Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pain and Prayer

“On a scale from one to ten,” asked the nurse as she peered at me over her reading glasses. “How would you rate your pain?” This question became routine during my four-day stint in the hospital and continued through my four-day assignment to rehab. Sometimes I wondered if the staff was more interested in checking off the little box on the computer screen than really being concerned about the level of my pain.

I had received bi-lateral knee replacement surgery and after the nerve blocks wore off, I was in extreme pain. I knew beyond a doubt what a “10” was on the pain scale. There was a ten-hour period of time during which I was consumed by that pain. I could think of nothing else. Somehow I was able to fall in and out of sleep which helped the time go by. It still seemed like an eternity.

I regularly teach a course on dealing with suffering and loss. I have listened to many stories of emotional and spiritual pain as a spiritual director. I took one unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) during my seminary studies and volunteered as a hospital chaplain for several years. I have been in and around pain on various levels, and am considered an expert by some on dealing with suffering, pain and loss.

It is easy to study pain and suffering and responses to them. There are hundreds if not thousands of books that help one minister to others in pain, or to help one deal with one’s own pain. Most books consider prayer one of the most important elements in dealing with suffering and pain. Prayer can appear in many forms.

During the period of my most debilitating pain, I couldn’t recall any of these healing prayers for myself. I had several visitors that evening, and their “loving presence” was the last thing I desired. I was totally focused on the pain I was feeling. Conversation couldn’t distract me; I couldn’t focus on responses. I was a sniveling mass of self-pity, absorbed in my own little world. I probably would have kicked out the chaplain had he/she come for a visit and a prayer.

At some point during that period of intense pain, as I drifted in and out of sleep in the middle of the night, I felt a tap on my left shoulder. I felt a presence standing behind me for a very brief moment. This presence was not a bright presence, but a reassuring one. It was almost as if this presence was praying for what I myself couldn’t. Romans 8:26: “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.” The pain did not go away, but somehow, I felt like I could bear it.

My level “10” pain lasted for a relatively short period of time. I cannot imagine how people who experience chronic pain at this high level can cope over an extended period. Platitudes about prayer and presence learned in CPE and through my course on suffering didn’t provide much solace for me. Sometimes pain is so overpowering there is no energy for uttering anything but groans.  Yet, I still believe that there is a lot of truth in those resources on prayer for sufferers. I will now need to weigh them against my own personal experience.

“On a scale from one to ten,” the nurse asked. “How would you rate your pain?” I think I have learned how to answer that question, even if it only represents a check on the computer screen.

There should be a scale on which to rate one’s receptivity to giving and receiving prayer as well. At the extreme end, where pain is the highest and prayer is the most needed yet the hardest to utter, we can only hope for a tap on the shoulder.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Birthdays and the Memory of God

I grew up in a family of 11 children. We were a working class family with little left over for celebrations after all the bills were paid. Even though birthdays were celebrated, there were no fancy gifts or parties. In fact, after being invited to parties and seeing what my classmates received for their birthdays, I began to dread the annual event. How could I dodge the inevitable question, “What did you get for your birthday?” 

To make matters worse, I had to share my birthday with my sister. We weren’t born on the same day—she one day after me—but the scarcity of resources meant only one cake for the two of us. No party, a gift of a shirt or a pair of socks, and a shared cake. Birthdays were painful, not a celebration of my life. 

Scrooge’s attitude toward Christmas became my attitude toward birthdays: “Bah, humbug!” If I couldn’t have fun on my birthday, why should anyone else? I went to great lengths to keep my birthday a secret. I regarded with distain those who advertised their birthdays well in advance in order to receive recognition. 

As my children marched their way through our lives, I tolerated their birthday celebrations including parties and ostentatious (in my view) gifts. I never failed to add some sarcastic remark about how too many families poured out way too much attention on their children for their birthdays. Of course, I based my reasoning on our wanting to “live simply so that others could simply live,” or that we were not to “be conformed to the standards of this world.” The real reason was, of course, the pain from too few special days in my life.

I hate to admit it, but Facebook began to change my attitude toward birthdays. When I received an outpouring of love and well wishes on my timeline from numerous friends from around the world, I felt honored, humbled, and blessed. Their recognizing me touched me deeply in my soul. 

So I started the daily routine of wishing my friends a happy birthday when they appear on my Facebook events calendar. It’s been a blessing to see how people respond to this simple gesture. Everyone enjoys being recognized for their existence. It would seem that no one is too scholarly, too meek, too fancy, too broken, too rich, too poor too young or too old to enjoy receiving a special greeting. 

According to the video series “The Vulnerable Journey” by Henri Nouwen, we all existed in the eternal, loving, intimate embrace of God before we were born. Our birth is a short interruption of this eternal existence, and throughout our lives we long for a return to this intimacy and perfect love. We carry in our souls this memory of God which too often gets layered over by socialization in its various forms. We long to re-live this memory of God stamped on our souls.

I believe that by wishing each other a happy birthday, without being conscious of it, we touch each other at our deepest level, where that eternal memory of God resides. We congratulate each other on our quest to embody that memory of God. For a brief moment our true self touches the true self of the other person, and for a brief moment, the veil between eternity and the present is very thin.

Happy birthday! You are eternally beloved of God! Feel God’s eternal embrace, even if for only a brief instant as you hear this annual greeting. Embody God’s eternal embrace as you relate to others. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Babble of Babel

If it weren’t for Babel I wouldn’t have a job. For 27 years I have taught languages in various settings. Mostly I have taught Spanish, but I have also taught some German and English as a second language. The rest of my years I worked either in missions in Latin America or with a mission agency at home.

The story of Babel in Gen. 11: 1-9 is said to be an explanation of why there are so many languages in the world. Furthermore, we claim that God gave us so many languages in order to confuse humankind. We tried to be like God and build a tower to reach the heavens to show off our abilities and “make a name for ourselves.” 

Most of miss the real point of the story, however. God is more frustrated with his creation because they became too “settled” (v. 20). Being settled denotes a certain level of comfort. Humankind became too smug in their being together in one place with their language and culture. They became too comfortable where they were and refused to “scatter” in order to spread God’s Good News throughout the earth. 

Like most of us today, the people feared leaving their comfort zone and moving out. They wanted to stay with their own kind and ethnicity. This fear is stated in verse four: “Otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” 

Since the people wouldn’t move, God had to take matters into his own hands and forcefully evict them from their complacency: “So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth” (v. 8). 

This passage is a missionary passage. It is a call to spread the blessings of God throughout the earth. This can’t happen without scattering. It is also a call to be more dependent on God and less dependent on “mak[ing] a name for ourselves.” 

At the university where I teach, there is a cross-cultural requirement to “scatter” our students. They are forced to leave their comfortable lives in order to experience how a part of the rest of the world lives. Most students look forward to this experience, but there are always a number who try every means at their disposal to get out of the requirement. Like the people at Babel, they are afraid to leave their comfort zones.

Even students who eagerly participate in the requirement are quite surprised by how it changes them. Most return being dissatisfied with the comfort they felt before they left. Most change their values and are more open to mixing with people not of their kind. Many report being more grateful and more dependent on God because of their time of being away from their normal situations. Many feel called to scatter and spread the blessings of God to everyone. 

So, bring on the babble of Babel. Not only did it give me a career, but it also made me more aware of others and more dependent on God. How are you “scattering?”