Many ways to pray

Some of the children were gathered, whispering among themselves. “Peter’s mom . . . ” I heard one of them exclaim before his voice died down again to a low murmur. I had stopped by the classroom to update the Thanksgiving Feast food list on the door–having volunteered (am I crazy?!) at Parent- Teacher Conference to coordinate that meal and festivities—and was standing there in my coat, gloves, and black buckled shoes, which were drawing attention. Apparently the latter two items were of interest to the young students: the wearing of gloves and buckled shoes is a marked sign—according to a children’s story they’d recently been read in class—of a Witch!

I wonder how a witch prays?

Prayer has been on my mind recently. Gene Slade, chaplain at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center, mentioned last month at an interfaith ministerial board meeting that his next clinical pastoral training class would be starting up in January. Clinical pastoral care, he explained to me later, is spiritual care—the learned art of listening and providing emotional and spiritual support to those suffering crises, grief, or pain.

I was intrigued. Couldn’t our congregation use someone trained in grief therapy? Wasn’t active listening something I’ve been wanting to develop in myself? Could it be that CPE training would provide me the opportunity and the credential to work with–reach–adolescents and young adults whose depression and existential angst I can understand?  Feeling a good vibe, I resolved to talk to Erik and then sign up!

However, my active brain soon realized,

people expect chaplains to pray!

Often in very specific ways. How did I feel about that?  Could I feel comfortable praying the prayer that a person wanted to hear?  Would a patient be comfortable with the way I prefer to pray? Are thoughts, mindful breathing, declarations, typed up questions, mental energy, witnessing grace, openness to wisdom, connecting with touch—are these things I do, technically, prayer?

Wow, that list makes me sound like a mystic. The truth is, of late, I’m a pragmatist who 1) realizes I have a hyperactive penchant for what feels like intuition and therefore 2) must cautiously distance myself from believing I must determine whether chaplaincy is my predestined calling in life, and instead 3) consider the practical affects which such an education, clinical experience, and career might have on me, my family, and my continuing bouts with depression.

And of course there is that question about prayer. “Do I believe in prayer?” I want to believe there are many ways to pray. Talking, connecting with people—in my mind, that is a form of prayer. Singing from the heart. That, too. Poetic expression, hugs, a smile. Absolutely. Even angry, passionate questions—all prayers. Do I believe I can bend God’s will to mine through sustained supplication? Not so much. Do I believe God to be a narcissist who needs our worship and praise? Nope.

I believe that whatever or whoever god is, he/she/we is right there with us. All the time. The supreme reality. I’ve come to believe that prayer, in its myriad forms, is for us—to open us up to

the reality of love.

Such a different paradigm from the self-condemning, I-am-not-worthy-to-approach-You prayers of my past which filled me with self-loathing, pain, and perfectionist dread. Maybe being a chaplain could help me explore prayer further—prayer that enthuses, encourages, and elevates. Prayer that is as living water. I’d like to continue to explore the many ways to pray.

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I’m okay (at least today) with the fact that I’m not always okay

A few weeks ago I shared with my friend, Stacy, a new perspective I’d recently come to about myself and my life:

I’m mentally ill and not going to be “fixed,” even with therapy.

Ouch, right?

No.  Surprisingly, the idea that I am mentally ill brought me relief.  “If I’m mentally ill, I shouldn’t expect more from myself than is reasonable.  If I am mentally ill, that means I don’t have to keep up the unending, self-incriminating attempts to discover and solve the underlying causes (behaviors? thoughts?) which have brought about my years of depression. I just need to work through the symptoms of my depression (and creative mania) as they show up.  Take one day at a time.  Give myself a break. Be grateful for the good days, amazed at the occasional accomplishment, and kind/gentle with myself on the days I am having a hard time.”

Ironic though it may seem, I experienced tremendous relief, sustainable self-compassion, and renewed commitment to my wellbeing when I concluded that I’m not fixable.  I now expect (rather than lament) that there will be days of depression, and when they come, I take note; talk with my hubby about what I’m experiencing; decide what I want to do during the depressive episode (go to bed? take a hike? talk things out? make a planning list?); and trust that it will pass before long.

Not sure if I am officially mentally ill, but at least today I’m okay with that hypothesis.

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The Challenge

I learned recently that two of my acquaintances, a mother and daughter, have the misfortune of suffering from frequent insomnia. Mentioning this news to my children on our drive to school this morning, I added, “The next time you go to bed and find it very easy to fall asleep, be grateful you don’t have insomnia!”

Did that sound too callous—not to mention impossible (noticing that you’d fallen asleep easily)?–

Be glad you don’t have what they have?

Not liking the sound of that, I thought of a way of expressing the idea in slightly more positive terms:

We all have our challenges–being human, as we are. But there are always positive things in our lives to be noticed and enjoyed, if we pay attention.

I went on. “For example, since Monica* and Cathleen* don’t have the blessing in their lives of being able to fall asleep easily, the challenge for them is to notice frequently the blessings they do have—such as a husband/daddy who loves and supports them. What a blessing!

“Unfortunately, there are people who don’t have a spouse or daddy to love and support them. Their challenge is to notice the blessings which they do have in their life, such as cool co-workers who make going to work more fun than drudgery for them. What a blessing!

“But there are plenty of people who hate their jobs, finding them absolutely tedious and unfulfilling, and who have no cool co-workers to make work bearable. What is the challenge for them?”

“To look for what is going right in their lives!” my kids answered. (Clever kids!)

“Right! Maybe for those job-haters, the challenge for them is to realize what a blessing it is for them to have music in their lives—and functioning ears to hear it! Maybe they go home after work and play their guitar for hours, singing along. What a blessing!”

I liked this on-going story we were creating–a fun challenge coming up with less-obvious blessings. Reminds me of Betsy ten Boom in The Hiding Place. To her grateful mind, even fleas were considered a blessing—since they kept the cruel German guards out of the barracks. When parts of our lives are undesirable, Yes, we can work toward positive change. Yes, we can seek solutions. But in the meantime, we can smell the roses. Noticing and enjoying what we’ve been given, especially during the valleys of lifes’ poignant challenges–perhaps that is The Challenge.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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