Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not rely on your own insight.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths. — Proverbs 3:5-6 (NRSV):
Our prayer doesn’t change God’s mind, it changes us. It helps us change our own minds and hearts. It deepens our trust in God and our confidence that God really does love us. Even if we think we don’t get what we pray for, our consciousness of God’s nearness is heightened and transforms us into conduits of God’s love and care. We become aware that God is near, that God never turns away from us and is, indeed, within us. — Sr. Mary Jean Traeger OP, “What is prayer? How does it work?” Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Illinois
It’s been 10 days now since I was in the hospital, and I’ve been so preoccupied with other things — ranging from last week’s psychodrama on Capitol Hill to a broken-down refrigerator that had to be immediately replaced at home — I couldn’t find time to journal about it. But I do want to record a couple of insights I had while they’re still relatively fresh in my mind.
Not unsurprisingly, the insights have to do with prayer. There’s something about hospital emergency rooms that’s conducive to prayer. And, if nothing else, you have plenty of time for reading while you’re waiting for test results to come back.
Since they do a lot of testing in the ER, I did a lot of reading.
All week I’d been getting more winded than usual when I had to walk any distance. I’m not sure the cause of this yet, but it seems like it’s been getting more pronounced since I started chemotherapy in December. According to my hospital discharge papers, I was admitted because of COPD, hypoxia, the term for low blood oxygen levels, and “SOB,” which doesn’t mean what you think it does! (I did get a chuckle out of it, though, and no doubt I’m sure there are plenty of people around who think it’s more accurate than I do.) It’s an abbreviation for shortness of breath, and my inner SOB was acting out enough Thursday night that I was admitted overnight for observation. More reading time.
When the ambulance first came, I picked up two books to take with me. One was especially appropriate for the occasion. It’s titled Deeper into the Mess: Praying Through Tough Times, by Brendan McManus SJ and Jim Deeds. I’ve been reading several of McManus’ books and articles lately, and they’ve been helping me, well, through tough times. The other, which I grabbed more or less by accident, also turned out to be appropriate. It was Speaking of Trust: Conversing with Luther about the Sermon on the Mount by Martin Marty, emeritus professor of church history at the University of Chicago and one of my favorite authors.
In the ER, I leafed through Deeper into the Mess. It’s basically a collection of prayers and meditations loosely based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order. I was looking for something that would be immediately helpful, and I found it in a meditation on fear.
“Even though [fear] is safe,” say McManus and Deeds, “it is airless and isolating. […] The tragedy is that we don’t get to use our God-given talents and the world is poorer for that.” I hadn’t thought of it quite that way; in fact, I wasn’t entirely convinced. For one thing, I wasn’t sure how safe I felt reading it in an emergency room bay with monitors beeping and incoming trauma cases being wheeled past out in the hallway. But I was intrigued, so I read on.
McManus’ and Deeds’ meditation sounds the same theme — fear has “a positive role in warning us of danger,” but it “leads only to a sterile isolation.” Relying on a technique of Ignatian spirituality sometimes known as asking for a grace, they counsel:
Take some time to pray with the problem, acknowledging that excessive fear is not what God wants and asking for help to overcome it. Pray for a specific grace of gift from God, the ability to overcome fear in order that we can carry out God’s will and use our gifts in the service of others.
And with this, the parts that had puzzled me started coming together.
Definite echoes in McManus and Deeds, too, of the 11th Step of Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step recovery groups: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood [God], praying only for knowledge of [God’s] will for us and the power to carry that out.” McManus has worked extensively with alcoholics and addicts in Belfast, so it stands to reason he’d be familiar with the 11th Step. But it’s good advice for everybody. And it resonated with me in the ER. He and Deeds continue the meditation:
Ask for the spirit of courage and bravery to fill your heart with love and help drive out fear. Realise that you are more than your feelings, and that your spirit of courage within you will win out.
To that end, they pose three questions. I had a legal pad with me in the ER, so I took notes. They were pretty sketchy — have you ever tried to write with a pulse oximeter strapped to your index finger? — but the questions and my answers went like this:
- What are your gifts and talents? Writing, teaching, empathy, humor.
- What is the fear or block that cripples you? Illness, suffering, death, leaving things undone.
- How can you pray with this — what is the specific grace you need? I scribbled “top of page,” I couldn’t think of anything I needed more at the moment, or that can give me guidance going forward, than to overcome fear so I can know God’s will and carry it out in the service of others.
It’s a week later now, and I still can’t improve on that.
A Lutheran take: Trust in God
Sometime well after midnight, I was admitted to the hospital for observation. A night shift doctor came by my room along toward dawn and said all indications were that I was experiencing an exacerbation of my COPD, which I’ve been managing for more than 20 years, and they wanted to monitor my white blood cell count for a day, but the plethora of tests they’d run in the ER came back “negative for all the bad stuff.” That sounded about right, and it did as much as the spiritual exercises to lessen the fear I’d been feeling. The doc said it was likely exacerbated by anxiety, too. (An exacerbation of an exacerbation? That sounded just about right, too.) McManus and Deeds no doubt would say fear had something to do with it, and I think they would have a good point there.
That was early Friday morning. By Saturday, my bloodwork was looking better and I was discharged with instructions for follow-up visits with my oncologist and my primary care provider. Also a revised order for supplemental oxygen as needed — like when I have to walk any distance — in the daytime at home.
In the meantime, I had a day to catch up on reading. So I turned to the copy of Martin Marty’s Speaking of Trust I’d taken with me to the ER by accident. Debi and I had considered it for “Sundays@6,” an online adult faith formation discussion group we facilitate for our Lutheran congregation, and it happened to be on a bedside stack of books next to Deeper into the Mess. So I scooped them both up when the ambulance came Thursday night.
It’s an interesting book — just about everything Marty writes turns out to be interesting — a collection of readings from Luther on the Sermon on the Mount, followed by Marty’s commentary on each. It’s been on my stack of books to give a second reading because I’ve been working on trust since I was diagnosed with cancer back in the fall. Trust in my doctors, trust in my own ability to endure and, not least of all, trust in God. In an introductory chapter, Marty suggests that Luther’s theology of justification by grace through faith is grounded in a radical trust in God:
Luther […] often defines faith not as a “belief that” doctrines are true, though that also works. More often, faith means “belief in,” in this case belief in God as Creator, Jesus as Savior, and the Holy Spirit who calls us to faith and communion.
Luther’s concept of justification has kind of a 1520s vibe to it, frankly, that gets in my way. But a God that created the universe, walks with humankind in some undefinable way and calls us to faith and communion — that I can believe in. And there’s something like it in Luther’s commentary on Matthew 6:34, “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow.” To this, Luther says “no one can accomplish anything except when the hour comes that God gives as a free gift without our anxiety.” He adds, “God works it all this way to keep us from supposing that our anxiety necessarily brings His blessing. But we refuse to wait for God to add these good things to us. Instead we insist on finding them for ourselves before God gives them.”
Trust in God, in other words.
To Luther’s commentary, Martin Marty adds his own. When his first wife was terminally ill, he recalls, it was especially difficult not to think about tomorrow. Marty notes that Luther frames Matthew 6:34 as a question — “[God] says now: ‘Why be concerned about more than the present day and take on the troubles of two days?'” With that in mind, Marty continues the story:
Then a good counselor asked my wife and me the same question: Is the pit-deep anxiety you feel “about” today? We would think hard. No. We had awakened to another day with its mix of troubles and brighter spots. We knew we had strength for today. We were concerned about some faceless, dateless, unknown tomorrow. Then the Sermon on the Mount type question: “Do you think that God will get you through every day but the one you most need God, most rely on God?” No.
After realizing that “no” we could move forward, knowing that the strength and courage promised and needed would be supplied on the day that counted, when it came. It was.
There are definite echoes of 12-step spirituality here, too. Go into a room where Alcoholics Anonymous or another 12-step group meets, and you’re likely to see slogans, or affirmations, like “One Day at a Time” and “Let Go and Let God” in cheap diploma frames on the wall. “One Day at a Time,” says Jordana White, writing for an official AA resource center, is “one of the best-known AA sayings” and a “major principle of mindfulness.” It’s also what Luther and Martin Marty find in the Sermon on the Mount. The other slogan, “Let go and let God,” is a quick summary of the nuts and bolts of 12-step recovery. And of prayer.
Trust in God. Luther comes right out and says it in his Large Catechism (quoted here on a Baptist minister’s blog). After asking the usual catechism-type questions — “What does this mean, and how is it to be understood? What does ‘to have a god’ mean, or what is God?” — Luther says:
Answer: A “god” is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust and believe in that one with your whole heart. As I have often said, it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one. Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.
Luther’s 16th-century polemics about “true” and “false” religion aside, this reminds me more than a little of German-American theologian Paul Tillich. It might be more accurate to say that Tillich’s concept of God as the “ground of being,” faith in whom is a matter of “ultimate concern” for humankind, is more reminiscent of Luther than the other way around. Tillich was an ordained German Evangelical Lutheran minister, in addition to his academic credentials, and his father was a pastor in the old Evangelical State Church of Prussia, which combined Lutheran and Reformed, or Calvinist, beliefs. But that’s another topic for another day.
For today, just for today, it’s enough for me to let go, to trust God and pray for the grace, or ability, to overcome fear in order to carry out God’s will and use my gifts in the service of others.
Links and Citations
Martin Luther, “Luther on Idolatary and Trust,” ed. Andy Naselli, excerpt from Large Catechism, in The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wenger (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000) https://andynaselli.com/luther-on-idolatry-and-trust.
Martin Marty, Speaking of Trust: Conversing with Luther about the Sermon on the Mount (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003), 17, 48-49, 53, 112.
Brendan McManus and Jim Deeds, Deeper into the Mess: Praying Through Tough Times (Dublin: Messenger Publications, 2019), 73-74.
Susanne Reed, “What Does It Mean to ‘Let Go and Let God’ in AA?” Alcoholics Resource Center https://alcoholicsanonymous.com/what-does-it-mean-to-let-go-and-let-god-in-aa/.
Sr. Mary Jean Traeger OP, “What is prayer? How does it work?”Dominican Sisters of Springfield, Illinois https://springfieldop.org/what-is-prayer-how-does-it-work/.
Jordana White, “What Does It Mean to Live One Day At a Time?” Alcoholics Resource Center https://alcoholicsanonymous.com/one-day-at-a-time-aa/.
[Revised and published Jan. 12, 2023]
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