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.

The Hard Place

It was a Sunday of August 1991. I was lying/sitting in the hospital bed. The doctors had come and explained what they were going to do. My parents had gone to the hotel. I was sixteen, looking at the prospect of brain surgery. Earlier that day my mother tearfully told me that she didn’t know if I would live two days, two weeks, two months or twenty years. She did say that God had something for me to do and that he would give me the time to do it. There was a lot riding on the next morning’s procedure. If the biopsy came back badly, I would likely be dead by Christmas. If they didn’t put the shunt in I wouldn’t live long enough to care about the biopsy.

At sixteen I had a plan for salvation. I was going to become more and more holy and eventually become perfect as my father in heaven is perfect.

How could I have come up with such a doomed plan?

Hurt, pride and determination–they were what moved me from being a failing dyslexic in the 4th Grade to a thriving dyslexic at one of the best schools in the state by the10th grade. The lesson I had learned was that any problem could be overcome with hard work and uncompromising determination. Why should salvation be any different?

The problem I had lying in that hospital bed was that I’d run out of time. I could no more become spiritually perfect than I could write a book in a single night. I didn’t know if I would wake up from the surgery with brain damage. I didn’t know if the biopsy would come out malignant. I was in a hard place. I didn’t have any more wiggle room. I was scared and I needed a savior.

Dear Lord, I always planned to become more holy and a better Christian. I’ve run out of time. Could you please just take me as I am?

As far as salvation prayers go it was pretty pathetic. I didn’t even mention Jesus or even ask for my sins to be forgiven, but the Lord reckoned even my pathetic prayer as righteousness and I could feel the warmth of the Holy Spirit flowing into me. It hadn’t taken surgery or brain damage to change me. The Holy Spirit made me a new person. Since that day I’ve worried about many things: pain, incapacitation, isolation, and what would happen to my wife and children if I died. But I’ve never worried about death.

Everyone comes to hard places. Sometimes they are dramatic, like the night before brain surgery. Sometimes they are in the middle of sustained challenges, like depression or addiction. Other times they are awakenings to the fact that our salvation plans, like most human plans, are wholly insufficient. What are the hard places you have experienced in your life? What spiritual fruit has grown out of those experiences?


It was a Friday in August of 1991. I was sixteen. I’d been driving alone for six-months. The whole world was in front of me. I could do whatever I wanted, except on the day before I’d had an MRI and been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. It was killing me, blocking the water from draining out of my brain, putting pressure on the area that controlled my eyes.

There are times when those who get bad news, really bad news, lack the emotional and cognitive capacity to absorb that news. In other words it’s like trying to eat an entire elephant in one bite. Like a deer in the headlights of a huge truck I had no idea of how to process what was happening or what was about to happen. The doorbell rang and my Mom ushered in the minister from our church. He was new to our church and didn’t know anyone well. In retrospect I think he was as shocked as I was. Ministers were supposed to fix things, to make people feel better, to boldly proclaim that God is good and that he will shepherd us through the valley of the shadow of death. That’s was a tall order when he didn’t even know me. After a few pleasantries he took me into the library and asked “How are you?”

There is a story of a man who jumped off a ten story building at each floor they asked him how he was doing at every floor he said, “So far, so good.” How we are doing in our body, mind, heart, spirit and soul is a complex question. I wasn’t much of a Christian back then. I’d read enough of the Bible, gone to church enough and prayed enough to be a very promising Pharisee. My understanding of grace was sorely lacking. My experience with the Holy Spirit was miniscule. I didn’t want or even know how to be vulnerable in front of the minister. In this moment of crisis I fell back on one of the stories I’d heard in church. It was the familiar story of the footsteps in sand. I man had a dream where he was walking on a beach. As he looked back he saw two pairs of footsteps in the sand. The footsteps represented the journey of his life. When it came to the really difficult times in his life one of the sets of footsteps disappeared. The man asked God, “Why did you abandon me during those difficult times?” God said those were the times I carried you.” In the pressure to respond to the question of “How are you?” I said, “I don’t feel that God has abandoned me.” That was the best I had at that moment.

When we get pressed and shocked beyond our human capacity to respond we fall back on the spiritual tools we’ve learned and absorbed. What are some of the spiritual tools that work best for life’s unexpected and often dreaded surprises?