malcolm marler

on a mission to embody grace and compassion in all relationships

Month: December 2009

Steadfast in Affection

Faithful:  Adhering firmly and devotedly, as to a person, cause, or idea.  Steadfast in affection or allegiance.

I have learned the most about what faithfulness means from people I’ve known.

My father showed up at hundreds of athletic events I played in from the time I was in the first grade through college graduation.  And more importantly he showed up as a father, mentor, and friend during dark times in my life as well.  Bottom line is he was there when I needed him.

Others who have been on the sidelines of my life have also taught me about faithfulness without knowing it.  Like Girdie and Mr. Pepper.

Girdie was an African American waitress at a BBQ restaurant in Birmingham, AL for over 25 years called “Ollie’s Barbeque.” I went there as a boy with my Dad, and then in high school when I could drive myself.  I always sat at Girdie’s counter.  I ate there when I came back home for over a decade when I lived out of state.  Girdie was always there.  She  greeted me personally, asked me how my Daddy was doing, and if I wanted my “usual.”  She met me with a smile, a warm gaze into my eyes, and she always had an encouraging word.  Girdie was faithful to thousands of customers like me.

And most recently, Howard Pepper  taught me what it means to be faithful.

Mr. Pepper has sold Christmas trees for decades.  I have bought our family Christmas tree for the last four or five years from him.  We always seem to talk about our lives while I look at his trees.  Howard is 80 years old and he will tell you he “doesn’t take any medicine.”  “I work every day,” he adds proudly. His warm smile and slow Southern accent are engaging.

I remember the year when he told Mary and me about his daughter-in-law and grandson being killed in a car accident that year.  “It has been a hard year,” he said with tears in his eyes.  “But we will get through it with God’s help,” he added as he wiped his eyes with his rough hands.

This year he hugged me when I got out of my car.  “Welcome back,” he said smiling broadly.  And so we caught up on what was happening in each others’ lives once again, and we listened and laughed for a few minutes together.

Thank you Mr. Pepper, Girdie, and  Dad for teaching me what it means to be steadfast in affection for others.


Struggling with Prayer

SunsetAfter going through a family health crisis recently, I’ve been struggling about prayer and its purpose in my life.

Anne Lamott said in Traveling Mercies that there are two basic prayers, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” and “Help me, help me, help me!” It’s this second prayer about asking for God’s help that has stumped me the most lately.  Don’t get me wrong, like many people when I need God’s help, I don’t hesitate asking.  But it is still a mystery to me how it works.

When I was growing up I was taught that prayer changed God’s mind about stuff, and if we really meant it when we prayed, and had enough faith, we would get what we prayed for.  And if you got lots of people to pray for the same outcome, all the better.  It was as if God tallied the number of prayers being said, and when the magic number was reached (and none of us knew what that number was) it was like “Jackpot!” you got it.

In the last 10 days since our son’s accident, I have been praying the “THANK YOU!” and “HELP ME!” prayers a lot.  I have been very thankful when friends called to tell me they were praying for our son and for our family.  There was something about being thought of by others that has given me encouragement and hope. It’s a reminder to me that others love me and that makes a huge difference when you are feeling alone and vulnerable.

But I’ve also been thinking about the other people in the Emergency Room who possibly didn’t have anyone praying for them. Or those persons who did not know how to pray.  Those who felt alone, isolated, or cut off from any higher power or love from others for that matter.  And if that really matters to God in terms of God being with them. Personally, I believe God is with us whether we ask God to be present or not, whether we are aware of it or not.  I believe God is present whether we are going through the “getting better” stage or the “getting worse” stage.

So I don’t have any final answers about what prayer means to me today. I seem to be more sure about what I believe prayer is not.

I do not believe that prayer is a gamble. I do not believe prayer is a slot machine where if you put in enough prayers you finally hit the jackpot.  Some people play that game all of their lives and become bitter and spiritually bankrupt when their number never comes up.

I do believe that I feel love and hope from others when they tell me they are praying for me. I don’t know if prayer changes God or not, but it does change me. Maybe that is the real purpose of prayer?  When I pray, or when others pray for me, my perspective on life shifts.

I don’t have this one figured out, it is a mystery to me.  I have no tidy answer.

Pray for me.  I will pray for you.

And let us both pray for those who have no one to pray for them. Pray they will know they are not alone.

Anything But Routine

UAB TRAUMA HELICOPTERRoutine:  “an unvarying or habitual method or procedure.”

Even though I work at hospital, my work can still be routine at times. In the Pastoral Care department, we are usually called during critical times with patients and families, as well as making routine visits on various units.  This happens every day.  It is all part of what we do as healthcare workers.

But when you are on the receiving side of the caregiving equation in the hospital, I had a reminder recently that it is anything but routine.

Malcolm, I’ve had an accident,” he said.  “Are you hurt?” I quickly asked while thanking God it was his voice calling me from his cell phone and not a state trooper.  “I’m hurt a little, but the car is bad,” he offered apologetically.  At this point you realize just how insignificant a ton of steel and leather really is. You can find another car.

“Where are you?  I will be right there,” I said as I quickly hung up the phone.

My emotions bounced like a float bobbing on the ocean with a hurricane on the horizon.

After what seemed like an eternity, medical professionals made the decision to put him on a helicopter to get him the help he needed as quickly as possible.  He was flown to the hospital where I work.  It is hard to describe how we felt when we got into our car to drive to the hospital while seeing that life-saver helicopter loading our son as its passenger.

When we got to the hospital, we listened for any encouraging, hope-filled words, and we clung to them by repeating them over and over to one another, “It could have been so much worse.”  We all knew what that meant.  “He will eventually be ok,” we said.

The Emergency Department sprung into action with its own finely-tuned routine with different specialists coming in and out of the room, examining him, asking questions how this happened, and explaining diagnoses and treatments.  MRI’s, X-rays, and other tests were  repeated over and over again.  Wounds were cleaned, stitches carefully given.  After awhile, we felt numb, our heads were swimming, and we had some confusion between the two of us if our son would have “just a back brace” or “surgery” or both.

While it was hard to remember some things, one thing we did remember was the young nurse in the ER who stood just outside the room in the Emergency Department with my wife as she took the time to listen to fears, questions, and anxieties that came pouring out.  Compassion and kindness go a long way when you are scared and tired.  I remember my former supervisor and close friend, Dr. Jim Raper, showing up in the ER and being present with us until midnight on Thanksgiving Eve to interpret what the medical team was saying and doing.  That meant more to me than he will ever know.

Finally, a plan was announced and surgery was scheduled for the next day.  It was the first of many nights where we would be sleep deprived.  Simple, routine tasks like deciding which clothes to throw into a bag for the next day were amazingly challenging.  At times we stared at one another with fear and tears, and other times with thanksgiving and gratitude.

The experience was surreal.  We hoped that it was all a dream.  But we knew better.

This time, thank God, our son would be ok after many weeks of convalescence at home.

And we could not stop saying under our breath, “Thank you God, thank you God, thank you God.”

At the same time, I am aware that many other patients and families are not as fortunate.  I don’t know why.  Perhaps there is no “reason” as some well meaning friends tried to explain why this all happened as they tried to comfort us.  Some of the patients who come into the ER go home paralyzed.  Some die.  I especially remember feeling guilty on that first long night when I looked across the hall in the ER and saw a family with their faces in their hands as they tried to absorb the worst news that all of us in that place feared the most.

After being at the hospital and sleeping in shifts for an hour or two at a time on a fold-out couch, we said thank you to the hospital nurses, nursing assistants, doctors, and chaplains.  But no matter what we said, it never seemed like enough.

And then the day came when I was one of the healthcare workers again, instead of a family member of a patient.

But I noticed a difference this time.

The first family I met on my first day back was one who had experienced an even more serious automobile accident than my son had experienced a few days earlier, but with a grave outcome.

And I remembered this time that nothing is routine.  For them, or for me. And so I cared for them as if they were my own family.

Because now I know the truth.  There is a thin veil between “them” and “us.”

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