When Flesh and Heart Shall Fail

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(Ten years ago this week, this healthy young college student came to our clinic stricken with seasonal influenza complicated by pneumonia.  His family gave permission for his story to be told.)

 

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Nothing was helping.  Everything had been tried for a week of the most intensive critical care possible.  A twenty year old man, completely healthy only two weeks previously, was dying and nothing could stop it.

The battle against a sudden MRSA pneumonia precipitated by a routine seasonal influenza had been lost.   Despite aggressive hemodynamic, antibiotic, antiviral and ventilator management, he was becoming more hypoxic and his renal function was deteriorating.  He had been unresponsive for most of the week.

The intensivist looked weary and defeated. The nurses were staring at their laps, unable to look up, their eyes tearing. The hospital chaplain reached out to hold this young man’s mother’s shaking hands.

After a week of heroic effort and treatment, there was now clarity about the next step.

Two hours later, a group gathered in the waiting room outside the ICU doors. The average age was about 21; they assisted each other in tying on the gowns over their clothing, distributed gloves and masks. Together, holding each other up, they waited for the signal to gather in his room after the ventilator had been removed and he was breathing without assistance. They entered and gathered around his bed.

He was ravaged by this sudden illness, his strong body beaten and giving up. His breathing was now ragged and irregular, sedation preventing response but not necessarily preventing awareness. He was surrounded by silence as each individual who had known and loved him struggled with the knowledge that this was the final goodbye.

His father approached the head of the bed and put his hands on his boy’s forehead and cheek.  He held this young man’s face tenderly, bowing in silent prayer and then murmuring words of comfort:

It is okay to let go. It is okay to leave us now.
We will see you again. We’ll meet again.
We’ll know where you will be.

His mother stood alongside, rubbing her son’s arms, gazing into his face as he slowly slowly slipped away. His father began humming, indistinguishable notes initially, just low sounds coming from a deep well of anguish and loss.

As the son’s breaths spaced farther apart, his dad’s hummed song became recognizable as the hymn of praise by John Newton, Amazing Grace.  The words started to form around the notes. At first his dad was singing alone, giving this gift to his son as he passed, and then his mom joined in as well. His sisters wept. His friends didn’t know all the words but tried to sing through their tears. The chaplain helped when we stumbled, not knowing if we were getting it right, not ever having done anything like this before.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Through many dangers, toils and snares
I have already come;
‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far
and Grace will lead me home.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail,
And mortal life shall cease,
I shall possess within the veil,
A life of joy and peace.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun.
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

And he left us.

His mom hugged each sobbing person there–the young friends, the nurses, the doctors humbled by powerful pathogens. She thanked each one for being present for his death, for their vigil kept through the week in the hospital.

This young man, now lost to this life, had profoundly touched people in a way he could not have ever predicted or expected. His parents’ grief, so gracious and giving to the young people who had never confronted death before, remains unforgettable.

This was their sacred gift to their son so Grace will lead us home.

 

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Turn Aside and Look: Eastering Up

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There is a fragrance in the air,
a certain passage of a song,
an old photograph falling out from the pages of a book,
the sound of somebody’s voice in the hall
that makes your heart leap and fills your eyes with tears.

Who can say when or how it will be
that something easters up out of the dimness
to remind us of a time before we were born and after we will die?

God himself does not give answers. He gives himself.
~Frederick Buechner from Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale

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“Let Him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east.”
― Gerard Manley Hopkins

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All changed, changed utterly:   
A terrible beauty is born.
~William Butler Yeats from “Easter, 1916”
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It has been a slow coming of spring this year, seeming in no hurry whatsoever.  Snow remains in the foothills and the greening of the fields has only begun. The flowering plum and cherry trees finally have burst into bloom despite a continued chill.  It feels like winter at night yet the perfumed air of spring now permeates the day. Such extreme variability is disorienting, much like standing blinded in a spotlight in a darkened room.

Yet this is exactly what eastering is like.  It is awakening out of a restless sleep, opening a door to let in fresh air, and the stone that locked us in the dark rolled back.

Overnight all changed, changed utterly.

He is not only risen.  He is given indeed.

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Turn Aside and Look: Trembling

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The Holy Saturday of our life must be the preparation for Easter,
the persistent hope for the final glory of God.

The virtue of our daily life is the hope which does what is possible
and expects God to do the impossible.

To express it somewhat paradoxically, but nevertheless seriously:
the worst has actually already happened;
we exist,
and even death cannot deprive us of this.

Now is the Holy Saturday of our ordinary life,
but there will also be Easter, our true and eternal life.
~Karl Rahner “Holy Saturday” in The Great Church Year

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This in-between day
after all had gone so wrong:
the rejection, the denials,
the trumped-up charges,
the beatings, the burden,
the jeering, the thorns,
the nails, the thirst,
the despair of being forsaken.This in-between day
before all will go so right:
the forgiveness and compassion,
the grace and sacrifice,
the debt paid in full,
the stone rolled away,
our name on His lips,
our hearts burning
to hear His words.

We cannot imagine what is to come
in the dawn tomorrow as
the stone lifted and rolled,
giving way so
our separation is bridged,
darkness overwhelmed by light,
the crushed and broken rising to dance,
and inexplicably,
from the waiting stillness He stirs
and we,
finding death emptied,
greet Him trembling
are so moved.

 

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Turn Aside and Look: An Opened Door

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photo by Nate Gibson

 

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Sam does barn chores with me, always has.  He runs up and down the aisles as I fill buckets, throw hay, and he’ll explore the manure pile out back and the compost pile and check out the dove house and have stand offs with the barn cats (which he always loses).  We have our routine.  When I get done with chores, I whistle for him and we head to the house.  We go back home.

Except this morning.  I whistled when I was done and his furry little fox face didn’t appear as usual.  I walked back through both barns calling his name, whistling, no signs of Sam.  I walked to the fields, I walked back to the dog yard, I walked the road (where he never ever goes), I scanned the pond (yikes), I went back to the barn and glanced inside every stall, I went in the hay barn where he likes to jump up and down on stacked bales, looking for a bale avalanche he might be trapped under, or a hole he couldn’t climb out of.  Nothing.

Passing through the barn again, I heard a little faint scratching inside one Haflinger’s stall, which I had just glanced in 10 minutes before.  The mare was peacefully eating hay.  Sam was standing with his feet up against the door as if asking what took me so long.  He must have scooted in when I filled up her water bucket, and I closed the door not knowing he was inside, and it was dark enough that I didn’t see him when I checked.  He and his good horse friend kept it their secret.

Making not a whimper or a bark when I called out his name, passing that stall at least 10 times looking for him, he just patiently waited for me to open the door and set him free.

It’s a Good Friday.

The lost is found even when he never felt lost to begin with.   But he was lost to me.  And that is what matters.

He was just waiting for a closed door to be opened so he could go home with me.  And today, of all days, that door has been thrown wide open.

 

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Though you are homeless
Though you’re alone
I will be your home
Whatever’s the matter
Whatever’s been done
I will be your home
I will be your home
I will be your home
In this fearful fallen place
I will be your home
When time reaches fullness
When I move my hand
I will bring you home
Home to your own place
In a beautiful land
I will bring you home
I will bring you home
I will bring you home
From this fearful fallen place
I will bring you home
I will bring you home
~Michael Card

Turn Aside and Look: You Cover It All

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The cup and the loaf
You beckon me close
to commune
Like fruit on the vine
crushed into wine
You were bruised
Broken and torn
crowned with scorn
Poured out for all

Chorus:
All my sin
All my shame
All my secrets
All my chains
Lamb of God
Great is your love
Your blood covers it all

I taste and I drink
You satisfy me
With your love
Your goodness flows down
and waters dry ground
like a flood
Let mercy rain
Saving grace
Poured out for all

My sin, not in part
You cover it all,
You cover it all
Not in part,
But the whole
You cover it all,
You cover it all
It’s nailed to the cross.
You cover it all
You cover it all
And I bear it no more
You cover it all.
~Allie LaPointe and David Moffitt

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On this Maundy Thursday
we are called to draw near Him,
to gather together among the
hungry and thirsty
to the Supper He has prepared
even though we are full of thorns
that will pierce and make Him bleed.

He washes the dirt off our feet;
we look away, mortified.
He serves us from Himself;
we fret about whether
we are worthy.

We are not.

Starving and parched,
grimy and weary,
hardly presentable
to be guests at His table,
we are made worthy
only because
He has made us so.

He’s covered us,
despite our thorny exteriors,
entirely.

 

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Turn Aside and Look: Make a Stone Weep

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When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen:
“Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!”
S
ome of the Pharisees in the crowd said to Jesus, “Teacher, rebuke your disciples!”
“I tell you,”
he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said,
“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes.
The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
Luke 19: 37-44

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Fíre-féaturing heaven. For earth ‘ her being as unbound, her dapple is at an end, as-
tray or aswarm, all throughther, in throngs; ‘ self ín self steepèd and páshed – quite
Disremembering, dísmémbering, ‘ áll now. Heart, you round me right
With: Óur évening is over us; óur night ‘ whélms, whélms, ánd will end us.
~Gerard Manley Hopkins from “Spelt from Sibyl’s Leaves”

 

We human beings do real harm. History could make a stone weep.
Marilynne Robinson–Gilead

 

 

Created with the freedom to choose our own way, we tend to opt for the path of least resistance with the highest pay back, no matter who we bloody, trample, pummel or drag kicking and screaming in the process.

Hey, after all, we’re only human and that’s our excuse and we’re sticking to it.

No road less traveled on for most of us–instead we blindly head down the superhighway of what’s best for number one, no matter what it costs to get there, how seedy the billboards or how many warning signs appear, or where the ultimate destination takes us. History is full of the piled-high wrecking yards of demolition remnants from crashes along the way.

It’s enough to make even a stone weep. Certainly God wept and likely still does.

Thankfully we can rest in this ultimate confidence:  He knew what He was doing and thought it good — despite enduring tears and the bloody thorns.

 

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Turn Aside and Look: April Corpse Light

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Lined with light
the twigs are stubby arrows.
A gilded trunk writhes
Upward from the roots,
from the pit of the black tentacles.

In the book of spring
a bare-limbed torso
is the first illustration.

Light teaches the tree
to beget leaves,
to embroider itself all over
with green reality,
until summer becomes
its steady portrait
and birds bring their lifetime
to the boughs.

Then even the corpse
light copies from below
may shimmer, dreaming it feels
the cheeks of blossom.
~May Swenson “April Light”

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In April we wait for the corpse light~
a mysterious illumination which comes alive
on a bright Sabbath Easter morning,
taking bare stubs of people,
begetting them green,
bursting them into blossom,
their cheeks pink with life,
in promise of faithful fruitfulness.

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