Her eyes appeared anxious behind her sunglasses, but that was almost all I could see of the middle-aged woman as I passed her on my Saturday-morning walk. Despite the summer weather, she was dressed for full coverage in long pants, hiking shoes and a long-sleeve sweatshirt with the hood covering her hair and much of her forehead. Her dark glasses overlapped her black face mask, worn as protection from COVID and the smoke that has filled our California skies the past couple weeks. Only her stiff slender fingers were exposed as she nervously raised them a couple of inches in a timid greeting.
I nodded hello as an attempt to connect in the awkwardness. I was comfortable in my shorts and tank top as I walked along the path. But I knew the burden of protective layers from my work as a hospital chaplain. I had spent my week “gowning up” and donning a mask, gloves and goggles in order to see patients. Many of them were facing a health crisis along with financial peril and emotional disequilibrium. It was a faith crisis for some, who wondered where God was in the midst of their distress and disorientation.
As a chaplain, I try to be a “non-anxious presence” to patients, families and staff, even in the hardest of times. But COVID-19, colliding with social unrest and environmental disaster, is something I haven’t navigated before. I have wondered many times in the past few months how to find peace in the midst of a pandemic.
Worry, anxiety and fear are a natural – and currently pervasive – response to stressful circumstances. Therapists say they have never seen so many people struggling with these issues. But I have found some comfort in turning my worries into prayer. The New Testament book of Philippians says, “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything.” (4:6) I don’t think this means that we will never worry, but that we can replace our habit of worry with the practice of prayer.
Sometimes, patients and families tell me they don’t know “how” to pray. But I don’t think there is a formula. I believe “Help me God,” is just as good as any formal prayer.
Earlier this week, as I left the house for one of my morning walks, I was feeling tense about going into the hospital. So I whispered, “God help me,” as my foot stepped onto the dirt path behind our home. I think what I meant was, “God, give me courage to face the day. God let me know you are with me. Assure me you have a plan.” But I couldn’t even articulate those desires. And yet, God seemed to respond to them.
About a minute into my walk, I noticed a hummingbird hovering over my head, reminding me of a close friend who had died of a brain tumor. A physician, he had always inspired me with his courage and compassion, even as he faced his own death. The hummingbird stayed near me for the longest time, as if to assure me that I was not alone.
A few minutes later, a flock of Canada geese flew in perfect formation just above me. It was a glimpse of nature’s rhythm that I don’t typically see until the fall migration. How surprising, I thought, yet how lovely and reassuring to see them now.
And then, about five minutes later, I heard footsteps behind me and turned around to see the runner who approached. As I turned, my eyes were awed by the glorious sunrise displayed in the sky, with beams of light emanating from the sun, forming the shape of a cross. While it didn’t change the situations I would face the rest of the day, it gave me peace knowing there was someone greater than I in control.
I don’t know what you are facing in your life right now. But if you are like most of us, I imagine you are feeling some anxiety and worry. This blog is an invitation to join me as we explore ways to replace our apprehension with a sense of God’s presence and peace. Today, I invite you to let your worries transform into prayers. It can be a whisper, “God help me.” Or a cry from your heart, “please protect my family.” Prayers don’t have to be fancy. They don’t even have to be put into words.
We may not encounter one another on the path behind my house. But I’m excited to share this journey with you as we “walk together” and search for Peace, even Now.
The sunrise on my morning walk