Some hospitals convert closets to chapels by adding a table and a Bible and a chair. Our hospital chapel is deceptively beautiful. We have simple stained glass, wood walls, upholstered chairs, designed colors. There are fifty chairs and a keyboard. There is a blown-glass font, a small side chapel where the Tabernacle holds the host for the Catholic masses.
It is a beautiful, quiet, calming space, where I once found a woman weeping at the base of the stained glass cross. We prayed. Her child eventually recovered. But it’s a constant reminder that in hospitals, beauty and pain are always present.
Each Sunday, I stand in that chapel. Nancy, my wife, plays a brief prelude. I welcome the people watching the service live or by recording. I read a psalm, we sing one or two verses of an old hymn. I read the reading from the Old Testament, and a reading from the New Testament. And then I pray.
When I started as a hospital chaplain, I didn’t write out my prayers. I’m from a tradition that is more spontaneous. But somewhere along the line, I realized that I wasn’t very coherent in my spontaneous prayers. Because I’m a hospital chaplain. And on any given Sunday morning, before the service I’ve talked to a family expecting their loved one to die before the day is over. I’ve responded to the Emergency Department where a person heading to church ran off the road. I’ve been part of a search for family for someone who has no one close. I know that before the day is over, my colleagues and I will witness death.
So I started writing my prayers.
I have a confession.
I wanted to be theological and scholarly in this preface. I wanted to talk about public pastoral prayer in a way that is thoughtful and profound.
I wanted to explore the Biblical history of people who stand in front of groups of God’s people and lead them in prayer. Nehemiah, who taught me about private and public prayer. Mary, who composed the Magnificat during a long walk to her relative’s house. The Apostles, crying out to God for boldness after being threatened by the rulers, elders, and teachers of the law. Jesus, who gave the disciples training wheels for prayer and provided unknown examples and a handful of recorded models.
I wanted to talk about the way that prayer changes when it is public. Public prayer often feels like a mixture of performance and preaching for-or at-an audience. And, in truth, it is a little of both. The presence of an audience always changes communication. And I wanted to go to my roots as a rhetorical scholar to explore what is happening.
I wanted to reflect on what might be happening when in prayer we “have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
I confess. I wanted to measure up to the great thinkers and writers and practitioners on prayer. I wanted to get this right.
But at its best, public, pastoral prayer, isn’t a scholarly pursuit. It stands in a humble, holy place in the presence of God and the people. The person leading the prayers of the people is giving voice to the deepest needs and desires of a group of people who felt those things but couldn’t name them. The person leading the prayers is giving them permission to feel those needs and desires. The person leading the prayers is revealing some of the brokenness of being human.
And so, this book isn’t a scholarly work. It’s a collection of the prayers lived and offered during a year of Sundays in a hospital chapel by a hospital chaplain.
In our chapel services, we use the Revised Common Lectionary to determine the Biblical texts for each week. And we follow the liturgical year, starting with the first Sunday of Advent. The structure connects our services to the services people may be missing in their home church, if they have one. And for those who have no congregation and are in the hospital for an average of four days, it still gives a structure.
Every Saturday, I look at the texts and I think about the death and illness and injury that have been present in the rooms of our hospital, in the lives of the people I’ve talked with and prayed with. In my own life.
Every Saturday, I take a pen or a keyboard, and I start to talk with God about what I and others feel, what I and others confess, what I and others ought to know about God but don’t actually believe.
As I talk with God on Saturday, I am aware that I don’t know what will be happening when I read these words at 10:30 on Sunday morning in a hospital chapel. Death, stillbirth, heart attack have all happened early on Sunday mornings. And so, I do my best to be honest. To remember promises instead of platitudes. To be trusting. To acknowledge doubt. To ask for peace that is miraculous because it doesn’t make any sense in these moments. To lament and confess and draw close.
Every Saturday, after I talk with God as I write, I put the prayer in my notes for Sunday, and I put it in a blog post at 300wordsaday.com, to be shared early Sunday morning with a group of faithful readers. Because public pastoral prayer needs to be heard and joined by people. And there are online friends who will keep me honest.
This book is a collection of the written prayers offered on behalf of myself and the people in the rooms during one year, Year C in the Lectionary.
Some notes and acknowledgements:
I was not in the chapel on three Sundays during this year, but I included the prayers I offered online for those weeks.
I am grateful to Nancy for coming to chapel every week and for walking through life together since 1982, even during those times this year when she couldn’t walk. Nancy and I live through and process the experiences and faith reflected in these prayers.
I am grateful to Patrick Riecke, Teresa Wedler, and Lydia Miller who hired me as a chaplain and then assigned me to Sundays. And have built a remarkable chaplaincy team. And for Patrick including me in the “Resources on Faith, Sickness, Grief and Doubt.” Patrick, Kristen, and I are building a helpful set of tools together.
I am grateful to Parkview Health System for remarkable coworkers and resources. The intercessions and opinions in these prayers are my own work and do not necessarily reflect Parkview.
I’m grateful to Brian Spahr and Father James Bromwich for being friends and being willing to write the Foreword and Afterword. Father James taught me that when Catholics didn’t raise their heads when I finished praying in their rooms, I needed to say “Through Christ our Lord.” And I’m grateful for Jen Bradbury’s blurb. Jen’s passion for considering our Christology guides me more than she knows. Until now.
I’m grateful to Hope Swanson Smith for that last format alignment of titles and punctuation. And for coffee and walks and a (your) lifetime of being dad and daughter.
I am grateful to God for listening.
- I wrote about my conversations with Nehemiah in A Great Work. ↵
- My PhD is in rhetorical theory and criticism, not theology. So I think often about prayer and the Bible from a communication with God perspective. ↵
- Hebrews 12:22-24. ↵
- A lectionary is a schedule of Bible readings most often arranged according the liturgical calendar. For each Sunday, there is a Psalm, and readings from the Old Testament, the Epistles, and the Gospels. The readings are in a three year cycle. The authoritative print source is The Revised Common Lectionary: Twentieth Anniversary Annotated Edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 2012. A web version of the lectionary is at https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/ ↵