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Sunday, March 28, 2010

from Palms to Passion

The crowds preceding him and those following
kept crying out and saying:
"Hosanna to the Son of David;
blessed is the he who comes in the name of the Lord;
hosanna in the highest."
Matthew 21:9

Today is Passion Sunday, now combined with, and sometimes better known as Palm Sunday. The Passion of Christ is read following the reading of Matthew noted above. The Sunday School illustration of Jesus riding on a donkey as he enters Jerusalem, his way lined with cheering people who create a carpet of palm fronds and robes for him to pass over (no pun intended!), is burned in my mind. I’ve always loved Palm Sunday, although I suspect that as a young Sunday School pupil, my interest was more in the donkey and the palm trees rather than the earth-shaking theology being played out in that simple event, so long ago. As a kid, what I saw was truly an oh-so-fun triumphant entry—how amazing to get to ride on a donkey and have a crowd of fans waving and yelling out a welcome. The irony of the utter humility of the King of Kings riding on a donkey, rather than on a steed, a rag taggle of humanity instead of a mounted legion surrounding him, the complete absence of dignitaries, trumpets, and royal reception, completely escaped me. 

From palms to passion. The link between these passages so close in time, yet so far apart in action escaped me as a kid. I did not get that the crowd that enthusiastically greeted Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, days later, called out, mob-like, for his crucifixion. I didn’t want to believe it, and still wish to believe that there were simply a few bad eggs in the crowd who were easily swayed. That the rest were loyal friends to the end; friends that somehow deserved the passion of Christ. However, I since have learned that crowds are incredibly fickle; easily blown by the wind of emotion and situation. That I, as well, can be driven by that wind; that all-to-often the amount of sleep I have had, the level of back pain I am experiencing, the number of dishes that have gathered in the sink, the race I am losing to complete deadlines, the wait for the computer to update … all conspire to blow me away from my center. At times, the sudden, overwhelming wind of despair, stress, grief, loneliness, helplessness can pivot me around like the Dalmatian weathervane we have on our gazebo. Would I have been one of the bad eggs in the crowd if the wind had blown the wrong way that morning so long ago?

I lately have been reading Joan Chittister, O.S.B. In this reading that I would like to share here, I again was reminded of how our patients are our teachers, even in this struggle to abide in the center and not be swayed with the fickle wind that blows around us all.

We are surrounded by people who struggle through terminal diseases and live years beyond any reasonable prognosis because they refuse to give up. They simply go on as if life were normal. They simply insist on living … There is, in fact, no struggle that does not develop to the point where a person must choose between the fact of defeat and effects of quitting. Everyone is defeated sometime. Many then simply quit the fray. But the really strong, the really committed, do not. They decide instead whether or not the mountain is worth the climb. And if it is, no amount of wind can force them from the face of it. They endure for the sake of enduring. They live to finish what they began. Endurance is not about being too stubborn to give up on the impossible. Endurance is about having heart enough to keep on trying to do the possible, even if it is unattainable. We nurse the dying through years of disability. We begin projects for the poor even when they don’t begin to make a dent in the problem of poverty. We hold on against opposition for the sake of the principle of a thing. Those endure who seek to do what is deeply important to them, no matter how difficult it may be (Joan D. Chittister, Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope).
The wind that blows our Dalmatian weathervane back and forth and all around will continue to blow, the weathervane will continue to spin. Instead of being afraid of the wind of emotions, sorrows, memories, and physical annoyances that blows through my day, I am learning to see this wind from a different perspective. The palliative and trauma patients that I have nursed over the years have taught me how the essentials, the core of life is clarified by illness, pain, limitations. Perhaps the lesson in the crowd is that the wind blows and we are given the terrible gift of seeing what is truly at our core. Thank God we are not alone when we see ourselves for the fickle cowards we can be—for in that split second of truth we are given the choice that the thief on the cross was given; we may cry out, again and again, “Jesus, remember me!”

Blessings on your journey as we walk with Christ through this Holy Week.



Sunday, March 14, 2010

of bridges and dams, fields and fortunes ...



“Religion is meant to be a bridge to God, a vehicle to understanding. It is meant to plumb the depths of the human soul to the source of the spirit. Instead, religion can sometimes even be an obstacle to union with God. As the wag put it, “in order to sin properly it is not necessary to break the rules. All you need to do is to keep them to the letter.” Joan Chittister, Welcome to the wisdom of the world and its meaning for you.
Although I'm not immune to the pathos of the return of the prodigal, I’ve always, always had a soft spot in my heart for the eldest son. You will recall that wonderful-awful story Jesus told of the prodigal son (Luke 15). The older son makes his way home from the fields after working hard all day and walks into a party for his no-good, thankless younger brother. I can see him now: trudging along the dusty trail, thinking of a million things that still need doing on the farm, visioning a nice cool shower to wash away the day’s endless grit and the sun’s boring heat. Then, the sounds of merriment stop him in his tracks. What? Has he forgotten some event that his father had ordered for the day?  He summons up his energy, brushes the most obvious dirt of his clothes, pulls his collar straight, runs his hand through his hair as he adjusts his face in the most welcoming smile he can muster, given his work-weary demeanor, for his father’s guests. He beckons to a servant, seeking to find out what’s up … begins to ask,  who are the guests? Can I slide in the back door unseen to clean up before my father needs me? In his mind he is walking through the door and entering the dining room, an apology for the lateness of his arrival on his lips, his father’s approving eye on him. Even as the servant begins to bubble over with the news, even as he sees his father walking, nearly dancing, upright and merry to his core, stooped and careworn no more, he knows. His charismatic, sweet-faced, younger brother has returned. The news stops him cold. Dead in his tracks, lips still curved into a smile of welcome, freeze, then curl into contempt. What mischief is he up to now, he thinks. Thankless, good-for-nothing heart-breaker, he thinks, watching the nearly tangible joy leaping in his father’s eyes as he comes closer. What good is it? His heart aches, watching such joy, it is for him, it says to him, for the other, for the one I lost. His eyes die but almost immediately, a new flame is lit in his belly, a flame fueled by anguish that rises to his eyes and erupts into words, “All these years, all these bloody years … nothing! Never have I so much have questioned your orders! Worked nonstop for you! Nothing! He drags his sorry ass back home—obviously broke—always …  he just smiles at you and you just hand him the farm ... the farm I work, not him! …” The anguish floods the flame, and like a choked engine, he is left cold. Empty. Heart-dead.  Not enough for me.
What is it about us that in our core believes that love must be discrete, parceled out to the deserving and is somehow tainted, watered-down, or made meaningless if it falls on the other as well as ourselves? Love deeper than the ocean, bigger than the sky, love that does not ‘run out’ seems to us to not be as worthy, or as special as love that is narrowly  applied, that must be earned by a select few. We are elevated when we are one of those select few. We stand apart, special, uniquely identified as the beloved’s. We will always have enough as long as we hang onto it for ourselves. What a God we have created in our own image. For this god who jumps to and rewards our small obediences is forced to ignore the plight of those not in our circle of knowing.
“Religion without the spirit it is meant to preserve can become positively irreligious: we put the weak, the wounded, the addicts, the religious others outside the boundaries of our perfect lives, fearful of touching what might pollute us. Religion—who hasn’t seen it happen? –can be a very sinful thing.” Joan Chittister, Welcome to the wisdom of the world and its meaning for you.
I have empathy for that big brother who worked day in and day out building the farm for his father, only to see it slipping away (or so he thought) through the open-fingers of a pleasure addict. He was not evil in his thinking, only small. Like me, he fails to understand the Mystery of a love so vast that it can blanket all of creation without a stretch, without the persons at the sides needing to grasp at a corner to keep covered. The mystery of such love continues when we are told that such vast love recognizes the particular, the individual, the tiniest sparrow. There is enough, even for the great greed we have for love. The elder brother was not short changed by the love his father poured out over the undeserving head of his younger brother. There was no yank of the blanket off him when covering the other with love.
In our world, we live in the context of scarce resources. As nurses and health care providers and policy makers, we must ration services because of there their finite nature. How we do this very much demonstrates our values. Who is worthy, who is less worthy? What about earned worthiness: those who are productive and pay into the system? Those who are making healthy life choices? Who is truly vulnerable?  What portion of our meted lot goes to them? How we approach these questions of social justice and health delivery in many ways demonstrate our heart-understanding of this parable. Although the limited nature of our resources is indisputable, the vastness of our greed is just as indisputable.  Could it be that our greed has more to do with the allocation of scarce resources than the scarceness of these resources themselves? Profit is all well and good, until one realizes that ‘profit’ is to the haves, what ‘loss’ is to the have-nots. Wouldn’t be amazing if the demise of the profit/loss sheet in health care actually accorded more health and less loss to real people?
I want to think that the elder brother eventually moved past his brokenness and got it. That he learned, by looking even more deeply into his father’s eyes, that the joy did not stop with the younger son; that the love flowed free, and wildly-vast: limitless. I want to believe that ‘fairness’ is bigger than one son or the other can see … and that it is no matter, because all of us, no matter our task, our daily toil, work in our Father’s fields anyway.