Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Our Stubborn God

Three days prior to my hospital visit, a neighbor had found Jorene lying unconscious on the floor of her bedroom. Apparently her neighbor had not seen Jorene leave the house that day nor had Jorene picked up the phone when her neighbor was trying to check on her. The neighbor let herself in the house and saw Jorene on the floor. She must have been lying there unresponsive and helpless for hours on end. The neighbor quickly called for an ambulance. As my supervisor and mentor Justin wisely pointed out to me, this neighbor is a testament to the love that old friends have for one another, the kind of love that proactively checks in on a neighbor and reacts to whatever you find.

On our way to the hospital, Justin told me that an aneurism had suddenly attacked Jorene. I knew what aneurisms were. My great-grandmother died from an aneurism and her daughter, my mother’s mother, died from one as well. They are a type of stroke where capillaries burst in the brain and render the brain without oxygen until, well, until you find the person unconscious on the floor. Strokes are vicious to the elderly. They attack without preference to persons or mercy. I knew that whatever Justin and I found in the hospital, it would not be pretty.

Now, Jorene and I are friends. She is a sweet, grandmotherly woman who stays as active as a person half her age. She eats Mexican food and drinks margaritas with the same group of gals every Friday evening (I have been the grateful guest and only person under seventy in this group on several occasions). Jorene also took me out to lunch on my second Sunday of field education this summer. She told me stories about her life, her grandchildren, her affinity for the Republican Party, and was genuinely interested about my life story and what brought me to Houston, Texas this summer. Jorene is one of a host of grandmothers who has spoiled me this summer. She is funny and sincere, caring and compassionate, the kind of person you want to hang out with.

The person I saw in the hospital that day was not Jorene. That ghoulish looking figure was a disfigured shadow of the sweet person I remembered.

Justin and I walked into the intensive care unit of the neuropsychological ward and saw Jorene lying on a hospital bed, her head hanging to the side and a plate of half-eaten food on the tray in front of her. The doctors had shaven off half her hair, and a long, horrendous looking scar traversed the top of her head where they had to open her scalp for surgery. Her face was swollen twice her size. She could not remember my name or what day it was. She could not string an entire sentence together. Her overall countenance was like a mask, glazing over her eyes with a sullen mist, as she stared off into the distance and slowly turned her eyes toward us without a glimmer of recognition.

And yet she could hold our hands. Justin took one of her hands to close our time in prayer. She slowly covered his hand with her other one. She closed her eyes as if she were trying to pray with him. When Justin finished praying, I took her hands in mine and said, “It was good to see you Jorene.” Her hands were still soft and kind. I could tell she was trying to smile at me.

I was speechless as Justin and I dragged our feet back to his car. Our feet were like cement blocks weighed down by grief. Justin’s eyes were red. He did not want to cry.

“In the beginning,” says John, “was the Word. And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” The Creator of peoples took on flesh to dwell among the people. He makes the tangible holy and the body sacred. Jesus lived in a body just like mine, just as sickly and beautiful, with cuts and sores and bright eyes, nimble hands, swift feet, and tears. Jesus knew we would not be content with a God we could not touch. He gave new worth to the human body by redeeming skin and bones. He has sanctified the material and made the body His dwelling place.

“Listen!” shouts Paul. “I will tell you a mystery. When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory!’” Paul knew God’s plan for our bodies: the body was given new worth in the Incarnation, and will finally be restored to perfection in the Resurrection. God wants to resurrect our bodies so that we may enjoy eternal life with God in the flesh. Resurrection is our final hope! It is a laugh in the face of death, the triumph over sad decay, and the victory lap around defeated evil. Resurrection makes the body new again after death has had its way. There is hope in death and hope for our wrecked bodies. God will never let death have the last say.

 Oh, that we would see eternal hope in the Table! I wonder if my congregation this summer knows what it is happening in the bread and wine in front of them. Do they see God sanctifying the material world for everlasting life with the Creator? Do they see Christ in the flesh making the flesh his dwelling place? Do they taste Christ coming into their very bodies? The bread may be broken, but it is made new again by the Spirit! Our bodies may die, but they will be remade! Broken bodies are not part of God’s dream. The table shows us that brokenness ends in redemption and the renewal of all things.

I realized that day in the hospital that I fail to see hope in broken bodies. When I looked at Jorene, all I saw was decay in all its horror. I was afraid of death looking me in the face, indeed laughing at me as it reigned terror over my friend’s body. My fear made me a worse pastor in that moment. I could not speak life into my friend. I could not utter a single hopeful word. Yes, I know my mere presence was comforting, but what would I have done if Justin were not there? Could I have stepped out of that paralyzing fear and mumbled one word of hope?

I realize now that death begets fear. Fear is death’s favorite accomplice in making us forget our gospel hope. My fear of death blinded me to the truth of the incarnate and resurrected Deity.

But now I see it. Now I see that truth that gripped Paul and made him shout, “Where O Death is your victory?! Where O Death is your sting?!” Death cannot stop the restorative justice of God. God is too stubborn for an aneurism to steal Jorene away from Him. I failed Jorene by succumbing to fear and forgetting to have hope for her recovery, in this life or the next. But God will not fail her. As John Wesley loved to say, His mercy is over all His works.


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