This morning, I want us to grapple with one of the most universal and troubling facts of human existence. Though every last one of us would have it otherwise, it is an unavoidable reality that during our lifetimes people close to us will become sick, suffer great pain, and, in some cases, die. It seems crucial that we be unafraid here in this religious community in acknowledging the tragic dimension of life, for surely there is no one here in this room this morning who can reasonably expect to escape the agony of watching other human beings, for whom we love and care, go through pain and death. Ours is a profoundly mortal creation, and though we often live our lives as though it is otherwise, the truth is that to live is to suffer the vulnerabilities and vicissitudes of the flesh. So if we are to live out our years with wisdom, compassion and health, it seems essential that we prepare ourselves psychologically and spiritually for those inevitable times when we will be asked to share life with those for whom life is painfully slipping away.
Surely such times are amongst life's most difficult. One of the toughest things any one of us can face is the helplessness and anxiety we feel when we are obliged to watch someone dear to us suffer. It's almost worse, I think, than suffering the same infirmity yourself. I doubt that there is any human being alive who does not feel profound discomfort, anger, and angst watching a loved one endure disease, pain, or death. I have never met anyone who did not find dealing with human tragedy close at hand a heart-wrenching and disquieting thing. No matter how many times I am invited as a minister to share in the tragedies of others, I know, and pray, that I shall never develop an immunity to the hurt my own heart feels when I must stand by and witness the suffering of others.
No matter how wise or brave or worldly we might be, we all face a real crisis when life demands that we be near the suffering of others. When a family member, neighbor, or dear friend must battle disease, debilitation or death, we never know quite how to handle ourselves. Even the most adept of us never know quite what to do, what to say, how to help. We tend to feel terribly awkward and inadequate. We quite naturally want so intensely to make it all better. to take away the pain or problem...to find a solution, speed a recovery, engineer a miracle...even when such things are not possible. The greatest human tragedies occur, in my experience, not when the trouble strikes our loved one, but rather when our feelings of anxiety, helplessness and discomfort with their pain cause us (unconsciously and unwittingly of course) to flee the situation, to avoid the person or deny the reality of what is happening. If a decade in the ministry has taught me anything, it has taught me this: when illness and pain strike, the most important medicine is other persons, other ordinary human beings who stay close and caring, no matter what.
And I believe that if we spiritually challenge ourselves to think and feel about just how we can and should be with others in the midst of their tragedies, we can actually learn how to become much more—helpfully human in such difficult times. For I believe with all my heart and soul that there is "a way" to be with hurting human beings that can make a real, positive, healing and redeeming difference. And the curious thing is that this redemptive way is so close at hand that we often lose sight of it.
The reading was the familiar story of the Garden of Gethsemane, when Jesus, knowing in his heart that he faces almost certain death the next day at the hands of the Roman authorities, goes to that beautiful place to relieve some of his suffering and pain through prayer. His is a very private crisis of the soul, but the key to the story, it seems to me, is that he does not go to the garden alone. He asks three of his beloved friends, Peter, James and John, to attend him. In the part of the story I find most significant, Jesus, troubled and tormented as he is, asks only one simple thing of his dear companions. "Sit here while I pray," he implores, "remain here and watch." He doesn't ask them to spirit him away from the danger, or wrestle with God for him, or offer him theological comfort, or suggest some political solution for dealing with Pilate, or even to go the next day to be crucified for him. He only asks that they stay awake, that they stand the nightwatch with him, remaining attentive to his pain and sorrow.
And the story tells us how Peter and James and John sadly fail their friend Jesus. For they fall asleep on him....not once, but three times. Out of their own fear or exhaustion or selfishness or indifference, we must suppose, they are unable to simply stay awake in his hour of deep need. And Jesus' pain is magnified many times by the aloneness he feels in the midst of his friends.
By the shadow of negative example, this story speaks with a powerful clarity as to just how we must strive to be with loved ones who are in profound personal pain. For, in fact, all that is usually requested and required of us, all that should be asked of us, is to stay awake when persons near us are swept into suffering. Our human job is to stand faithfully the night watch…not to fall asleep…absolutely refuse to abandon the one who hurts.
I have been in the Garden—have you? The night my father died three years ago was a night of my own Gethsemane of the heart. At 2:30 a.m. I was awakened with word of my beloved father's sudden death, and what saved me in that night of deep grief and pain was simply a friend, my best friend in fact, who drove ten miles to be with me. My friend got out of bed to stand the long night watch, to listen to my repetitious ramblings, to permit my tears, to hold me against the winter of my grief....TO STAY AWAKE, BY GOD, SIMPLY AWAKE.
It was mostly a silent vigil he stood. For in my hour of grief I did not particularly want the wisdom of the centuries from my friend, nor any theological comfort he might have, nor nuggets of sage advice, nor even someone to take firm control. All I wanted was another human being to protect me from the cold, and to make sure that I was not alone in the empty caverns of my pain. If there is a purer or more redeeming kind of love, I don't know of it.
Do you all know of what I speak? Haven't most of you had the experience of learning, in some dark night of your own body or soul, that it is the gentle, faithful presence of another ordinary human being which best answers, softens and heals the pain? Yes, it is the simple-yet-divine grace of another person's caring presence which has the spectacular power to save us from our deepest suffering. And yet there is something about this strikingly simple reality which we Americans distrust, isn't there? Somehow it feels inadequate, it seems as if it couldn't possibly be enough. We live in an impatient "fix-it" society, and have been indoctrinated since birth to believe that if we just bring the right technical and intellectual resources to bear, we can, when faced with a human problem, make everything right, and put an end to all the unpleasantness. As a result, then, we are not naturally comfortable with the idea that presence rather than product is what saves the situation. We find it hard to believe that just to "be" is the solution. We are disinclined to trust that the gift of ourselves is enough, and this insecurity leads us so often in the presence of tragedy to try to rescue others from their suffering. We foolishly think we must offer up concrete technical advice, theological nuggets or philosophical chestnuts, all sorts of unnecessary verbiage and unhelpful fussing that gets in the way of the simple human caring that really needs to occur.
Can someone tell me why so many ministers, and others, feel it necessary in the presence of death, suffering, and tragedy to open their mouths and spill forth neatly-packaged one-liners that are supposed to comfort those afflicted? If there is one thing I wish to disabuse you of more than any other this morning, it is the American idiocy that in time of crisis what people want are bumper-sticker slogans to make them feel better.
Last week, after the heinous murder of two little children in Plainfield, the minister who conducted their funeral actually had the temerity (or is it just plain spiritual stupidity?) to suggest to the grieving family that God had allowed these murders to save these children from some horrible disease later in life!
In the face of the awesome and often confounding mysteries of birth and death, life and suffering, we are best to hold our tongues when in doubt of what to say that might comfort. Why can't we trust the value of caring silence shared with those who are hurting? Believe me...when someone you love is swept up into tragedy, your faithful presence speaks with an eloquence no words can possess. The mere fact of your staying in the garden of their pain with them says that your concern and love are deep and real. Your refusal to disappear says to the suffering, as nothing else can, that their creation remains a place of love, grace, and hope. Without uttering one word, we can help the ones who hurt to know that their world continues, in a cosmological sense, to be a grace-filled and nurturing place. It lets them know, if I may wax theological for just a moment, that the holy spirit of life is alive and well, and able to touch them.
So rather than speak with your lips, speak with your presence. Let your eyes, your hands, your silence, your faithfulness tell the story. These are the enduring answers to suffering and pain which remain to bless long after the hollow ring of bumper-sticker slogans have faded into the oblivion where they belong.
Why is it, dear friends, that we Americans have such a dreadfully difficult time understanding that hurting human beings are not asking us to be gods, saviors, magicians, physicians, and wizards? When will we begin to believe that the only credential we need to be humanely with those who are suffering or dying is the credential of an open and gentle heart? Many of you have shared with me in private conversation that sometimes, when someone you love is hurting, you have found yourselves staying away simply because of the discomfort of not knowing precisely what to say or do. Well I will tell you now what I always say in such situation. For God's sake, don't say or do anything at first, just GO. Simply get up and go! You may say the wrong thing. It's easy to put your foot in your mouth when someone is suffering or dying. But you must nonetheless trust that grace and holiness and power of your simple human presence and touch. It's more transforming and healing than you can ever imagine.
Why do we human beings have such terrible theological self-esteem? Why are we in the habit of doubting that the highest power in the universe speaks so well through our fundamental humanness? There is an old Eastern legend which tells us that "The gods became jealous of humanity, and they were fearful that the gift of divinity would be stolen by them, so they had a council. And some said, 'Let us place our gift in the skies.' Others said, 'No, they will search the skies; they will even fly.' And others said, 'Let us put our gift of divinity in the depth of the ocean.' And the reply was, 'No, they will plumb the depths of the ocean. Someday they will be on the floor of the seas and they will find the gift.' And the wisest of the gods said, 'Let us hide divinity WITHIN them. That is the last place they will look."'
Yes, dear friends, the last place we look for the gift of divinity, the last place we expect to find the highest and most healing powers of the creation, is within ourselves...within our ordinary human hearts beating in simple compassion, gentleness, and love. Why can't we believe that within us lie some of the most precious powers of creation, powers capable of blessing, healing, even saving other persons? Why do we think we need something more, something else?
The process theologians say that God is a verb, a dynamic process that happens whenever we simply love and care for one another. And Jewish theologian Martin Buber spoke of the "I-Thou" encounter, that human meeting when the truly divine powers of the creation come to life along the mysterious arc of significant caring person-to-person encounter. What I believe, because I have seen it time and time again, is that God (whatever we mean by that lovely, simple word) steals up on gentle feet whenever we are brave and loving enough to keep the night watch in someone else's midnight of pain. The highest and holiest beauty of the universe comes into being when we simply stay awake for one another.
Let me tell you of a recent experience I had which reminded me with a lovely clarity that all this is so. I was invited by a family of this church to the nursing home bedside of a man they love, a husband and father whose life was rapidly slipping away beneath the body-crushing boot of Alzheimer's disease. As his wife said later to me over the phone, "Scott, I feel like I'm losing my best friend, and it's so hard." On the day I went to the convalescent center with the man's wife and son, we were unable to rouse this once-brilliant scientist from his partial coma. No verbal or cognitive relationship was possible. And so his wife, without as much as a conscious thought I am sure, expressed her love and devotion the only way she could. She reached over to the bedstand drawer, took out his battered old hairbrush, and began gently stroking his gray and matted hair. With total attentiveness and care, she stroked his hair again and again as though the whole world depended on each stroke. As she did her loving work, I found myself wanting to look away. Not because it was sad or unpleasant or depressing. Not because I am afraid to see people die or suffer. I wanted to look away because I was embarrassed to share in so intimate and so perfect a moment of love.
Had it not been for the "professional" defenses I have long since erected to protect me against such pure and holy moments, I would have wept merely at witnessing the beauty and fidelity of her love. I guess I felt what surgeon Richard Selzer wrote in his book Mortal Lessons after he witnessed a similar moment of human devotion: "I lowered my gaze," the doctor writes. "One is not bold in an encounter with god….I remember that the gods appeared in ancient Greece as mortals, and I hold my breath and let the wonder in."
I like the way my friend and colleague Edward Frost of Princeton puts it, "We have heard that God is all the goodness, all the sweetness and light and joy in the morning. But God is the cries we do not hear. The depth of hell the other suffers. The darkness and confusion of the permanent night. God may be the chaos—missed in our neatness and order—who shuns the glistening temple to walk the gray repositories of twisted and divided souls. To seek such a God is to seek discomfort, to walk in another's broken shoes, through the eye of an inner storm, and be bent and broken with him. God is the one who cries, 'Know me!' through the mouths of those we choose not to know. We have heard that God is love, but God is the demand to love, a demand unheeded, thus a God undiscovered. Press through the grown-over path, to another's loneliness, and there, with him, the pain and the bearer of pain...is God."
May Sarton says it a bit differently in her poem about her own mother's death entitled "A Hard Death." Listen:
God's Grace, given freely, we do not deserve,
But we can choose at least to see its ghost
On every face. Oh, we can wish to serve
Each other gently as we live, though lost.
We cannot save, be saved, but we can stand
Before each presence with gentle heart and hand:
Here in this place, in this time without belief,
Keep the channels open to each other's grief;
Never accept a death or life as strange
To its essence, but at each second be aware
How God is moving always through each flower
From birth to death in a multiple gesture
Of abnegation; and when the petals fall
Say it is beautiful and good, say it is well.
Let us be gentle to each other in their brief time
For we shall die in exile far from home,
Where even the flowers can no longer save.
Only the living can be healed by love.
Yes, Sarton has it right. Only the living can be healed by love. Only when we are brave and beautiful enough to stand by one another in simple human compassion and faithfulness are we saved from life's negation and despair.
Now please, let there be no illusions about what I am suggesting to you this morning. I believe passionately that the simple gift of ourselves is the greatest gift that can be given to someone else in pain. And I further believe that in such encounters some of life's deepest holiness and meaning reveals itself. But I am not saying these encounters will ever be easy, comfortable, pleasant or fun. Even when we are freely and nobly giving of ourselves, it still hurts to see others in bondage to pain. And we will still often feel so helpless, so angry, so inadequate and alone.
What's more, we will always have to choke back the natural human fear that rises in the throat whenever we draw close to pain, death, and the vivid reminders of our own mortality. We will always have to fight the temptation to flee. I am sure that even those exceptionally brave individuals in our congregation who are voluntarily giving so much time to hospice programs in our area, even they who seek out this tough human work must have their moments of extreme discomfort and fear. No one should ever suggest that to attend someone in their Gethsemane of pain is fashionable or fun. It's always tough. To stay awake through the long night of someone else's sorrow and pain is the most difficult of all human wakings.
But I believe Norman Cousins is right on target when he writes, "Death is not the enemy, living in constant fear of it is. The way we choose to live and the depth of our feelings, our ability to love and be loved and to take in all the colors of the world around us—these determine the worth and true extent of whatever time we have. The clock keeps ticking away. Our job is to put as much meaning as possible into the intervals between the ticks. A minute can open out into a vast realm in which all our senses, finely attuned, can come into full and splendid play—or those same senses can be shut down, imparting nothing to our years except numbers."
Yes dear friends, if our years are to be something more than numbers we must control our fear of suffering; disease, and death, and not be afraid, when these realities draw near, to offer others the simple gift of ourselves. I know many of you find it hard to believe, for ours is a technocratic, death-fearing culture which always seeks the quick-fix for suffering, but YOU ARE THE ANSWER, BY GOD. Your presence is what saves and redeems. We do not yet trust the power and beauty and worth of our faithful presence with people in pain. We still look for the slick answers, the miraculous solutions, the technological salvations. Every once in a while, one of these miracles occurs. But in the meantime, we fragile fearful folks are the only saviors sent.
More than 3,000 years ago, the psalmist cried out for each man and woman to be "a candle of the Lord, shining into the uttermost dark." I believe this is as theologically sound as anything ever written. I pray, this morning, that you will both trust and use that high and holy light which glimmers in unquenchable brightness and power within you. Please don't doubt the healing warmth of your ordinary expansive heart. When someone you know is hurting, BE THERE...just be there. Give them the gift of staying awake through the long night in the garden. Stand the faithful nightwatch. Keep the everyday light and love flowing from your hands and heart. For your precious human presence is holy. It is enough. And by God, it will see us through.
|Scott W. Alexander