Monday, April 6, 2009
It’s been more than four years ago now that I felt a crushing grief over turning my back on pastoral ministry at the tender age of thirty-three. (For you students of the Gospels, you’ll recognize that as a curiously poignant age.)
On a Saturday afternoon out in the country in the aftermath of the horrible Paradise Fires of 2003, I pulled away in my truck after sitting for an hour with the daughter of a woman who lost her life in the flames. As we talked, we watched as a team of guys took down and disposed of the twisted ruins of a metal horse barn. It was a gesture of generosity from a heart of love by a bunch of tough guys not accustomed to pro bono. I punched up the volume of a CD and the surround sound kicked in a worship song and maybe more than any time in my life, I sensed the overwhelming power of the heart of God. It’s hard to describe. There were no voices. No unintelligible language. No digital effects. No apparitions. Just this powerful sense of knowing. A flood of peace enveloped me as I separated myself from a place of indescribable loss and drove my pick-up through a barren landscape of ash.
“If this is it,” I prayed, “then this is where I want to be for the rest of my life.”
And since then, I’ve returned to that place of God’s presence over and over again. I still feel the same way. It’s where I want to be. It’s a gift. It transcends all the other competing demands on my attention. Peace like a river even when it makes no sense.
It’s certainly not something I can fabricate on a whim. This is not the stuff of assembly line. Not as though you stir up the ingredients then fire up the timer on the oven and there it is. No, it just happens. I think it has more to do with open ears and open heart than it does formulas and five easy steps.
Last night, I revisited that place of peace. This time, it wasn’t out there in the country where a hungry Southern California brush fire devoured several good people and millions of acres of open space and vulnerable structures. This time, it was in a hospital room. The ICU – Intensive Care Unit. I was packed in with about twenty-five or thirty others. For some forty minutes, we stood around a bed in silence as we all witnessed it – twenty-two year old Brittany made her departure from this life to the next.
You can’t really prepare yourself for a moment like this one. You just let it unfold. There are lessons in it that sermons can’t teach. You find out what you really hold on to.
This body serves us well when we are healthy. When things go wrong, this body can be a terrible prison house. Almost two years ago, Brittany got a new kidney. The transplant seemed to go well. But now, as we stood around her bed, her body’s capacity to fight infection was clearly gone. In spite of the sophisticated machines and highly skilled medical team and wonder drugs filling the shelves of the pharmacy downstairs, the ravages of infectious disease went unchecked. At the side of her bed stood her parents. Her dad, a strong, powerful man. A coach. A man of faith. Helpless. And her mother – the kidney donor two years ago. Holding her husband with one hand and her dying daughter with the other.
Brothers. Sisters. Grandma. Uncles and aunts. Cousins. Friends. And a couple of pastors. All crowded in the room as the respirator was detached. Shut down.
Brittany passed quietly – the moment marked by the onset of quiet sobbing that sounded like grief. There were tears and holding and hugging all around the room. A nurse appeared, and after some checking here and there, looked up at Brittany’s mom and dad and slowly nodded.
As I stood there with the others in a silence broken only by gentle sighing and soft cries I thought of Isaiah’s description of Messiah – “a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.” And the high priest of Hebrews who is able to “sympathize with our weakness.” And when he stood with the family of Lazarus around his lifeless form, Jesus wept.
Someone whispered, “She’s with Jesus now.”
I remember as a young seminarian learning about the protocol surrounding funerals. We would be called upon to conduct them, we were told. So we studied books on the proper etiquette for attending clergy. “They don’t lower the caskets into the ground anymore,” they said. The old “ashes to ashes” was a thing of the past. Too traumatic.
Last night, it occurred to me that the hospital did a beautiful thing by allowing us all to be there, in that room, for a wonderful young woman whose life was cut terribly short. She meant so much to so many. Her heart for God took her to Hawaii where she completed a discipleship-training course. Her church loved and supported her. Her friends admired her radiant faith. Her laughter is gone now, but will be remembered. When institutions jump in and prevent us from entering into our grief, they rob of us something essential.
And last night, one more time, I felt as though God answered my prayer back there in the pickup truck out in the country over four years ago.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp 2009