Joy and awe? Really? Seriously?!

This summer I'm working as a chaplain in a large hospital, and the work includes eight overnight shifts, on site, with a pager. The pager determines whether I can rest, and often enough the answer is no. But there's a tremendous upside: wondrous things happen in a hospital. Not just terrible things and tragic things--though of course those are abundant--but truly wondrous things.

I've done a chaplaincy unit before, and I've worked for 20 years as a therapist, so I felt confident when I began this unit that I would be ready for the terrible and the tragic: stabbings, gunshots, strokes, heart attacks, the deaths of young people, car crashes, the works. I did not expect that I would be unprepared for joy.

I experienced what I call joy when working with one particular patient, and I will now share with you all the information I am permitted to share about that patient:


There. Now you know all you are permitted to know about the patient. What follows is 100% my information, my experience, and my interpretation of what I experienced.

The "something good" caught me by surprise, and challenged some core beliefs I have about God, the universe, human beings, and human suffering. When something significant happens to humans, we invariably try to make meaning of it. In 2007 my appendix burst just two weeks after I opened a small business, and I recall interpreting that as the universe challenging me, as if the universe (or God) were saying, "You want to do this small business? Really? Okay, well here's a curve ball. Let's see if you really have what it takes." I could have made much simpler meaning of that experience. I could have simply believed that sometimes an appendix will burst, sometimes it won't, and this is one of the times in human history that it did. That is an interpretation, simple as it is. I chose to make a bigger deal of it.

When this patient experienced "something good," I felt a powerful internal urge to make meaning of it, not only for the patient's sake, but for my own. To do that to my own satisfaction, I wanted to ask the patient what (if anything) they thought or felt about the experience. Since that's my job as a chaplain, I was ethically able to do so. Here is what I can tell you about what the patient said:


There. Now you know all you are permitted to know about the patient's interpretation. Here is mine: to my own astonishment, 1) I believe that God was present with that patient, and with me; 2) I believe that God communicated something valuable to both of us; 3) I believe that our encounter with God was a true instance of a good, life-giving thing happening in the world.

This is astonishing to me because I am, by temperament, training, and formation, fairly reticent to attribute "good" events or "bad" events to God in this way. I do not often pray to God for direct interventions in human life. Usually, instead of healing, I pray for God's healing presence, which allows for a kind of loophole in case the particular healing I desire does not happen. I believe that God is present in both health and sickness, healing and declining, living and dying; but I don't pretend I know what God is doing. If patient A gets better and patient B dies, that does not mean God favored patient A. For me, it can't ever mean that. God easily becomes a monster if we are not careful with our prayers. So in this case, I was reluctant for a long time to attribute the "something good" to God in such a direct way. For all I knew, it wasn't even "good." But now I believe it was God who acted here, doing a particular thing, and that that thing was a good thing.

At this point some readers may wonder why I am in the religion business at all, if I can still be so astonished by God doing "something good" for a person. In recovery I am sometimes told to attribute all "good" events to my "higher power," most especially my sobriety, and to be grateful. I am sometimes told to even be grateful for "bad" events, or for suffering, because it's just another way God is doing something good for me. I am sometimes told that when another person suffers more than me, I am to be grateful because I could all too easily be "there but for the grace of God." But those interpretations don't usually work for me, not when I'm being truly honest. I just don't believe that God manipulates creation in that particular way. I believe instead that God 1) is always present, in times both good and bad; and 2) uses everything, including suffering and death, to bring about God's kingdom on the earth. Horrible things are horrible: genocide, abuse, violence, war, environmental destruction--these are all horrible things. Period. God does not want these things to happen. But when they do happen, God uses them; God is present with us in our response to them; God is invested; God, finally, is intimately concerned where all this trouble and tragedy and suffering will lead us. Dr. King said "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." I like that. I think that works for me, and I think it fits with my take on all this.

But you know what? I just cannot easily shake the belief that here, in this one instance, God acted more directly. God was responsible for the "something good" the patient experienced. God was responsible for me being on shift when it happened. God made sure I would meet this patient. Only God sees all ends, but God saw fit here to act. 

God acts all the time. I know that. I just share Job's hard-earned humility about the "why?!" questions. Why is there suffering? Why didn't God save those children from terror along the southern U.S. border? Why does patient A heal and patient B die? Why? Why?! When Job brought this question to God, he was told, basically, "Just who do you think you are?!" Message received: I am not God; I do not know the answers to the Why questions, and I should not presume that it is my business to know. I just need to pray for God's presence, God's peace, God's actions in God's time, and for God's purposes. And I need to pray that I might more readily be one of God's means of grace.

But man, something happened here. Something wondrous. Something that was literally jaw-dropping for me, and led me to weep in the hallway outside the hospital room. I wept with relief, I wept with amazement, I wept with joy. I was truly awed. The patient, for their part, did this:


And that is the very last thing I expected to happen at this hospital. Like the women bringing spices to the tomb in the early morning, I just had no idea any of this was going to happen. Like them, I probably should have. But ... I didn't. But let me tell you, let me sing to you, this refrain:

Alleluia, something good happened, something truly wondrous and right and just, something amazing and awe-inspiring and joyous, alleluia.