It’s a perfect late fall afternoon, blustery with tufts of white cloud scudding past in a blue sky. Temperature in the 40s, but enough sunshine coming through the windshield that I don’t have the car heater on while I’m waiting in the HSHS PromptCare walk-in clinic’s parking lot on MacArthur. This is how we do doctor’s visits now during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Not an ideal way to spend Sunday afternoon, but it could be worse. Debi’s inside the clinic, getting some labwork done. We were afraid they wouldn’t be able to handle it at Doc-in-the-Box, as we call the clinic, and they’d send us on to the emergency room. But we decided to give it a try. Maybe we’d get lucky.

So far it’s looking good: The longer Debi stays in Doc-in-the-Box, the more it looks like they can do the tests and we won’t have to go on to the ER. (Spoiler alert: We didn’t. Everything came back OK.) But I’m still rattled.

When we left home, I grabbed an old copy of the Episcopal prayer book from the top of a bookshelf in my office. This isn’t our first rodeo — as we’ve gotten older, Debi and I have visited ER’s before, and I know I’m not going to do any sustained reading. It’s pretty much the same, really, no matter which one of us is the guest of honor.

So I figured I’d flip just through some of the prayers and psalms while I was waiting.

Full disclosure; I’ve never had much of a prayer life, but I’ve discovered I’m more open to it in emergency rooms. Call it a variation on foxhole spirituality — there are no atheists in foxholes, as the saying goes, and the same goes for emergency rooms. In fact, on this blog I’ve created an entire category I call ER spirituality, and I’ve posted to it more than I like to think about.

Most of my posts, especially when I was first getting used to the idea, riffed off of something a punk rocker-turned-Orthodox-rabbi named Tzvi Gluckin once said: You pray when you’re in trouble. “You don’t rationalize,” he explained. “You don’t remember your philosophy lecture from college. You don’t wonder about the existence of God or the effectiveness of prayer. You pray.” I journaled about him in a post headlined “Theology, shmeology …” after some particularly scary doctor’s office visits at the beginning of the year.

So that’s the frame of mind I was in Sunday afternoon in the parking lot at Doc-in-the-Box.

My prayer book is out of print now. It’s a red cloth-bound pew edition of the 1928 version of the Book of Common Prayer. It’s stamped on the inside front cover from St. Francis Episcopal Church in Norris, Tenn. (a town I left for good in 1965), and it popped up in a box of books after my father died and my mother moved to Springfield 20 years ago. I turned to it, and journaled about it, when I was in the ER at St. John’s just before the Covid-19 pandemic hit town. So it was a natural choice to bring along this afternoon.

Things are looking better as time goes by. A car pulls up, and a young woman gets out from behind the wheel and goes in the clinic. More late autumn sunshine, more clouds scud by. The woman comes back holding a sheet of paper, gets in her car and drives away.

I flip through the prayer book (which is also available online), lighting on a prayer “For Quiet Confidence” that I thought was helpful when I was in the ER back in February and decidedly lacking in quiet confidence:

O GOD of peace, who hast taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and in confidence shall be our strength; By the might of thy Spirit lift us, we pray thee, to thy presence, where we may be still and know that thou art God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

I love the sonorous language of the Episcopal prayer book. Lift us, we pray thee, to thy presence. Hearing it every Sunday as a kid, it left me feeling a prayer had to sound like it was written by Archbishop Cranmer in 1549. If it wasn’t full of thee’s and thy’s, it wasn’t a prayer. But sitting in a parking lot on MacArthur Avenue on a Sunday afternoon with clouds scudding past in a blue sky, I can feel the presence of God. It certainly beats running down the battery, listening to the radio and checking my watch every two minutes.

Growing up, I was most familiar with the services of Morning Prayer and, more occasionally at church camp, Evening Prayer. (Communion was celebrated less often — I think there was a feeling among older parishioners it was “too Catholic” for a small town in East Tennessee during the 1950s.) Now I turn most often now to a section of Family Prayers at the back of the book, next to the XXXIX Articles, which spelled out Anglican doctrine in 1571, about the same time as the Lutheran Book of Concord. I’m sure what I do with the prayers now would be deemed heretical by 16th-century Anglicans and Lutherans alike, but it works for me.

Another prayer really hits home, as I flip through my old pew edition in the clinic parking lot. It’s one “For Trustfulness,” and it goes like this:

O HEAVENLY Father, thou understandest all thy children; through thy gift of faith we bring our perplexities to the light of thy wisdom, and receive the blessed encouragement of thy sympathy, and a clearer knowledge of thy will. Glory be to thee for all thy gracious gifts. Amen.

Oh yes, that rings true. Perplexities, check. Faith, check. It’s a gift. I worked so hard at it, and then when I gave up on ever finding it, there it was.

Some people call that grace. I’m more inclined to call it the 12 Steps of AA and other 12-step recovery groups. Admitted we were powerless … came to believe a higher power could restore us … sought through prayer and meditation knowledge of God’s will for us and the power to carry that out. Discernment, in other words. And here’s the same thing in the 1928 prayer book — asking a clearer knowledge of God’s will.

And, yes, this old prayer from the 1540s is a source of blessed encouragement on a sunny afternoon outside a walk-in clinic during a hundred-year pandemic.

Other prayers offer encouragement, too. There’s one “For Those We Love,” entrusting all who are dear to us to God, knowing that thou art doing for them better things than we can desire or pray for. And there’s one “For One about to undergo an Operation” that might work, with a little editing, for a loved one undergoing testing at a walk-in clinic on a brisk Sunday afternoon:

ALMIGHTY God our heavenly Father, we beseech thee graciously to comfort thy servant in his suffering, and to bless the means made use of for his cure. Fill his heart with confidence, that though he be sometime afraid, he yet may put his trust in thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

So I turn it over in my mind. Though sometimes we’re afraid, yet may we put our trust in God. I repeat that to myself, and I like the sound of it. And before long, Debi walks out of Doc-in-the-Box with a sheet of paper in her hand and the name of some OTC medicine she can pick up at the Walgreen’s down the street at Ash and MacArthur.

I remind myself to look up a prayer of thanksgiving when we get home; then I figure no, this one I can handle myself. I think I know what to say.

[Published Nov. 17, 2020]

2 thoughts on “Reflections on prayer in the parking lot of a walk-in clinic during a time of pandemic

  1. My grandfather was an Episcopal priest, and I have his 1928 Book of Common Prayer and the book of prayers my grandmother used for the Women’s Auxiliary meetings. When I was in a particularly bad patch 30 years ago I found “Prayers for Urgent Occasions” by the Catholics. My spiritual director was surprised they helped me. “Those are the ones we said in the “old days.” I guess after Vatican 2 they had moved on. But I was really helped by the vehemence of the old prayers.

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