God in Catastrophe


During my time as a chaplain I prayed with dozens, maybe hundreds, of patients. Sometimes I felt I was doing a good job. Other times I felt I was completely inadequate.

One night I was the on-call chaplain and got a late call. A Roman Catholic family wanted a priest to come and perform what is commonly called last rites. Unfortunately, there was no Catholic priest in the hospital and little time because the patient needed emergency surgery. At first they didn’t want a Protestant chaplain, but fifteen minutes later they wanted anyone they could get.

I ran and got there just as they were about to roll the patient into the operating room. The family asked me to say a Hail Mary. They settled for holding her hand and saying The Lord’s Prayer. When we finished they wheeled her through the doors. She died in surgery.

The last words she heard on this earth were, “…and deliver us from evil, for Thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.”  And the next thing she heard was choirs of angels.

In May of 2007 all the hard work of seminary seemed to be paying off. I was finishing up my second CPE unit (hospital chaplain training) and applying for a residency program. I was in the process of being ordained by the United Methodist Church. We were close to reaching our family goal of having Leslie home taking care of the kids and me in the work place bringing home the money.

Then one Saturday morning, our family was working together to spruce up our yard. I was trimming some overgrown shrubbery. The next thing I knew I was looking at a field of brown and someone was asking me about my address and phone number. As my eyes cleared I realized that I was talking to paramedics. I wouldn’t have been able to answer their questions without Leslie’s help. But Leslie convinced the paramedics that she could take care of the transportation–because she wanted me to go to the hospital where she worked and where I was doing my training. We got into our car, and she drove to the emergency room.

Along the way I called my parents and the pastoral care office at the hospital. As we drove I started feeling worse and worse. I felt nauseous and had what epileptics and neurologists call auras, a combination of vibrations, sparkling lights and earthquakes inside my head. We couldn’t get to the hospital quick enough as far as I was concerned. When we pulled up I quickly opened the door, undid my seatbelt and put my feet on the pavement. I was too dizzy to stand up. Leslie ran to get someone with a wheel chair.

I remember being impatient and  uncomfortable–then nothing until I woke up in a hospital bed with restraints on my forearms and ankles. As a chaplain I’d talked to many patients in restraints, but now I was the patient, and the feeling was definitely odd. One of the chaplains from the pastoral care office came in, and I could greet her by name, though most of that day I was disoriented. The powerful anti-epileptic drugs knocked me out of reality. Two grand mal seizures within an hour had completely exhausted my muscles, and I could barely move.

I remember one of the chaplain supervisors telling my mother that I’d gotten into the residency program, news I was eagerly anticipating, but I was too far gone to care.

That evening I had an MRI to see if my brain tumor had come back. I couldn’t experience anxiety and fear before the scan, nor feel the joy of relief after learning the answer was no.

I didn’t experience God that day, not personally. But that was because I couldn’t see the other side of my reality. But God showed up.

You could argue that He always shows up, and this is true. But we only become aware of His presence when we pray. If we have a seizure, or are drugged, or just plain too sick to care, we are unable to pray and unaware if the Lord is present or not. When we need Him most, we are unable to call His name.

I am very blessed. From the moment I called, my mother contacted our family and her prayer partners, and by the time the hospital staff extracted me from the car seizing and hauled me through the lobby to the ER, a hospital chaplain, a minister from our church, my parents and their five prayer partners were praying for me and Leslie.

They prayed for my family while they were traumatized from seeing me have a seizure. They prayed for my health, and that I wouldn’t have a recurrence of brain cancer. They prayed for God’s presence to be close to us during a hard and frightening time. And the prayers were answered. God comforted my family, He kept me from further harm, He gave us peace.

Now I try to prepare. Two prayer partners and I meet each week, praying for everything from help finding our lost sunglasses to the forgiveness of sins that seem unforgivable, and healing from illnesses that seem incurable. We know each other and each other’s business. My prayer partners see my blind side, the things I don’t know about myself.

When catastrophe strikes me again, these two people will pray for me. I feel good about it; they’ve already practiced.

Do you know who will pray for you when you can’t pray for yourself? Maybe it will be a minister or a priest or a hospital chaplain. Maybe a family member. But maybe you want someone who has practiced. And the best way to do that is start now.  Find someone you trust with your blind side, and share your prayers.