I’m not really comfortable praying extemporaneously. I have to do it regularly, even frequently, but I’m not comfortable. On occasion I’ve even been told that I do it well, but if that is true then it is due entirely to the Holy Spirit and not me. I would much rather write my prayers beforehand and craft them into liturgical things of beauty.
If I know anything about extemporaneous prayer it is because I was faced with a horrifying situation when I did a unit of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) while I was in seminary. I was working as a chaplain in a hospital, but every day our group of student chaplains got together to talk theology and disclose and discuss incidents from the previous day or so in what amounted to group therapy. We also had to keep a journal and had private meetings with the supervisor.
One night when I was on overnight call at the hospital I was summoned to the ER. There had been a particularly bad auto accident on the freeway involving many cars. Four people had been sent to another hospital in the city that was better equipped for trauma than ours was. We got two of the passengers. I was asked to sit with one who was in and out of consciousness due both to his injuries and the meds they had given him. Before I went in I was told that his friend who had brought in with him had died on the way to the hospital but to try to avoid telling him that because they were trying to prep him for surgery. I sat with him and fed him ice chips while he waited.
After he went into surgery, I was called into the shift supervisor’s office where the ER staff dealing with this case had gathered. They had already called the parents of the young man who died, but it was their policy not to tell parents their child had died over the phone so the parents were now driving from another city a couple of hours away. Our meeting was to plan how to handle the parents when they arrived – where they would be told, who would be present, who would say what.
When the parents arrived very late that night they were taken to the supervisor’s office. The staff told them their son had died and the extent of his injuries. They also answered the parents questions and then the parents wanted to see their son. This was a fairly small hospital and it had been a very busy night. Their son’s body had been wheeled into what was clearly a large supply room. The nurse who had attended him and I went with the parents to see their son. She explained that we had been very busy that night because of the accident and that we had not had time to clean their son up. The parents didn’t care, so she folded back the sheet covering him.
I was the one totally unprepared for what I saw. Here was a handsome young man in his early twenties covered in blood. He was still intubated and his lifeless eyes were wide open. I didn’t know what to do or what to say. The nurse calmly talked to the parents who were both crying but not hysterically, and then the nurse asked if they would like to pray and the parents said yes. The nurse looked at me and saw that I was in a panic – frozen stiff – so she began to pray. I don’t remember what she said and it doesn’t matter really. It was a short prayer for God to receive this young man into heaven I think. I barely heard it.
I felt completely useless. I had failed. I was the worse excuse for a chaplain ever. All I did was take up space. The whole experience was awful and it was painful but I wrote every detail in my journal. I just so happened that it was my turn for a private meeting with the CPE supervisor in the next day or so and of course we talked about this incident. He asked what I was thinking when I was in the room with the nurse and the parents and their dead son. I told him. He suggested that I go back and write in my journal all that was in my mind and heart as a prayer – the prayer I was unable to pray that night. So I did.
The only part I remember from that prayer now was telling God that I didn’t have words to express all that I felt, but that my heart was broken for these parents and for this young man whose life was so full of potential but was cut so very short. When I read that prayer later I saw that it was a beautiful prayer. It expressed the reality of the situation and the honest emotions and confusion we all felt.
What I learned that day was to stop worrying about the words of prayers. There were no words that could make those parents feel better that night. Their son had just died. They simply needed to feel some connection to God.
Now when I am called upon to pray at the last minute, I just pray whatever is on my mind and in my heart. I do a little self-censoring, but mostly I say what I’m thinking and what I feel. I don’t try to cover all the bases. I don’t try to preach a sermon. I don’t thank God for 20 minutes while all the food on the table or in the buffet line gets cold. I just pray. I have memorized a couple of phrases I like that I’ve heard other people use in prayer.
Sometimes my prayers are quite forgettable, but they get the job done. And sometimes my prayers cut right to it – right to the fear, anger, confusion, doubt, joy, thanksgiving, wonder, surprise, and yes, even the humor of it all. Because that is life and that is honest.
Today’s Lenten reading is Matthew 6: 7-15 about prayer. Even the disciples were worried about praying correctly. Jesus told them to stop worrying about the words so much, but there are some things that are worth praying about: the holiness of God, the coming of God’s kingdom, our daily bread, forgiveness, and the struggle of temptation.
This Lent I pray that I may become more and more honest in my prayer life.
P.S. A couple of days later I stopped by to see the young man who had been waiting to have surgery on his leg. His mother had already thanked me profusely for sitting with her son before she arrived in the ER that night. Now he was recovering nicely and she tried to explain to him who I was. He said, “I remember her. She gave me ice chips.” Then turning to me he said, “Thanks.”