patients are sometimes “open” with me. And I am bothered, and maybe even hurt that Jane left out some difficult, but, I think, important, details.
Reading Job: I have read Job several times throughout the past few months as I have tried to learn how to be a chaplain. I have encountered present-day “Jobs” on an almost daily basis.
A young woman was diagnosed with cancer a week-and-a-half earlier: she was told it has metastasized everywhere, and she is struggling to decide what to do with the month or so that the doctors say she has left.
A middle-aged woman was victim of a nasty hit and run. She is in the middle of a long stint in the hospital. She already had several surgeries on her legs and arms and back in the past few weeks, and she has many more scheduled, to the tune of around one a week.
An older man suffers from bipolar disorder and schizophrenia; he prefers to meet in the hallway or the tiny waiting room on the unit because, as he spends the majority of time during our visits whispering to me, there are cameras in every screw hole and behind every mirror.
I sit there, and I try to listen. Patients oftentimes offer difficult material freely, seemingly because I say “I’m a chaplain.” Yet I’m uncertain what to do with this suffering and this pain, so I sit with my big, clumsy hands, and I try to hold it.
Still unlike these “Job-like” patients, after I read Jane’s chart, I have struggled to read Jane in this light. Nonetheless, at the end of our second visit, I read the 42nd chapter with him, probably because I know I am preaching on it in a few weeks. Probably because she says she wants me to read a passage to her, but she wants me to choose, and I don’t know which one to choose. Like Job, I try to utter what I do not understand, things too wonderful to me, things I do not know. But, as I read, a realization sneaks in. This is what Jane is doing: she utters things what she might not understand. I know they are words too wonderful for me, words which I neither understand nor know. I realize: Jane may be Job.
Being Bildad: On the other hand, I am one of the friends, I am Bildad. I want to defend my narrow perception of God. I want Jane to repent. I see some of her acts as bordering upon wickedness. I struggle to see Jane as righteous. I am the arrogant fool who tries to keep God in a neat little package. Still, the 42nd chapter goes on and I keep reading. As I read God’s verdict in verses seven and eight, I realize they are directed against me. I hear:
“My wrath is kindled against you… for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Jane has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Jane, and offer up for yourself a burnt offering; and my servant Jane shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Jane has done.”
Then, something happens that catches me completely off guard. When I ask Jane if she would be interested in praying, she does not respond to me directly. Instead, she starts praying immediately. And, before I even realize what’s going on, she is praying for me. She is thanking God for my ministry, and asking God to continue to help me minister.
Jane is Job and I am Bildad. While I don’t think these exact words come out of his mouth, I hear Jane asking God not to deal with me according to my folly. And I hope God accepts Jane’s prayer.
Struggles to Pray: Entering my chaplain internship this semester, one of my biggest fears was public prayer. And, in doing the internship, I have been encouraged by the many patients who choose to pray with me. They have taught me what public prayer is. They have taught me what to say and what to ask. They have not given me a script, but they have given me license to petition God for and with them. In times of serious pain and suffering, they have taught me what to seek: God’s presence, God’s peace, and God’s hope.
And they’ve forced me to reflect on a request that I hear so often here at CHMF: “Please pray with me.” While I can’t remember hearing this phrase growing up, I have grown to love it. It has invited me to see public prayer as a communal activity. It is more than mere words offered by one, special person. It includes all of us, one says the words, but we all pray them.
The Intercessor: But it is still more than just you and me saying some words. In the Epistle lesson tonight, we read about Christ, our High Priest. In verse 25 we read:
“He is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”
When we pray, whether public, private, or whatever, Christ is interceding for us. He is praying for and with us. As the author of Hebrews says, in prayer, we approach God through Christ. Herbert McCabe puts it this way:
When we pray we are prayed in, we become the locus of exchange between Father and Son; the Trinity has its home within us.
McCabe goes on to say that we do not need the “right” words in order to make this home hospitable. Instead, we need to empty ourselves. We need to poke fun of ourselves and our inadequate words.
But this self-mockery should stop before it reaches self-deprecation. We know that, no matter how inadequate or unaware or childish they may be, our words are offered to the Father through Jesus Christ, who prays for us and with us. Christ always lives to make intercession for us.
Prayer as Invitation: And this intercession goes beyond words. Our “prayer” is an invitation to Christ: that he enters into the messiness of our lives. And, at the same time, it is an invitation to us: that we enter into the messiness of Christ’s life. While he walks with us in our prayer, we also walk with him on his path to Golgotha. That is what prayer is.
Even more than public prayer, this type of prayer is what I hope God will do through me in chaplaincy as I sit with patients in their pain and suffering and try to receive whatever it is they give me to hold. This type of prayer is what I need to live when I meet with Jane, or whoever, and, either the words are inconsistent, or the details of the story rub me the wrong way. I don’t know what my seven bulls or seven rams to bring are; I can only bring myself and, maybe, you all.
And I need Jane to pray with me. We need Jane to pray with us. We need Jane to enter into the messiness of Christ’s life with us. That is what I think the quotation on the front of the bulletin means:
“Prayer… is an abandonment of our selves because it is a sharing in Christ’s abandonment of himself in death. In prayer we stop believing in ourselves, and we believe and trust in God.”
This is what, I believe, we do with one another here at CHMF, when we sing and when we speak, when we respond to the sermon and when we voice our prayer requests, when we are confident and when we are anxious, when we praise and when we cry. We sit and stand with one another. We walk with one another. Christ, our mediator, walks with us. And we walk with him. We abandon our selves and share in Christ’s abandonment of himself in death. It is in these times that Christ makes intercession for us, and, as was the case for Job, the Lord accepts our prayers. This is my hope, in chaplaincy and in church. This is what I hear when someone says: “Please pray with me.”