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Matt Lumpkin

Dr. John Goldingay


OT Writings
February 19, 2008

Interpretation of "A Prayer in the ICU Family Room"


This is intended to accompany the painting of a small group of people painted in black and white
connected by luminous yellow and orange beams that coalesce into a pillar of fire amidst
darkness.
During the two years before I came to Fuller, I was a full-time hospital chaplain in Little
Rock, Arkansas. In addition to teaching me a great deal about God, myself and people, this
experience left me with quite a few intense experiences burned into my memory. My painting is
an attempt to portray one of those experiences in such a way as to elucidate how my
understanding of the event has been clarified by my study of the Psalms.
The ICU Family Room
It was a friday night and I had been paged by the hospital to come and minister to a
family who was gathering in one of the small, "family rooms" provided for families of patients in
great duress (often in critical care). I knocked and was invited into the room where I found
several women whose conservative attire and hairstyle told me they were part of a pentecostal
holiness church tradition quite common in rural Arkansas. Only the women were present and I
spoke to the mother of the patient who was the eldest and most upset. Several of her other
daughters and miscellaneous children were in and out of the room, but I focused my attention on
the matriarch. She informed me that their minister was on his way but, wouldn't arrive for
another forty-five minutes or so since they were from out of town and he hadn't been able to
leave until he had gotten off work (suggesting his bi-vocational status). Nevertheless she
thanked me for my presence.
I made a mental note of the coming pastor's estimated time of arrival because it would
effect whether or not they needed further care from me, and also because outside ministers
sometimes cause more harm than good. At times it is because they are too emotionally involved
with the family to care for them. Other times they are uncomfortable with the hospital and or
death and compensate by trying to evoke some kind of preacherly persona. In addition,
pentecostal pastors have been known to contradict physicians and insist that patients are not
dying, will be healed miraculously or even brought back from the dead. When these things do
not happen (and they usually don't) it can be devastating for the already fragile family. All of
these reasons along with the bi-vocational status and likely lack of training pre-disposed me to
regard this coming pastor as a liability rather than an asset.
There was a tangible sense of dread and darkness looming in the room as they awaited
updates from the nurses regarding the patient. I left to gather what information I could from the
nurses and to let them know I was with the family. When I returned, more family and church
family had arrived and the room was over-stuffed with thirty or forty people. The pastor was not
yet there. The sisters introduced me to the rest of the family and we waited. As their numbers
had grown, so had the unspoken sense of darkness, fear, dread and pain. We all sat, packed onto
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couches, crammed against walls, waiting, as the fear of this young woman's possible death crept
into our minds like a shadow.
When the pastor finally arrived, he was young (maybe a few years older than I) and thin,
dressed in tight wrangler jeans and a clean shirt. He walked confidently and quietly to the back
of the room and got the latest update from the eldest sister, while the mother looked on in tears.
He seemed to think about what he had heard for a moment, then said, "Let's pray." Hands
reached out to hands and shoulders and knees as the room knit itself together into a web of
connection. There was silence.
The Prayer
In plain, country English, the pastor spoke to God. Slowly, deliberately he began to lay
out what was happening. Using the first person plural, "we" he articulated the fear and pain that
every person in that room who loved the sick woman in the ICU was feeling. He put words to
the emotions that had tied them into knots and spoke out loud to God about thing they most
feared: her death. He then spoke of how much he knew God had been active in her life. He
made a case for God's intervention based upon the kids she would leave that needed their
"momma," and the way her family all relied on her. He told God what they wanted to happen,
humbly but directly. As he thanked God for His faithfulness, I felt the shadow of dread and fear
begin to lift as though he had somehow drawn out those emotions from the people in the room
and released them to God, like lancing a boil. But he wasn't finished. He raised his hand and
began to speak in tongues. Slowly and calmly at first, but as others joined him the room seemed
to jump as a new energy seized the gathered family. Words poured fourth in great cathartic,
prayerful intensity as his prayer continued. It seemed that he somehow was focusing or
channelling the emotion and prayer and longing of all those in the room through him, to God. In
that moment I was profoundly humbled. This man who I had feared would cause harm, had
come and led them in a prayer of lament that led into thanksgiving, that both bound them
together as one and released them from the bondage of their great fear.
The Psalms
This experience has stuck with me because I felt it to be one of the most profound
examples of pastoral prayer I have ever seen. And yet I wasn't sure exactly why it had worked so
well. Partly it had to do with the relationship he had with the family, and also partly it had to do
with the cathartic emotional power of prayer charismatic prayer. But it was more than that.
After studying the Psalms and reflecting upon this experience I began to see the way his
prayer carried some of the aspects of the lament Psalms (see especially 10; 60; 89:38-52). His
articulation of the pain and suffering they were experiencing, especially the torment of immanent
loss for the community, was probably one of the most important things he did. As Brueggemann
suggests, the "verbalization" of the hurt, fear or pain is a crucial step in naming it and moving
beyond it (Brueggemann, 1986, 58). No one among them except the pastor was willing or able
to voice these fears and when he did so on their behalf, before God, they all breathed a deep sigh
of relief. There. He had said it. The elephant in the middle of the room had been named. And it
is that naming and describing of the pain and loss of the people, often (in the Psalms) in
heartbreakingly poetic language speaks to the way the Psalms inform how I understand his
prayer.
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But the profound illumination that his prayer brings to bear upon the Psalms is the
palpable shock-wave of release this evokes from the people, the congregation, the gathered,
wounded body on whose behalf these sorts of prayers are prayed. Further, the only way his
prayer of trust, help and thanksgiving could have been received as anything but a world-denying
piety was by first recognizing and articulating that pain. It was a necessary step in moving those
people out of the shadow of fear into a trust that God was going to bring them through this hour
of trial.
Our reading of the Psalms is so often colored by our coming to them alone as readers
over a text, it is easy to miss how this hits a group of people in deep need of this sort of prayer.
Once I connected this experience to the sorts of powerful and communal prayers in the Psalms it
began to effect how I read them as I imagined anguished audiences after the exile wrestling with
their own pain, loss and identity. I began to understand the power of this sort of prayer to unite
people of faith divided by fear, doubt and uncertainty. This sort of prayer does this by drawing
these feelings out of people through the voice of the pray-er, giving permission and validation for
them and enabling them to move into asking for things like healing or rescue from a place of
relational honesty. I saw no luminous beams of fiery prayer joining together into a column of
flame, burning through darkness and fear that day. But I would wager that I and everyone present
that day, felt that the pastor's prayer had joined us all in a communion not possible simply by
being present together. It was a communion enabled by the sort of prayer we find in the Psalms.

Works Cited:
Brueggemann, Walter. “The Costly Loss of Lament.” Journal for the Study of the OT 36 (1986) 57-71.