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Not Perfect - But Patient!

It was my night for a 24-hour rotation at the hospital where I was a student chaplain in Clinical Pastoral Education.  During these on-call nights, it is necessary for the chaplain to cover calls to the emergency department, trauma center and to attend all codes.  When a code is called, you know a patient has died and that the medical team is rushing to do all possible to revive the person.  A chaplain’s role is to attend to the needs of the patient’s family, offering emotional and spiritual help.  This ministry often includes prayer.  Yet above all, a chaplain’s duties involve carefully discerning the best option for care within each particular circumstance for that specific family’s needs.  Afterwards, the chaplain’s work includes determining the needs of the patient, provided the person has survived.

I greatly appreciated the fact that sleeping quarters were available, making it possible to rest at times during the night.  Yet, on this particular night I had been on duty 20 hours, with little rest, when I was called by a nurse to pray for a baby.  No other information was given.  I hurried to the floor with the room number in hand.  In no way was I prepared to see what awaited there!  A baby lay in a small crib, only this baby was born without a brain, or a skull.  His head was as large and nearly as flat as a pancake.  I was looking at a face that was transparent.  Multiple blood vessels showed through his skin.  His eyes rocked and shocked my soul with their upward stare.
Several realizations swirled through my head.  For one, the knowledge that the shape and condition of this child’s head meant no one could pick him up.  He could not be held in his mother’s arms, or register his father’s face.  Second, no medical expertise could resolve his need for a brain and a skull.  Third, without a doubt his life was presenting a tremendous struggle for all involved.  Over all these thoughts stood the knowledge that this little person could not live long like this and may well not receive nourishment.  “Allowed to die,” is, at times, a medical choice.  I quieted my mind long enough to pray for the child and his parents, yet my heart was hot with anguish.  How could such a thing happen to a tiny, innocent child?

I headed for the hospital chapel as fast as I could go through the hallways and down the elevator.  Once there I knelt before the altar, my faith spinning like a wobbly top, slowly losing its momentum.  How God?  How is it that with all your power, and all the love we believe you have for us, how could you let this child come into life in such a condition as this?  I knew, there on my knees, that I was engaging the same God that the suffering servant Job addressed when he raised his fists and shouted his questions.  And, I remembered that God told Job he simply was not prepared to know all the ins and outs of creation.  God expected Job to weave the suffering he experienced into the whole of life.  As time passed at the chapel altar, I was humbled.

Still, the pain did not go away.  I continued to carry this child’s dilemma in my heart.  My pain was based in fear, fear of living in a world that is so unpredictable and seemingly out of control.  It was my duty to find this baby’s parents and offer to help them through this startling and grief-filled time.  When I thought I could face them, I looked throughout the hospital, but I could not find them.

As a student, I was still learning how to deal with extreme circumstance.  Now, 16 years later, I would do things differently.  I’d move heaven and earth until the parents were found, offering to join them in their suffering.  At least, I would do the one thing possible.  I could go to them and weep with them.  Right then, however, I was barely able to handle the total ineptness that had overtaken me.  Since then, I have seen many more evidences that humanity carries with it inevitable imperfection and suffering.  But right then, there was a lot weighing against my being able to stand before a mother and a father, knowing they had been given a child that had no mind … born without the brain that gives the gift of knowing oneself, experiencing life and others.  I was gripped by the fact this baby boy would have no thoughts, no emotions, no perceptions nor beliefs.

I could not talk about this to anyone.  It was as if my soul freeze-framed the incident.  No doubt my psyche wanted to deny what is possible in this life.  As I look back on this incident today, I feel some shame, sensing that I was weak and that perhaps another chaplain could have managed better.  On the other hand, part of being effective with people is offering all of who we are, including our imperfections, and then to be patient with our failures.

At an earlier time in life, before training as a chaplain, I was impatient with life.  I wanted to do more, find a mode of service that would do justice to my desire to minister to people in pain.  How I longed to help others find the freedom of heart that comes through experiencing God’s love within the greatest struggles of life.  I had seen how God shows up within circumstances of great pain and sorrow.  I longed to work with people, helping them get through their most difficult hours with the availability of God’s help, when we but ask for it.  Yet, I couldn’t seem to get out of God’s waiting room.

Then I met Hilda, a 73-year-old woman who sensed my frustration.  She questioned me in a way that allowed this frustration to flow out.  Her words were few, but well-placed and hit the mark.

“What’s your hurry?” she asked.

“Fear,” I answered.  “Fear that my life will slip away and not amount to much.”

Hilda stood tall and stalwart, looked me in the eye and said, “You have all of eternity.”

It was incredulous to hear her say, “I’ve decided that I can wait.”  In her, I saw the rock of patience and I was thinking, “Yes, and you are about to run out of time!”  As I sit here today, now nearly her age, I’m thinking she wasn’t old at all!

Fortunately, the point she made was not lost.  I recalled a time during the previous summer, while in the mountains and alone with God.  I prayed lustfully,” I’ll do anything you ask … clean toilets … wash windows, or pots and pans, just open the door!”  The truth about that prayer was that I was willing to do anything all right, except wait.

It is said about a song, “There is no music in the rest, but there is the making of music in the rest.”  After that talk with Hilda, I decided to put aside my impatience and to trust that what God wanted to do in my life would come in God’s own good timing.

Within an hour after Hilda and I had talked, her husband Nandor handed me a book.  At bedtime I read, “Much as I long to be out of here, I don’t believe a single day has been wasted.  What will come out of my time here it is too early to say.  But something is bound to come of it …”  This was a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Prisoner of God, written from a German prison during his long stay prior to the day when he was executed for his faith within Hitler’s regime.  Many millions of us have read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s inspiring writings since the day he wrote those words in a prison cell.

Nandor knew nothing of Hilda’s and my talk of an hour before.  How perfect are God’s ways, for those words of Bonhoeffer punctuated Hilda’s words!  When we really want to hear from God, we will, when we are willing to be patient and wait.  Yet, waiting on God in life can surely test our patience at times.  Surely, none of us like waiting when we are ready to move.  What I came to realize without a doubt is that God’s timing is always best, although God’s timetable, rarely aligns with mine.  Within the 10 years following that conversation with Hilda, much transpired within my family.  I found myself fully focused on the needs of my loved ones.  It is easy to see, in retrospect, how that was the best possible use of my time and talent during that period of my life.  In hindsight, it is no surprise to realize how each difficult experience I’ve had in life has prepared me to be with others in extraordinary circumstances.

It is amazing how right the timing was when the door opened for me to enter Clinical Pastor Education at Good Samaritan Regional Hospital where I learned how best to serve the sick and the dying as a resident chaplain.  Once certified, it was as if God took my hand and led me into Dr. Leslie Edison’s practice at Moon Valley Medical Center.  Since then, for the past 16 years, I have taken her referrals while rejoicing in the honor that comes to me through her trust.  I continually sense the trust bestowed on me by those whom I serve.  The lessons of life come slowly, yet surely.  And, for sure, it pays to be patient.

Actually, the best way to be healthy in life is to be patient!  And, who wants to be patient?  Nobody that I know!  Truth be told, attaining patience is a learned art.  Letting patience “do her perfect work,” as Scripture puts it, is the ultimate way to be whole, both emotionally and physically.

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