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Hospital prayer can be challenging

Religion column

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

Most pastors are able to pray through almost anything. Offering public prayer in a variety of settings toughens one’s resolve to stay the course when invoking the divine. Every pastor has prayed through buzzing wasps, crying babies, ringing phones, crashing thunder, wailing trains, sonic booms, insistent sirens and bored parishioners.

For some clergy it becomes a test of resolve akin to an arm wrestling contest: we refuse to say uncle to whatever might divert our communication with the Holy.

It has always been much easier to get into a prayer than to get out of it, at least for us clergy. There is so much to say to God and, once a pastor builds up a good head of steam, it’s close to impossible to come to a screeching halt. One prefers a long, gradual descent

Nowhere is it more predictably unpredictable to offer a prayer than in a hospital room. As the pastor surveys the terrain for the best possible prayer opportunity, a procession of people enter and exit the room with buckets and mops, trays of food, thermometers, medicine and even fast food to counteract the awful hospital diet.

Bedside phones ring, machines click and clack with medical efficiency, TVs blare in the background, refusing to be muted. Flashing, multi-colored monitors behind the patient’s bed distract the pastor. What do those changing numbers mean? Should one’s prayers be related to the peaks and valleys of those ever-changing graphs?

This week, I found myself in yet another hospital room with a parishioner surrounded by that bewildering array of metal totem poles from which dangled thick plastic bags slowly dripping unknown fluids into a vein. One visits an appropriate amount of time, takes a deep breath, reaches for the hand of the church member and begins to pray.

But barely had I uttered my third or fourth dependent clause when, in response to this patient’s empty IV bags, the machine’s warning system blared a piercing beep loud enough to raise the dead, or at least summon every nurse within a two-mile radius of that room.

Quickly realizing I was going to be no match for this merciless machine, I devised as speedy and graceful an exit strategy as has ever been crafted for a prayer, bringing what had been a serious, now unfinished petition to a somewhat inelegant conclusion in record time.

As I left that hospital room, a nurse technician fiddling with the chatterbox, it occurred to me what has long been a matter of curiosity for long-suffering recipients of prayer: Do prayers have to be so lengthy? Can’t well-intentioned clergy be more focused in their prayers? Does God stop listening to long-winded prayers?

Maybe dogged determination isn’t such a positive prayer trait after all. Maybe laypersons silently hope for an interruption bold enough to help their pastor wrap things up. Maybe I’ll try practicing the art of “less is more” when employing the sacred privilege of prayer.

Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.