Five years ago, I was working as a hospital chaplain at Sutter Medical Center in Sacramento, Calif., when a nurse suggested I visit one of her patients.
The busy nurse offered little reason for her referral, only that our patient might need “some counseling or something.”
Before entering the room, I found more explanation in the patient’s chart, which said that he was consuming multiple six-packs each day.
“Yup or ‘something,’” I muttered, repeating the nurse’s euphemism.
Inside the room, I met a man who was writhing in the pain of detoxification. From what little I know about the process, it makes waterboarding look tame.
Fixing me with a crazed look, he ordered me to “Get some (expletive) drugs, doc!” He was no doubt assuming that a male wearing a necktie was his doctor.
I took a deep breath and assured him that I was his chaplain, not his doctor.
Arming himself again with a limited vocabulary, he fired another volley aimed at convincing me that he didn’t care whether I was the pope; he drugs.
I nodded and left the room to relay his message to the nurse.
“Did you tell him that he shouldn’t talk to a chaplain that way?” she asked.
My forthcoming answer seemed to shock her nearly as much as the patient’s language.
“No. I think his language represents a kind of prayer.”
“Prayer?” she asked, with a look that said she was questioning my sobriety.
I took her stance as invitation to say more. In the next few minutes, I shared my belief that God hears our expressions of agony, loss or pain as a prayer.
These prayers can be expressed in a wordless whimper, and God hears them. They can be said with bloodcurdling screams, and God hears them. They are even vented with words that will offend the off-handed listener. The point is that no matter how these words are said, God hears them and knows how to interpret them.
Our problem often comes when, like the nurse, we close our hearts and our ears to the kind of language expressed in that level of pain. We do this because we think pain ought not become offensive.
“Pain should be neat and controlled,” we reason. That’s not the way the Psalmist saw it when he wrote, “I cry aloud to the Lord; I lift up my voice to the Lord for mercy. I pour out my complaint before him; before him I tell my trouble.” (Psalm 142:1-2)
And it certainly wasn’t the way Job saw it when he lost his entire family. “Therefore I will not keep silent; I will speak out in the anguish of my spirit, I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.” (Job 7:11)
I’m not saying we should encourage this language in everyday use. I’m saying that if God doesn’t turn his ears away from the most excruciating levels of human pain, then how can we?
At the end of the day, I like the metaphor Susan Lenzkes uses in her book, “When Life Takes What Matters.” She says that expressing our anger is like beating upon the chest of God, but “... We beat on his chest from within the circle of his arms.”
I came back to see the man a few hours later and found him apologetic for his language, but thankful that his nurse had heard his “prayer.”
Norris Burkes can be reached at email@example.com or P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759.
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