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  • Writer's pictureDr. Neal Nybo

Afraid to do my job! What I learned about grace at UCLA Medical Center.

When I worked as a chaplain at UCLA Medical Center, I had a problem. I was afraid to go into the rooms of patients. If there was anyone else in the room, I wouldn’t go in. I was afraid I might be interrupting something. When only the patient was in the room, I would stand at the door with a pit in my stomach and practically sweaty palms. I was afraid to go in but not for the reason you might think.

Lots of people are anxious about visiting someone in the hospital because they don’t know what to say. That wasn’t my problem.

I was afraid I would do something wrong, that

I would trip over something or unplug something vital or flip the wrong switch and have the person turn blue and nurses running in challenging me shouting “what did you do.”

I didn’t need training, or practice, or supervision, or even therapy. I needed grace.

I told my supervisor about my fear of entering hospital rooms. My supervisor said she didn’t experience me as being clumsy or insensitive or inappropriate. She suggested that I take some time to pray about it and ask God to help me understand why I was so afraid. I went alone to a garden and, walking there, asked God to help me understand my fear and a memory from when I was a little boy came to mind. It was a memory I had not thought about for decades. It was a memory of a wedding reception.

At the reception, the bride was about to throw her bouquet. I had never been taught only the women at wedding receptions can catch the bouquet. I thought it was something I should do. There I was at the bottom of the stairs looking up at the bride. She threw the flowers, flashbulbs flashed, I jumped and a bridesmaid and I grabbed the flowers at the same time. I wrestled her to the floor. I didn’t let go until the bride’s father pulled me off her and set me aside. Everyone was laughing.

I’m sure no one gave it another thought. I was just a silly kid being goofy. But, I felt humiliated. I slipped backwards against the wall and slid along it until I found a door, opened it and closed myself into a dark closet under the stairs and stayed there until my mom came and found me. I know, it’s sad.

Standing in that garden at UCLA,

I could feel that little boy inside me, embarrassed, ashamed and afraid.

In a prayerful reflection, I asked the little boy in the closet, in the memory, what he was afraid of. He, I, said I am afraid I don’t know what to do, even though I thought I did, just like at that reception. I thought it was okay to catch the flowers but I was wrong. I am wrong. As a chaplain, even when I worked hard to be sure I knew what to do in any given situation, the little boy inside me whispered, “you think you know, but you don’t.

I needed to offer grace to my little self

I went back and told my supervisor what I had learned. She said I should go back to the garden and offer that little boy grace. He, I, didn’t need to be forgiven for trying to catch that bouquet. I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t need to have a relationship restored. I just needed grace. I needed undeserved and unearned approval.

Grace is approval, support, and kindness that isn’t earned or deserved, just offered.

I went back to pray in that little garden and Jesus and I invited that little boy to come out of the dark. In my memory, Jesus took his hand and ruffled up his hair and hugged him. I watched him step out of the closet and leave his embarrassment and shame behind.

I lost my fear and found my confidence. Since then, over the past twenty years, in all the hospital rooms I have visited, I never have unplugged a cord or flipped the wrong switch. And, I have never been afraid that I would.

That day, I was truly saved by grace.

Grace is not like luck or some imaginary or ethereal idea. Grace is practically tangible the way fuel, helium, and delicious smells are tangible. Especially smells. When we smell something wonderful, that fragrance is real.

We can’t see it. It isn’t touchable but it is perceptible. You notice when a fragrance is in the air and you notice when it isn’t. Grace is like that. It is powerful. You notice when grace is present and you notice when it isn’t.

Today, why not offer yourself some grace and then, find someone else who needs it and offer them some as well.

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