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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Nor Ever Contain the Whole

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Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.
~from the hymn “The Love of God”
by Frederick Lehman, derived from Jew­ish poem Had­da­mut,
writ­ten in Ara­ma­ic in 1050 by Meir Ben Isaac Ne­hor­ai

 

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We try to wrap our arms and minds around that which is so immense, so infinite, so eternal, so mysterious, so unimaginable — in the hope we can hold it in our consciousness, even if momentarily.

We can try with metaphor and parable and poetry and our finite imagination.

Yet God’s love permeates everything from the empty space between tiny atomic particles to the clinging/flinging forces of the galaxies in the vast universe.  It is impossible to fathom or describe.

We may try but we can’t — and simply be the image bearers we were created to be.

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Preparing the Heart: Every Stone Shall Cry

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“I tell you,” he replied, “if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.”
~Luke 19:40

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1. A stable lamp is lighted
whose glow shall wake the sky;
the stars shall bend their voices,
and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
and straw like gold shall shine;
a barn shall harbour heaven,
a stall become a shrine.

2. This child through David’s city
shall ride in triumph by;
the palm shall strew its branches,
and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry,
though heavy, dull and dumb,
and lie within the roadway
to pave his kingdom come.

3. Yet he shall be forsaken,
and yielded up to die;
the sky shall groan and darken,
and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
for gifts of love abused;
God’s blood upon the spearhead,
God’s blood again refused.

4. But now, as at the ending,
the low is lifted high;
the stars shall bend their voices,
and every stone shall cry.
And every stone shall cry
in praises of the child
by whose descent among us
the worlds are reconciled.
~Richard Wilbur

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Feeling heavy, dull and dumb,
I could be convinced
I’m no more than a simple rock
among a multitude of rocks~
inconsequential and immobile,
trod upon and paved over,
forgettable and forgotten.

I could believe
there exists no pulse
in my stony heart.

I could believe
I am incapable of love
if I turn away
from a God descending to walk
on the same humble ground where I lie.

Yet even the low are lifted high by His descent–
every stone,
even the dumb and lifeless,
shall cry out in community with Him,
even the silent will find a voice to praise.

Even my own voice,
meager and anemic,
shall be heard.

Even a barn can harbor heaven,
straw a bed of spun gold,
a stall becomes a shrine.

I am no longer forgotten.
In fact, never forgotten.
So hard to reconcile,
if the stones and barn and stalls
have known all along,
so should I.

Things That Are Not Now

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Then we shall be where we would be,
Then we shall be what we should be,
Things that are not now, nor could be,
Soon shall be our own.
~Thomas Kelly from his hymn “Praise the Savior, Ye Who Know Him”

____________

Because I finished my term on earth
and had no knowledge of either
fear nor care, no morning knowledge,
no knowledge of evening,
and those who came before
and those following after
had no more knowledge of me
than I had of them.
~Mary Ruefle from “Marked”

_____________

Whether we are coming or going,
beginning or ending,
leading or following,
rising or setting,
north or south,
east or west,
one day we shall be
where or what we should be,
even if not now
even if not now
even if not now~
we soon shall be.

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A Canticle for Advent: Go Where I Send Thee

photo by Julie Garrett
photo by Julie Garrett

Children, go where I send thee
How shall I send thee?
I’m gonna send thee one by one
One for the little bitty, baby
Who’s born, born, born in Bethlehem

Children, go where I send thee
How shall I send thee?
I’m gonna send thee two by two
Two for Paul and Silas
One for the little bitty, baby
Who’s born, born, born in Bethlehem

Children, go where I send thee
How shall I send thee?
I’m gonna send thee three by three
Three for the Hebrew children

Two for Paul and Silas
One for the little bitty, baby
Who’s born, born, born in Bethlehem

Children, go where I send thee
How shall I send thee?
I’m gonna send thee four by four
Four for the four that stood at the door

Three for the Hebrew children
Two for Paul and Silas
One for the little bitty, baby
Who’s born, born, born in Bethlehem

Children, go where I send thee
How shall I send thee?
I’m gonna send thee five by five
Five for the gospel preachers

Four for the four that stood at the door
Three for the Hebrew children
Two for Paul and Silas
One for the little bitty, baby
Who’s born, born, born in Bethlehem

Children, go where I send thee
How shall I send thee?
I’m gonna send thee six by six
Six for the six that never got fixed
Five for the gospel preachers

Four for the four that stood at the door
Three for the Hebrew children
Two for Paul and Silas
One for the little bitty, baby
Who’s born, born, born in Bethlehem

Children, go where I send thee
How shall I send thee?
I’m gonna send thee seven by seven
Seven for the seven that never got to heaven

Six for the six that never got fixed
Five for the gospel preachers
Four for the four that stood at the door
Three for the Hebrew children

Two for Paul and Silas
One for the little bitty, baby
Who’s born, born, born in Bethlehem

Children, go where I send thee
How shall I send thee?
I’m gonna send thee eight by eight
Eight for the eight that stood at the gate

Seven for the seven that never got to heaven
Six for the six that never got fixed
Five for the gospel preachers
Four for the four that stood at the door

Three for the Hebrew children
Two for Paul and Silas
And one for the little bitty, baby
Who’s born, born, born in Bethlehem

Children, go where I send thee
How shall I send thee?
I’m gonna send thee nine by nine
Nine for the nine all dressed so fine

Eight for the eight that stood at the gate
Seven for the seven that never got to heaven
Six for the six that never got fixed
Five for the gospel preachers

Four for the four that stood at the door
Three for the Hebrew children
Two for Paul and Silas
One for the little bitty, baby
Who’s born, born, born in Bethlehem

Children, go where I send thee
How shall I send thee?
I’m gonna send thee ten by ten
Ten for the ten commandments

Nine for the nine all dressed so fine
Eight for the eight that stood at the gate
Seven for the seven that never got to heaven
Six for the six that never got fixed
Five for the gospel preachers

Four for the four that stood at the door
Three for the Hebrew children
Two for Paul and Silas
One for the little bitty, baby
Who’s born, born, born in Bethlehem

Children, go where I send thee
How shall I send thee?
I’m gonna send thee eleven by eleven
Eleven for the eleven deriders

Ten for the ten commandments
Nine for the nine all dressed so fine
Eight for the eight that stood at the gate
Seven for the seven that never got to heaven

Six for the six that never got fixed
Five for the gospel preachers
Four for the four that stood at the door
Three for the Hebrew children

Two for Paul and Silas
One for the little bitty, baby
Who’s born, born, born in Bethlehem

Children, go where I send thee
How shall I send thee?
I’m gonna send thee twelve by twelve
Twelve for the twelve Apostles

Eleven for the eleven deriders
Ten for the ten commandments
Nine for the nine all dressed so fine
Eight for the eight that stood at the gate

Seven for the seven that never got to heaven
Six for the six that never got fixed
Five for the gospel preachers
Four for the four that stood at the door

Three for the Hebrew children
Two for Paul and Silas
And one for the little bitty, baby
Who’s born, born, born in Bethlehem
He was born, born, born in Bethlehem

Children, go where I send thee
How shall I send thee?
~Traditional Gospel

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.
John 20:21

A Canticle for Advent: Kind and Good

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1. Jesus our brother, kind and good
Was humbly born in a stable rude
And the friendly beasts around Him stood,
Jesus our brother, kind and good.

2. “I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown,
“I carried His mother up hill and down;
I carried her safely to Bethlehem town.”
“I,” said the donkey, shaggy and brown.

3. “I,” said the cow all white and red
“I gave Him my manger for His bed;
I gave him my hay to pillow his head.”
“I,” said the cow all white and red.

4. “I,” said the sheep with curly horn,
“I gave Him my wool for His blanket warm;
He wore my coat on Christmas morn.”
“I,” said the sheep with curly horn.

5. “I,” said the dove from the rafters high,
“I cooed Him to sleep so He would not cry;
We cooed him to sleep, my mate and I.”
“I,” said the dove from the rafters high.

6. Thus every beast by some good spell,
In the stable dark was glad to tell
Of the gift he gave Immanuel,
The gift he gave Immanuel.
~12th century carol

She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
Luke 2:7

I know a fair amount about animals and their feed troughs, having daily encounters with them in our barn.   This is “stable rude” –no fanfare and no grandiosity, just basic sustenance– every day needs fulfilled in the most simple and plain way. Our wooden troughs are so old, they have been filled with fodder thousands of times over the decades. The wood has been worn smooth and shiny from years of being sanded by cows’ rough tongues, and over the last two decades, our horses’ smoother tongues, as they lick up every last morsel, extracting every bit of flavor and nourishment from what has been offered there. No matter how tired, how hungry, there is comfort offered at those troughs. The horses know it, anticipate it, depend on it, thrive because of it.

The shepherds in the hills that night were starving too. They had so little, yet became the first invited to the feast at the trough. They must have been overwhelmed, having never known such plenty before. Overcome with the immensity of what was laid before them, they certainly could not contain themselves, and told everyone they could about what they had seen.

His mother listened to the excitement of the visiting shepherds and that she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”. Whenever I’m getting caught up in the frenetic overblown commercialism of modern Christmas, I go out to the barn and look at our rough hewn feed troughs and think about what courage it took to entrust an infant to such a bed. She knew in her heart, indeed she had been told, that her son was to feed the hungry souls of human kind and He became fodder Himself.

Now I am at the trough, starving, sometimes stamping in impatience, often anxious and weary, at times hopeless and helpless. He was placed there for good reason: a kind and good treasure to be shared plain and simple, nurture without end for all.

 

These daily Advent reflections are each devoted to one Christmas carol (or canticle) to prepare us for God dwelling among us– then, now and forever more.

A Canticle for Advent: Turn Our Darkness Into Light

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O come, O come, Emmanuel,
and ransom captive Israel,
that mourns in lonely exile here
until the Son of God appear.
Refrain:
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free
thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
from depths of hell thy people save,
and give them victory over the grave.

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer
our spirits by thine advent here;
dispel the shadows of the night,
and turn our darkness into light.

O come, thou Key of David, come,
and open wide our heavenly home;
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery.

O come, O come, great Lord of might,
who to thy tribes on Sinai’s height
in ancient times once gave the law
in cloud and majesty and awe.

O come, thou Root of Jesse’s tree,
an ensign of thy people be;
before thee rulers silent fall;
all peoples on thy mercy call.

O come, Desire of nations, bind
in one the hearts of all mankind;
bid thou our sad divisions cease,
and be thyself our King of Peace.
12tth Century (Latin)

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
Isaiah 7:14

“The Redeemer will come to Zion,
to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,”
declares the Lord.
“As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit, who is on you, will not depart from you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will always be on your lips, on the lips of your children and on the lips of their descendants—from this time on and forever,” says the Lord.
Isaiah 59:20

This haunting hymn from the 12th century is often among the first hymns sung in worship during the Advent season.  It is plaintive in its plainness of plea, calling Jesus by His many names.  In coming to us,  He will change our hearts and our world, turning our darkness into light, dispelling the shadows forever.

These daily Advent reflections are each devoted to one Christmas carol (or canticle) to prepare us for God dwelling among us– then, now and forever more.