Once in a while, we try to share more than just the sermon with our online visitors. On February 15th, with both our pastors out of the country, we celebrated worship with lay leader Todd Webster at the helm and guest preacher Rev. Amy Greene in the pulpit. The service began as nothing out of the ordinary, but listen all the way to the end–and hear the magical presence of the living Spirit in our sanctuary.
To listen to each section of this service, click on the link and a QuickTime window will open. Scroll down to read the text of Rev. Greene’s sermon.
My job at the Cleveland Clinic is to protect – as much as possible – the sick and the suffering from crappy religious platitudes….…and then, if there’s any time left, to help them find the spiritual resources to endure – and perhaps even make sense of – their current crisis.
My philosophy of spiritual care – which I call the Amycratic Oath, is modeled on the oath of Hippocrates that physicians take: “First do no harm.” Mine is “First try not to say something stupid and religious; and second, try not to run away.”
Both of these are much harder than they might look at first and most of us have to learn it the hard way….
Twenty three years ago, when we were still in New York and I was on my first on-call as chaplain to a large hospital, I got a page late in the evening from a young Catholic woman wanting a priest. There was no priest on call that night, so I made my way to the floor. A nurse intercepted me and told me that the young pregnant woman had come in because the baby wasn’t moving and had just learned that her full term baby was dead. They had to induce labor right away. Then she pointed me toward the door.
I entered the room and found a beautiful young woman, about my own age, sitting on the side of the bed with tears streaming down her face. “I…I’m sorry, there’s no priest around at this hour…I’m Amy….one of the chaplains….”
She looked at me with a look that still haunts me and said, “Can you say anything?”
I was mortified….fresh out of Union, my excellent theological training was nowhere to be found….it had not prepared me for this. Thoughts of my own firstborn son, snuggled safely at home in bed with Thomas, ran through my mind. In an instant, tears formed in my own eyes and I fought not to let them run down my face. I said finally, “No…this is awful…I can’t think of anything harder than what you have to do.”
And somehow, without consciously deciding (this is why I believe in the Holy Spirit) I said: “But I will stay with you, if you want.”
I remained there throughout the night as she labored. Her sweet husband had arrived and he held her off and on through the contractions. I learned that he was a doctor and she was a nurse. Occasionally she would look over at me and nod, as if to say, “stay.” Occasionally I took her a sip of water. I felt so utterly useless, so helpless. I stayed.
The next morning the baby still had not come and the day chaplain took over. Thankfully it was a nun and I felt maybe she could offer something more out of their shared tradition. I felt perhaps the ministry really wasn’t for me. I had finally been asked to do something real and had failed miserably. Maybe my peers and supervisors said nice things to me after that because I was so discouraged. I don’t remember. If they did, it didn’t help.
All I remember is that several weeks later a card came, from the couple to the pastoral care department, with a donation and a note saying how much the presence of the chaplains had helped them through the most awful night of their lives. I couldn’t believe it. But I had no right to deny it. And it changed me.
I don’t tell this story simply for chaplains, or even for pastors and other clergy who have been or will be called upon to respond to similar tragedies. I tell it to anyone who will listen, because it seems to me, even more now that I’ve been teaching it all these years, that it is what we are ALL called to do…to “bear one another’s burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ…” (Gal. 6:2) I believe this is at least part of what the incarnation is about….that we are to BE that love, in the flesh, while we also bear witness to the love of God which we cannot always see.
This brings us to the Psalm for the day.
I love the Psalms and I live in them really. I find that in the interfaith world of the Clinic, they reach across all kinds of boundaries. Judaism, Islam and Christianity all share them as sacred text.
I love them because they are the most reliably articulate vehicle that I know of for expressing a wide range of human emotion — joy, rage, revenge, gratitude, relief, fear, reassurance, helplessness, acedia, despair, courage, resolve, determination, doubt, accusatory pain, confusion (which is actually a stew of several conflicting feelings), vindication, even cynicism; and finally – like the last thing out of Pandora’s Box — hope.
As the great biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann says in his wonderful tiny dynamo of a book, “Praying the Psalms,” they “are an assurance to us that when we pray and worship, we are not expected to censure or deny the deepness of our own human pilgrimage. Rather, we are expected to submit it openly and trustingly so that it can be brought to eloquent and passionate speech addressed to the Holy One.” He says, and I shout AMEN (if I were in a Baptist church, that is), that they should be used in worship, not simply the pretty, reassuring ones. He says “It is an unreformed Church which uses the Psalms for a domesticated spirituality” and he declares that they are necessary for a mature theological understanding.
“The psalter knows that life is dislocated…it is a collection over a long period of time of the eloquent, passionate songs and prayers of people who are at the desperate edge of their lives. …We must not make the Psalms too ‘religious’ or pious…they are not religious in the sense that they are courteous or polite or deferential. They are religious only in the sense that they are willing to speak this chaos to the very face of the Holy One. Thus the lament Psalm, with all its preoccupation with the hard issue at hand, invariably calls God by name and expects a response.”
The Psalms invite us into deeper intimacy with God, if we dare. If we think they are too “angry” or too “disrespectful,” then are we not suggesting that God has really fragile self-esteem (like us)? Do we really think that if we just don’t say how hurt and angry we are, no one, including God, will know?
If we think the Psalms are not “Christian enough,” we don’t realize that Jesus, the Jew, quoted them in his most desperate moments. For all the love and familiarity of the 23rd Psalm, few people realize it is the 22nd – the one BEFORE the restoration of hope and comfort – that he quotes on the cross. And it isn’t polite.
“My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”
He doesn’t say, “Look, no offense or anything, but it sure SEEMS like you’ve abandoned me…I know you haven’t….don’t take this the wrong way.”
Good grief. How silly. He’s in agony, exhausted, bereft. For all he knows in that moment, God HAS abandoned him. Anyone in the throes of fresh grief knows that feeling, and deserves a chance to express it without censure. Anyone who has a close intimacy with God can talk this way, as you would to a good parent. Would a loving parent take offense at a child who cried out in this way? Do we not think God is at least as generous as we are at our best?
So back to the Psalm of today….Psalm 30. The Jerusalem Bible (a gorgeous translation if you don’t know it…Tolkien was one of the translators) titles this one “Thanksgiving After Mortal Danger.” I did not do my homework to find out what specific danger the psalmist had barely escaped, but I’m not sure it would make much difference…mortal danger is as dangerous as it gets.
Like many Psalms this one begins commonly enough, with thanks and praise. It expressed gratitude and relief and then those gorgeous, familiar words, many of you know it in the King James: “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” How many of us have held onto these words during a rough patch. How many of us have taken hope and comfort from this thought, coming to us across the millennia. They are beautiful words, but there’s only one problem. We may be assured that joy will come in the morning…we just don’t know which morning. This may seem like a minor detail…unless you’re the one waiting for the dawn.
A lot of people come to the Clinic, from all over the world, hoping for a miracle and find a kind of crucifixion instead. Many of them get a miracle…maybe most of them, though they don’t always appreciate it. It’s certainly a place that inspires awe…the things they can do were science fiction only a few short years ago….a face transplant? Many will get their miracle and go home, but many will not. That’s generally when they call the chaplains. When the weeping endures for more than just a night. Then what?
Well, the same Psalm that raises the question for us provides us with some of the answer. In the very next verses, after the psalmist is so lush in his praise for God’s steadfastness and mercy, he suddenly gets a little prickly. I remember the first time I read some of the lines in the Psalms with critical (rather than devotional) eyes. I was struck by the fact that there is actually quite a bit of sarcasm in the Psalms.
In Psalm 30, the psalmist has given all sorts of accolades to God for sparing him the trip to the pit, or Sheol (the land of the dead), or total oblivion. It’s not really clear what he means – is it depression? A literal hole in the ground a la Joseph and his brothers? A metaphorical place of insignificance? We don’t know. But we do see that his praise is not neatly tied up in a bow. He actually has the nerve to throw in a dig at the Divine – after he has said all these nice things. “By the way, what point exactly is there in letting me slip down into the pit? Who do you think will sing you all these lovely songs if you get rid of me? The dust?” It’s more than sarcastic, it’s outright disrespectful….even snarky. If God is as easily offended as we’ve been led to believe, it’s downright dangerous. But God is not so thin-skinned as we are…not so easily offended or enraged. This is both good news and bad, because it means we could be a lot more intimate with God if we had the nerve – it’s risky business being good friends with God. Some very bad things happen to some of God’s favorites.
It reminds me of the quote that is often attributed to Theresa of Avila but may well be apocryphal. Clover probably knows whether it’s true or not. But whether Theresa of Avila said it or not, I love it and I think the sentiment is echoed in this Psalm. She supposedly says to God at one point, “If this is how you treat your friends, no wonder you have so few.”
This is the sentiment behind the Psalmist’s outburst. Thanks for saving me, but by the way, did you need to cut it so close? It’s not like you can afford to have any fewer fans than you’ve got. It’s not as if your team is winning.
This kind of passage I think tells us it’s OK to ask. I believe it’s the surest sign of intimacy. It’s different from blaming or sniping at a God you haven’t talked to or thought about in years. If you’ve talked with God on your good days, you can surely talk to God on your bad days. The Psalms are an invitation to realize this in our own lives.
Some, though not many, of the people who find themselves in the hospital will take the opportunity of illness and injury to slow down and take a deeper look at their lives. Most will treat it as an inconvenience that they must simply endure…find a way to “kill” the time with TV and other distractions until they can get back to business as usual. But the ones who take it as a chance to think and assess can come out with a new perspective.
Many of them will ask, “Why is God doing this to me?” If they ask me that, I generally ask in return, “What did you do?” Why do you think God would need to punish you?” I don’t happen to believe God NEEDS to punish us — we do a fairly good job of that ourselves, but it’s a fair question to someone who thinks of God in that way. Many times illness and injury ARE in fact a result of our own deeds…of omission as well as commission …and a good health care practitioner of mind, body and spirit, isn’t afraid to ask.
But tragedies happen that are no one’s fault and can’t be explained by mere cause and effect. This is when the helpless and enraged cry of the Psalmist can provide at least a momentary sense of companionship. This is where we, all of us, as believers, can give permission to the sufferer to give voice to the pain, to lament without judgment, to release some of the frustration and hurt and to know it will be heard, at least by us, and maybe even by God.
At least that way the suffering one will have some small mitigating factor…that someone saw and heard their pain, that they had a witness. In his brilliant and award-winning atlas on depression, “The Noonday Demon,” Andrew Solomon says that people in the throes of depression need more than anything to not become more isolated. Though he is an appreciative user of the pharmaceuticals available to help, he firmly believes, through his own lifelong struggle and through his exhaustive research, that drugs alone won’t do it. He writes:
“When I am asked, as I am constantly, about how best to treat depression, I tell people to talk about it – not to work themselves up into hysteria about it, but simply to keep articulating their feelings. Talk about it with family if they’ll listen. Talk about it with friends. Talk about it with a therapist. It may well be that (researchers) …are onto the mechanisms through which talk heals: it may well be that certain kinds of talking activate the same areas of the left brain whose underperformance is implicated in mental illness. The idea of articulation as release is absolutely fundamental to our society. Hamlet weeps that he must …’unpack my heart with words’ and yet what we have evolved, along with our capacity for mental illness, is that capacity to unpack our hearts (or, as the case may be, our prefrontal cortexes) with words….”
Though Solomon is not a religious man and he doesn’t really address spirituality or religion much as sources of help, I think he would have to agree that worship at its best fulfills this function. I find this extra fascinating because we DO know that the Pslams were sung and that singing activates a different part of the brain. I’ve had Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, when I was a hospice chaplain, who hadn’t spoken intelligibly in months, start singing along with me – in harmony – sometimes all four verses. Amazing. Unpacking their hearts, with hymns and Psalms.
Anyway, this is my offering to you today.
Don’t just read the Psalms – sing them, say them, memorize them….let their words help you, heal you, draw you closer to the One who holds us, as Psalm 131 tells us, like contented, weaned children on her lap, or like baby eagles under the mother’s wing (sorry, but the father eagle doesn’t have much to do with the young – the father penguin does, but I don’t think the biblical writers had the privilege of knowing that). They are filled with images that do comfort – God gathering our tears in a flask, keeping them, counting the number of times we toss and turn, watching us tenderly through the night, finding us no matter how far we wander.
And then be that steady presence for each other…listen to each other’s laments…don’t comment and don’t worry. Just don’t run away. And really, for God’s sake, don’t tell those who are suffering that “joy cometh in the morning.” Just be there until it does.
As Christians we believe that it will, but real joy, like its cousin Hope, isn’t cheerfulness or optimism…it isn’t even the same as mere happiness…it is deeper, more steady, more wise, more aware of the fragility of things and more reliant on what remains. It’s grittier, more wide-eyed….it isn’t afraid of depression. It knows that depression is a form of reality check. Did you know that depressed people are actually much more likely to be accurate when they estimate things, such as how many monsters they killed in a video game, than are the “hopeful.” My mother used to say, “If you’re never depressed, you’re just not paying attention.”
We as Christians proclaim hope, but we have to realize that we really don’t know which morning will bring the dawn of joy.
On which morning do we think will joy come for all the newly unemployed, or the person who just got his cancer diagnosis on Friday afternoon as others were leaving for a long weekend, or the family members of the people who went down in the plane in Buffalo? On which morning?
And we know that no one is spared from tragedy…that being Christian will not mean we don’t also have to bear the long wait for morning when our own crucifying times come. We know, at our best, that we are not really entitled to all our blessings, any more than we deserve our tragedies.
We know, don’t we?, that life is a gift, not a given.
Health is a gift, not a given.
Joy is a gift, not a given.
It cometh in the morning. Maybe not this morning, but we live as those who have hope that on some morning, it cometh.