December 3, 2017
Hospitals - for those of you who have either been there yourself or had loved ones admitted there - are places of uncertainty and chaos, and plenty of pain and suffering. But hospitals are also places of surprise, and ask any hospital chaplain, they are places where God’s presence is real.
I realized this, a year and a half ago, when I was a patient at Overlook Hospital. It was then that my heart’s electrical system was on the fritz. Of course, there’s a medical term for this, but suffice it to say, it’s not good, because repeatedly one night, my heart kept “pausing.” A “pause” is the term cardiologists use when your heart stops beating for as long as 8 seconds at a time. So over and over again, in the middle of the night, cardiac nurses and residents had to put their coffee down and come running to my bedside. It was a long and scary night; and it was dark, both literally and metaphorically.
It was into that darkness that my night shift nurse entered. He noticed that I was wearing a ring - which had a cross on it - and he asked me [that dreaded question] what I did for a living. I told him I was an Episcopal priest, and that while I was very much accustomed to being in the hospital for pastoral visits, I was not used to being the patient, the one lying in the bed hooked up to machines. We talked for just a few minutes, and he told me about his plans to leave nursing so that he could go back to school, to attend seminary. What he really wanted to do was be a hospital chaplain. Then, as I groaned in the pain that nitroglycerin brings, he said, in a very knowing and serious voice, “You know, being sick is a spiritual discipline, it’s a very different way of relating to God.”
I didn’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to be sick. I didn’t want to be fragile. I didn’t want to be scared. And, in that moment, I was definitely not looking for a new spiritual discipline. But he was absolutely right. And what he said re-framed my suffering and invited God’s presence into my pain, and into the uncertainty and chaos of my hospital room.
Ever since then, my nurse’s words have continued to speak to me, and they even help me understand today’s Gospel from Mark. Because Mark wrote these words during a particularly perilous and dark time. The Roman Empire was intentionally starving the people of Jerusalem after a failed Jewish revolt. They were persecuting and killing Christians. And they were readying themselves to attack and destroy the Temple – depending on the exact timing, which isn’t known – if they hadn’t already. Jesus’ followers were questioning their faith, afraid that either they’d missed Jesus’ second coming or that they would miss it when it happened. They were lost and afraid, and sure that this was the end of all time . . .
. . . kind of like when your heart stops beating.
Maybe you’ve had times like that. When life seems so dark, so scary, so incredibly painful that if it isn’t the end of time, you wish it could be. It’s not easy to think about and it’s hard to hear. Frankly, during this holiday season, it’s definitely not where culture would have us be. But in the church as we enter this season of Advent, Mark’s writings draw us into an honest space - an apocalyptical time and space – and we engage with, not just one, but BOTH the themes of dread and hope. Suffering and hope. Emptiness and hope.
Truthfully, I think it’s hard to have one without the other. It feels dishonest, actually. Because without sorrow or pain or some sort of loss, hope would seem shallow . . . or empty . . . or trivial. I think that’s why I cringed this week when I passed several yard signs, advertising a particular Church, which read, “Church is fun!” Maybe you’ve seen them too. Now, I don’t know about you – and as a church ‘professional’ who would want church to be “fun” more than me? – But Mark’s words about suffering, stars falling from the sky, a darkened sun and moon do not sound like “fun!” But this season of Advent is meant to bring all of this suffering to light / to connect despair and chaos with hope / to increase our longing for justice, peace and reconciliation / and to know God’s presence in and through it all.
I also think that Mark’s words about the moon and stars, heaven and earth are meant to evoke images of Genesis’ creation story. You know these very familiar words, “In the beginning when God created[a] the heavens and the earth, 2 the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.” A lot of people jump to the assumption that that void and darkness – the deep – is a place of nothingness, a place without God’s presence. But, the creation story continues, “a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,” and God created light. That dark chaos was never without God’s presence or void of God’s touch – and it never will be either, writes Mark, because God’s word will never pass away.
Theologian and author, Bruce Epperly also sees the connection between Advent and creation. He writes, “Advent reflects the unfinished nature of creation, a horizon that recedes with each step we take toward it. [Because] God brought forth an unfinished universe, and requires our participation in its ongoing history. Jesus the Christ came to earth, healed the sick, shared the vision of Shalom, died, and rose again, and yet his ministry remains unfinished, and the world he came to save still reflects the ambiguity of beauty and brokenness, salvation and sickness. Jesus has come and we are still waiting.” That’s the spiritual discipline of Advent.
Today’s Gospel and this season of Advent remind us that no matter how bad things are, we belong to God and the earth belongs to God; and yes, God breaks into our existence – into our broken and beating hearts, into our hearts which yearn for light in the darkness - day by day by day by day. This is a season of authenticity, a season of disturbance and unrest . . . definitely not a happy-clappy, syrupy-sweet, or surface-deep season. Because neither are our lives. So this Advent, enjoy practicing a new spiritual discipline; the discipline of seeing light in the darkness; the discipline of seeing God in the darkness. That light is as close to you as your next heartbeat. Amen.