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I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. –Isaiah 43:19
by Rachel Brownson
I begin most days at the hospital attending rounds on one or both of the two intensive care units I cover. Around the table sit care managers, nurses, social workers, physical therapists, and other caregivers, and I hear about the medical things that have gone on with each patient in the past few hours. Now that I’ve been at this work for some years, I’ve become familiar enough with the way things tend to go with the types of illnesses we treat that I begin each day with a pretty reliable sense of who is likely to get better and who is not.
This knowledge shapes my practice in a lot of ways–for example, the ones who are not likely to get better rise to the top of my priority list for the day, which is what any chaplain would tell you. But it also shapes the way I approach prayer with these patients and their families, and over the last week or so I’ve come to recognize that the way this approach has evolved in my practice may not be entirely helpful. When I know a patient will almost certainly die, and when I sense that the patient or family may not have reconciled themselves to this near certainty, I find it difficult to pray for healing in the way they would like me to pray. I don’t want to pray in a way that ensures that they will be disappointed when the healing doesn’t come. Sometimes I’m so preoccupied in choosing the right words for the family to hear that I realize I’ve barely been talking to God at all.
Of all the things. I, who over and over in my ministry encourage every person to be honest with God about what is in their heart, stumble when what is in their heart is a desire for a physical healing in this world, when I know that physical healing is not likely to come. After witnessing a whole lot of heartfelt prayers for physical healing go seemingly unanswered at the hospital, learned helplessness has become a large and unfortunate part of my prayer life. Why ask for what your heart really desires if you know it’s not going to come? Why get your hopes up just to be disappointed yet again?
Some time ago I attended a family of a patient who died in the ICU. The staff had called me in because the family was gathered around the man’s body praying fervently for him to be brought back from the dead as Lazarus had been. As I walked to the ICU, my thoughts were only on how I could convince the family to stop praying for this thing that wasn’t going to happen, but when I walked into the room and talked with the family, I found myself standing silently as they prayed. The man’s skin was stiffening and darkening, but a bit of their hope flared for a moment within me–what if he did? What if he did wake up? I bowed my head with theirs and stood with them for a long time as they prayed.
The man did not wake up–this is not that kind of story. But what I witnessed was a family whose faith ran incredibly deep crying out to God with exactly what they wanted to happen, with exactly what was in their hearts. And when that physical, immediate resurrection was not granted, I watched them accept this, grieve, and rest in the knowledge that he had been truly healed and made whole in God’s presence. That unanswered prayer was not the end of their faith; it was an honest conversation they were continuing to have with their God.
Do you not perceive it? God asks. I’d been working in the desert, hacking my way through the trackless wilderness of the hospital, for a long time. Long enough that I knew the terrain, knew the snarls and tangles and dry wastes like they were my home. Long enough that I could not see the paths, the rivers God was tracing through that same landscape, in places I never thought to expect them.
Where are your own expectations, your own learned helplessness, getting in the way of your vision of the new thing God is doing? Where might God be inviting you to look?
Rachel Brownson is a Reformed Church minister, a writer, and a board certified chaplain at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in the University of Michigan Health System.