Friday, April 10, 2020

SERMON

A nurse drives home after a grueling 12 hour shift, thinking through tears about the many young, relatively healthy people who are dying alone; about family members unable to assist or speak with parents, spouses, siblings and children before their swift, unexpected death. “I feel defeated,” she writes, “helpless because we are working so hard, trying every treatment modality that we can, and patients are still dying.”

A patient’s oxygen levels drop catastrophically low. Without taking the time to pull on full personal protective equipment, a doctor rushes in to insert a breathing tube as the patient coughs up a deadly respiratory virus. Post procedure, the doctor is grateful he didn’t take time putting on all his PPE. Those precious moments helped save the patient, even if they endangered his life.

Emergency medicine physician, Halleh Akbarnia, recounts a covid-19 patient gasping for breath as he reassured his doctors, asking if they need anything. Mr. C. didn’t want to be on invasive life support, but he agreed to be intubated, telling Dr. Akbarnia, “I trust you and am putting myself in your hands.” Dr. Akbarnia writes: “I saw his eyes looking at me, seeing the kindness in them, even as we pushed the medications to put him to sleep.” Mr. C. nearly dies during the intubation as the team fights to keep him alive. Twelve days later, Mr. C. is recovering in the covid stepdown unit when Dr. Akbarnia visits and reminds her former patient of the night they met in the ER. Looking up at the doctor’s masked face, Mr. C. begins to cry. “I remember your eyes,” he says.

Every day, stories of heroism and heartbreak are shared by health care workers on the front lines of this brutal pandemic. We mourn with stunned and devastated families that are unable to bury or celebrate their loved ones at funerals or memorial services. We marvel as National Guard service members go door to door in Manhattan, consoling the living as they collect the bodies of the dead.

The scourge of Covid -19 is unfathomable. Could we ever have imagined witnessing a plague during Passover, and countless acts of sacrifice throughout Holy Week?  Collectively, throughout the world, we who worship will forgo religious services this sacred weekend. Yet there isn’t a book, text, reading, gospel or sermon that could more profoundly illustrate the tenets of faith we commemorate and celebrate than the stories we are reading, hearing, and experiencing…. moment by day by week.

It reminds me of a sermon I heard on Holy Thursday years ago. A priest I had never seen stepped beside the altar to preach. His accent was heavy, his voice slight, and I strained to hear and comprehend his words. A missionary, he recounted seeking and aiding the poor throughout the world. Haltingly, he read the gospel, then asked each of us to imagine the Lord washing our feet. Instinctively, I cringed. Fully empathizing with Peter’s protest to the Lord, “You shall never wash my feet!”, I always sat in the pew farthest from the altar during the symbolic recreation of the Last Supper, ducking any obligation to participate.

Truth is, I was always more comfortable on the ‘Serve’ side of the bleachers, rather than the ‘Be Served’ side.

My discomfort turned to tears as I understood the full impact of the missionary’s words and wisdom. “You are seated on a stool. Jesus is kneeling beside you, washing your feet. Imagine!” he called out above the silence. “You look down at this person serving you, and you are looking into the face of God.”

Serving. Being served.
Loving. Accepting love.
Aiding the vulnerable. Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and aided.

This Holy week, and for the duration of the pandemic, we’ll continue to witness and participate in acts of love and mercy that could fill volumes of religious texts, readings and sermons. Love - in life and through death - will resound far beyond all houses of worship.

A random agent of death has swept across continents and inspired the sermon of the season: There’s only one set of bleachers and we’re all on the same side. 

Those of us who are served will surely remember the eyes.
The voice.
The touch. 
The compassion.
The assistance.
The sacrifice.
Of all who serve.

And vice versa.

I trust you and am putting myself in your hands.” Holy words from a patient to a doctor that lift and inspire this holy weekend.  

Looking to each other, serving one another, we are seeing the face of God.




  

Friday, September 29, 2017

SYMBOL


SYMBOL

That remarkable day.

I drove toward town through pre-dawn darkness, eyes fixed on a beginning-to-blush horizon lined with shadowed silhouettes of mountains and pine trees.

I was on a mission. Journey from east coast to west, drive from Seattle to McMinnville, celebrate my Uncle Joe’s life with the West Coasters who loved him. Collect his belongings. Bring him home.

The sun was setting beyond the mountains as I drove out of town - sky bursting with an otherworldly explosion of color and light that demanded I get out of the car. Trucks, cars and cyclists rushed by as I watched the Northwest heavens bid a spectacular farewell to a favorite son. Wind blew, tears fell, sky darkened.

A profound sense of peace and pride was giving way to exhaustion as I pulled my suitcase into an airport restaurant and settled for supper at a table for four. My dinner companions included a flag - expertly folded, tucked into a triangle and secured in plastic, a myrtlewood box, three roses, a tarnished Timex watch, and a glass of Oregon pinot noir.

“Are you waiting for others?” The waiter had finally returned.

“No,” I said, closing the menu. “Here all alone.”

“Should those things be on the table?” he asked, gesturing at the things on the table.

The few patrons in the restaurant were suddenly paying attention. “Yes,” I answered. “Would you care to see the letter I was given by …?”

“No.” He cut me off. “Would you care for another glass of wine?”

No, actually. I cared for another bottle of wine. I had been on the road for two sleepless days. Little did I know how many rules and regulations must be followed so I could carry a loved one’s ashes from memorial out west to burial back east.

The funeral parlor director had warned me hours earlier. Handing me the myrtlewood box, he’d said, “These ashes must stay on your person at all times. Don’t let them out of your sight. They can’t go through security, on a bathroom sink, under a table, or in an overhead bin.” He then gave me the flag honoring my uncle’s military service, and tucked a paper between my fingers - a permission slip, of sorts, stamped and signed at the funeral home. “Give this to anyone who questions you.”

I was trying to remember all the instructions as I left the restaurant carrying the paper, a suitcase, a backpack, a giant green bag filled with Uncle Joe’s stuff, the flag, and Uncle Joe. I was a spectacle, surely. Only a few moments into the trek from restaurant to security to gate, I realized that people were not looking at me because I was a harried, overloaded mess. They were noticing the flag tucked beneath my elbow, and the myrtlewood box in my arms.

A woman nervously looked away. A guy in a suit stared down at his phone and picked up his pace. A gaggle of sorority girls, pointing and giggling, began whispering to each other as I returned their stares. A mom shushed her teenager.

A security guard suddenly stood at attention, raising fingertips to forehead in a perfect salute.
Other passengers took note and stepped out of the way to let me pass.

An elderly man whispered, “My condolences, miss.” 

A pilot hurrying beside me reached out to help. “May I carry something for you?”

“No, thanks,” I muttered with a half-smile. “Rules and regulations.”

It dawned on me after many additional, excruciating moments in the spotlight that some who looked my way and saw the flag undoubtedly thought I’d lost a spouse or child to war. Dismayed, I wished I could shout, ”My 92 year old uncle, a WWII veteran, has died. He was an amazing man who lived an extraordinary life. I’m bringing him home. It’s all good!” But I remained silent, deeply humbled as I imagined a similar walk of pain for a grieving military wife or mother.

The flag, and all its power, wasn’t finished with me on that journey.

As I settled into my seat on the plane, a flight attendant walked through the aisle. “That box can’t be on your lap,” she said. “Put it in the bin above.”

Puzzled, the little girl seated to my right looked up from her tablet as I hesitated.  

Flight attendant returned, irritated. “That box needs to be stored in the overhead bin.”

“This explains why I have to hold it,” I said, handing her the funeral director’s note while refraining from snapping out too many details in front of the child.

“We’re ready to pull away from the gate, and cannot move until you put that box in the overhead compartment!” The flight attendant admonished me so sharply and loudly that passengers looked up from newspapers, phones, sleep.

A gentleman behind me spoke out. “Don’t you see the flag on her lap? She has to hold the box,” he chided.

The attendant looked from flag to box to me. “You’d better not drop it,” she said.

The gentle man behind me squeezed my shoulder. ”Thank you for your loved one’s service.”

That walk through the airport on my uncle’s final journey was one of the most profound experiences of my life. I’ve thought about it often; the emotion and commotion, the purpose, grief, and discomfort, the tightness in my fingers as I gripped that myrtlewood box all the way home.

That walk changed me. It opened my eyes to the power of symbols. It deepened my sympathy and empathy for those who lose loved ones in war. It made me see, acknowledge, and try to understand the stunning differences in how we mortals react to each other.

On that remarkable day, almost four years ago, I carried a flag and a myrtlewood box through a great hall filled with mortals. Some snickered. Others saluted. Some were dismissive. Others offered condolences. Some chastised. Others leapt to my defense.

It felt a lot like this past week when a myriad of emotions and judgments erupted as Americans debated the significance, impact, and relevance of our national anthem - the current symbol in the spotlight.

Had I called my uncle, the soldier, to tell him the positive and negative reactions and comments I received as I walked through an airport carrying a flag that spotlighted both his death and his service to our country, he’d have said, “That’s how freedom speaks.”

Had I called my uncle, the navigator, to ask his opinion of players who kneeled to peacefully protest an anthem that represents a government which increasingly challenges its declaration that all people are created equal, and defies many of the ideals, laws, and freedoms protected in its constitution, he’d have said, “Democracy sometimes gets knocked to its knees. We need to lift it back to its feet.”

Had I called my uncle, the patriot, to help me try to understand the stunning differences in how we mortals react to each other, he’d say, “Americans often lose sight of the fact that all of us are ‘We The People’. Together we rise, because ‘Divided we Fall’ is unthinkable.”

The impact of symbols like a flag or an anthem is stunning. Wrapped in emotion and perception, symbols can inspire, unite, enrage, divide.  

It’s increasingly difficult for We the People to choose inspire and unite, as our Commander in Chief disparages and divides. Yet I keep reminding myself that beyond the symbols and rhetoric, we are all citizens, neighbors, friends. If we can walk through the discomfort of our collective emotions and experience, listening and lifting, we’ll rise.

'Divided, we Fall’ is unthinkable.