Prayerful Prattling

Inarticulate Groans of the Spirit… And Other Prayerful Prattling
Jim Turner

Matthew 6:7-8 NRSV
Romans 8:26-27 NEB

On Friday, January 17th, our three month old granddaughter, Isla Rose Thomson, was admitted to the Butte, Montana hospital with RSV, a chest virus that can be dangerous for children.    The next day, a chest x-ray of her lungs showed a heart that was three sizes too large.    Within two hours Amy and the baby were in the air, being Medevac’d to Seattle, Washington Children’s hospital.  Our grandbaby’s life is threatened and our daughter is distraught!  They are over 2,000 miles away!  “Lord, help them!”

At the deepest part of myself, I wanted there to be something connecting us, something I could affect toward the well-being of our granddaughter, Isla Rose and her mother, our Amy!  I did the only thing I could think to do; I phoned the hospital and asked for the on-call chaplain.  I told him our daughter’s situation, and he went by the room, spending time with her and praying with her.

Amy’s husband, Pat, stayed behind with Isla’s three year old sister, Adelaide.  The two of them flew out the next day.  Sally and I flew out on Tuesday.  That was three long days and three long nights of separation, of powerlessness, of wanting some connection with what was happening two thousand miles away!

The day Sally and I arrived, we found our beautiful three month old granddaughter with a gastro tube in her nose; a wire taped to her head; several IVs flowing into a needle in her wrist; multiple wires taped to her chest; and, a wire Velcroed to her big toe.  While all of this was to treat the RSV, the RSV was now an inconvenience compared to the cause of her enlarged heart.  She had a Coarctation of her main artery from the heart; a post-birth anomaly.  Simply stated, the aorta that feeds the lungs, kidneys and all of the lower extremities began to narrow down after birth.  This restriction caused Isla’s heart to enlarge as it worked extra hard in its attempt to push blood through such a narrow opening.  It was crucial for Isla Rose to recover from the RSV before surgery was undergone to repair the offending artery.

It began to become clear that this was not going to be a quick recovery.  Once she was clear of the RSV, Isla would need to put on weight for the surgery.  We all began to settle into “the long haul.”  Pat returned home with Adelaide so she could get back into a somewhat normal routine and Pat could get some important work done.  We spent our days waiting; hoping; and praying.

By this time Isla Rose had three medical teams: the cardiology team; the surgical team; and the “heart failure” team.  The title of the last team confronted us with the seriousness of Isla Rose’s condition.  On Saturday February 8th the physician heading up the “heart failure” team, came by.  She wanted us to know that there was an opening on the surgical team’s schedule the next Thursday, and Isla’s name was penciled in.  Isla was at a good point, she said.  Our Prayers were being answered.

While we were thankful, we were also terror struck.  We had come to accept that the surgery would not happen for several more weeks, even a month.  Now it would be in just a few days.  They would be cutting through her little chest and slitting open her primary artery.  This would require cooling her down to a state of hypothermia to assure preservation of her brain function during the surgery.  She would return to the PICU with all the tubes wires and machines once more.

I remember sitting by her bed the night before her surgery.  I was watching her sleep.  She looked so peaceful after the struggle of the previous weeks.  I thought about her little chest being cracked open; the big hands in her chest; the scar she would have running down her little chest; and I began to cry.  I found myself thinking what I had heard so many grandpas say ask over 27 years as chaplain:

“This is not fair!  She is so little and her life is just beginning.  Why couldn’t it be me instead?  Damn it!  it’s not fair!”

I thought about all the grandfather’s whose shoulders I had placed my hand on.  Who would place a hand on my shoulder?  What should I pray?  How should I pray?

The next day Isla Rose started all over.  Only more THINGS attached to her little body than before.  I counted 12 IV pumps pushing chemicals into her little body.  And the scar!   I couldn’t help looking at that bright red line running down the length of her little chest!

Eight years of training and 27 years of experience as a Hospital chaplain, and none of it helped me.  Nor could I help my daughter the way I helped other families.  I was not a chaplain now.  I was family.  I was Opa.  And this was my little granddaughter.

For days we looked for signs she was alert and knew who we were.  It seemed like an eternity before she started following people around the room with those big, dark eyes.  Finally, she gave us the smallest of smiles; which eventually became big smiles.  Our hearts and our hopes began to rise.  This tiny little patient was taking care of us grown-ups.

Isla Rose was still in CICU when Sally and I had to leave for home.  Leaving has never been so painful.  Two weeks after we left Isla Rose was discharged to the Seattle area.  A week after that she was discharge to home.  Isla Rose has required a great deal of care at home at home.   She has been seen by a Pediatrician I Butte every other week and a Pediatric Cardiologist two hours away in between.  Her progress has made excruciatingly slow.  As of last week, however, the Cardiologist said her heart improvement had been “significant” over the previous two weeks.  ”If her improvement continues at this rate,” she said, Isla Rose “should be able to keep her own heart.”  Many of you know Arthur Beale.  Arthur had made a point of praying for Isla Rose daily.  When Arthur heard of Isla’s improvement, he said with a smile “prayer works.”

Isla Rose’s post birth anomaly and crisis has confronted this retired chaplain with a couple of issues.  First, how does a chaplain handle a crisis in his or her own family?  I’ll tell you how.  Like everyone else!  All of my training, my skills, and my 27 years of experience helped very little.  I needed a hand on my shoulder just as assuredly as did the many parents and grandparents whose shoulders I placed my hand upon!  When the caregiver is faced with her or his own crisis, he or she needs just as much support as anyone else.  Sure, my years of experience gave me insight into some of the medical jargon and my encounters gave me an edge on understanding. But, it did not remove the emotional and spiritual anguish.

Second, my current understanding of God has led to a struggle with the meaning of prayer.  The last time I stood up hear I shared where I am in my search for God.  The more we have learned about our universe; the more we have learned about the many universes around our universe; the more we have learned about anti-matter, dark matter, dark energy, and black holes; the more expansive that Divine Mystery we call God has become for me.  I have come full circle to return to the Theologian who fascinated me most in seminary.  Referencing the name given to Moses before the burning bush, “I am that I am;” Theologian Paul Tillich, pointed out that am is a form of to be.  Hence, Tillich referred to God as “The Ground of Being,” You and I are beings, but God is Being itself.  Another way of thinking of this, you and I exist, but God is “Existence itself.”  If you follow through this line of thinking, we cannot even speak of God existing because God is existence.

Perhaps you already understand my dilemma.  “How Great Thou Art.”  How does one pray, not to a being, but Being itself?  Or, what is prayer to Existence?  As a chaplain in a hospital I had no trouble holding a patient’s hand expressing their fears and their hopes via prayer.  I was able to lead a group gathered for worship in prayer which expressed our joint needs.  But how does one pray to an entity that is not a being?

Yet, listen to what I’ve said telling my story:

“The chaplain spent time with our daughter, “praying.”

“We spent our days waiting; hoping; and praying.”

“Our Prayers were being answered.”

“I didn’t know what I should pray, or how I should pray.”

I knew my good friend, Arthur Beale, had been most intentional about his prayer for Isla Rose.  Hence, when he told me “prayer works,” how could I disagree?

People have often told me how many people were praying for them or theirs as if God is a Candy Machine.  Like coins in a candy machine, if you put in the right amount of prayers, you will get what you want.  I don’t believe in this kind of God.  Yet, I found it very assuring and supportive that many people were praying for Isla Rose; not because this made it more likely she would be alright, but because I felt the supportive energy.  At one point, as I became aware of how many different connections each of us had, and how those connections fanned out I became aware that the number of people keeping Isla Rose in their prayers was not in the hundreds, but thousands!  That led to a very warm, re-assuring and comforting feeling.

Tillich pointed out that if God is Existence Itself; if the Divine Mystery is Being Itself, then it is as expansive as the furthest universe, yet so intimate as to be a part of each breath we take.  In fact, Tillich talks about God being so intimate within each of us such that if God were to withhold its breath, we would surly die.

If God is that expansive, yet so intimate, would every thought we have; every intention we entertain; every emotion we feel; somehow affect both Being and the beings around us?  I only know that when I was amidst my deepest despair for Isla Rose I found the thousands of prayers; each of your prayers; to be far more important than I could have imagined  In the middle of my unfathomable anguish, even my “inarticulate groans” became prayer.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, wrote When Bad Things Happen To Good People, after the death of his young son.  In light of his own struggle he said, “I no longer look for miracles, but when I see one, I give thanks.”  I no long know the meaning of prayer, but when one is answered, I give thanks.


As we move into reflection time, where are you with Prayer?  What meaning do you attribute to prayer?  Do you identify with my struggle with prayer?   Spend a few minutes in silence, pondering  these questions and then I’ll pass the mic.