I squared my shoulders and leaned forward in my chair. My hands routinely folded themselves in front of me, and I asked the question I hated most to ask: “Is there anything I can do for you as a chaplain, such as offer a word of prayer?” I cringed as I spoke. I was a Christian serving as a hospital chaplain, and with a label like that, I had to ignore my anxiety with prayer. To my discomfort, the patient gladly accepted my offer; however, she took my invitation to the next level. She didn’t want a liturgical prayer from a divinely edited text or whimsical verses that fit her situation. No, she wanted me to pray because she had a request: “I want you to pray that I get a cheeseburger, fries, and ketchup.” Each word hit me like a ton of bricks. That’s not a Christian request; that’s not a kosher request of any religion, I thought. But I had to pray it; after all, I was a chaplain. I became like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, a gigantic insect confused by its own identity and unable to make sense of its new role in the same world. Her request reduced me to a bug on its back, waving its thin, little legs in hopeless desperation. So I prayed. My divinity school didn’t prepare me for a request like this. I should have taken the course entitled Spirituality and Fast Food: A Match Made in Prayer, but I blew that opportunity when I opted for a class on Luther’s theology. Nevertheless, I found myself submersed in a prayer that contained some form of the quote, “Dear God, please give this woman a cheeseburger, fries, and ketchup.” And just as fast as it started, my prayer ended with a nice, neat amen-caboose. When we opened our eyes we paused and stared at each other. “Where is it?” she asked. “Where are my cheeseburger, fries, and ketchup?” I had nothing. I tried to think of something, some little tidbit of theology from Niebuhr or Aquinas or Tillich or the other Niebuhr, but the greatest minds of Christian thought would have crumbled under this request. The only response I had was from Whitman’s Song of Myself: “I answer that I cannot answer.” Prayer—what is it good for? This patient’s unusual request caused me to examine my beliefs and ask critical questions concerning my god. Did I believe in a yes-god whom I controlled under my thumb? If I could dictate God’s will with the drop of a prayer, then I would be my god because I would be in control; however, I couldn’t even deliver this woman a happy meal, let alone bring an end to the War in Iraq, poverty, and American Idol. Then it hit me, like a quarter-pounder with cheese: I realized that prayer gave voice to the desire and love for life—even if that desire and love manifested itself in the form a cheeseburger, fries, and ketchup.
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