Tuesday, February 06, 2018

Looking and listening for God in the ER

Reading:  Isaiah 40:21-31

The Book of Isaiah is made up of three different books from different stages in Israel’s history, put together as one because of the consistent theme through all the parts.

The First Book – chapters 1-39, foresees the coming destruction and loss of the kingdom to Israel’s fearsome enemies, because of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God’s love for the poor and oppressed, and God’s desire for the well-being of all.  The Second Book – chapters 40-55, comes from a time much later, after the people have suffered the loss of their kingdom and years in exile, and now are returning to their land by God’s good will – the good will of God who still and always is especially present to the poor and oppressed, and desires the well-being of all.

In this passage the prophet encourages the people to trust the good will of God in all things and all times.

John Claypool in the late ‘60’s was pastor to the congregation of Crescent Hill Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky when his ten-year-old daughter, Laura Lue was diagnosed as having acute leukemia.  Only eighteen months and ten days after the diagnosis, she died.

During that time John continued in his ministry, with intermittent short leaves of absence, and he shared as much as he could with his congregation of his and his wife’s and their family’s struggle.  Roughly half-way through the progress of the disease – after nearly nine months of remission and almost total normalcy, Laura Lue suffered a relapse and a full-blown return of the symptoms of the disease on an Easter Sunday morning, and was re-admitted to hospital on Easter Monday. 

Two weeks later John reflected on that experience in a sermon based on the same reading we have heard today from Isaiah 40.  John titled the sermon “Strength Not to Faint.”  And one thing I have not forgotten from reading that sermon maybe 30 or 35 years ago is the strength and deep encouragement he finds in the closing promise of the passage:

          those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
          they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
          they shall run and not be weary,
          they shall walk and not faint.

“Here I am this morning,” John Claypool says at the end of his sermon, “ – sad, broken-hearted, still bearing in my spirit the wounds of this darkness.  I confess to you honestly that I have no wings with which to fly or even any legs on which to run – but listen, by the grace of God, I am still on my feet!  I have not fainted yet.  I have not exploded in the anger of presumption, nor have I keeled over into the paralysis of despair.  All I am doing is walking and not fainting, hanging in there, enduring with patience what I cannot change but have to bear.

“This may not sound like much to you, but to me it is the most appropriate and most needful gift of all [from God.]  My religion has been the difference in the last two weeks; it has given me the gift of patience, the gift of endurance, the strength to walk and not faint.  And I am here to give God thanks for that!

“And who knows, if I am willing to accept this gift, and just hang in there and not cop out, maybe the day will come that Laura Lue and I will run again and not be weary, that we may even soar some day, and rise up with wings as eagles!  But until then – to walk and not faint, that is enough.  O God, that is enough!”

I thought about that sermon and what John Claypool shared of his experience, strength and hope while I was sitting with Japhia in the Emergency Room of St. Joe’s last Wednesday night and into Thursday morning – the third visit we made there in the space of six days. 

She’s better again now.  She’s once again achieved a kind of good and manageable balance in her disease.  But it was a rough week for her.  Not a week of soaring or running very far.  More a week of just getting through each day, one day at a time, without falling over or giving up.

And all of you, in your own ways and in your own journeys, know what that’s like – in your own life, in the life of your family, in the lives of friends and neighbours and co-workers that you care about.

There are times of soaring, for which we are immensely grateful.  There are times of running and not growing weary, for which we give thanks.  And there are times for us all and for others around us when it is enough – truly enough, to be able to walk and not faint, to get through the day and the night that follows without falling or giving up entirely.

And how often does the strength to do that come from others?  From the help and support of family and friends that is there when we need it?  And from what someone else has shared of their experience, strength and hope, and that we remember in our own time of struggle and crisis?

Have you not known?  [the prophet says.]  Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the Earth?
[That God is big enough to encompass and take in –
to embrace and take on,
all our sorrow and pain.
That God’s love is greater
than anything that might scare us or threaten us;
greater also than anything we think must do or must have
to fight whatever enemy we face.
And that God is more loving and creative in his handling of all that is –
whether good or bad, easy or hard,
and in his desire
to draw all things together toward a good end,
than we can ever imagine history and life being capable of.
And so …
those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength,
                   they shall mount up with wings like eagles,
                   they shall run and not be weary,
                   they shall walk and not faint.

Just a thought, though, about “those who wait for the Lord” – or “wait upon the Lord” as we sometimes translate it.

My guess is that a lot of people talk to God, and that they mean it quite honestly.  Giving thanks for what seems good, and asking God’s help – making requests of God for what they need and hope for in the spot they are in.  And then going on … in a way, waiting to see if God will answer their prayer, but still getting on with things themselves in the meantime.

I wonder, though, if as many as talk to God are also committed t0 listening to God.  And listening for God.  Not just for God’s happy “You’re welcome!” when they offer thanks.  And not just for God’s “Yes” or “No” to whatever they ask for – which can be hard enough.

But also for God’s quiet and often-merely-whispered “Here I am” in the midst of whatever situation they are in – no matter how dark or painful, how tragic or God-forsaken it may appear to be.

Israel found, for instance, that really they did their best theology, that they found their way into their deepest communion with God, and that they themselves most became the people of God in the hardest times of their history – when they were most tempted to doubt and despair, when without the trappings of worldly success and strength they learned to wait and listen for the Lord in the midst of their darkness, and from the underside of history and of life they were able to see and know where and how God really is in this world to make it go ‘round.

In the ER last Wednesday night and Thursday morning, I wonder where God really was. 

Obviously in the kindness of the paramedics who came to the house, and of the triage nurse who got things started? 

Maybe also in the sometimes unguarded conversation of the young couple sitting ahead of us in the waiting room, whose simplicity and openness of life somehow helped us all to be real? 

Of course in the kindness of the doctor who attended Japhia and who we remembered – and who remembered us from a visit some months ago? 

Was God also present to the pain of the young woman who Japhia was asked to give her bed to, and to her quietly distraught husband – love and solicitude and powerlessness all over his face as he asked the nursing staff for help? 

I am convinced I saw a face of the true God in the young man – about high school age, maybe Eritrean or Somalian, who was there at 4 in the morning to translate for his father who had come in for some reason, and who got out of the chair he was resting in, so he could invite me to sit in it, so I could maybe nap.

Somehow, in all of that activity and anxiety and tedium and terror and humility and honesty, God was present and whispering to those with ears to hear, “Here I am.” 

John Claypool, because of the way he shared his experience, strength and hope, helped me to listen, and to wait upon God not just beyond but also in that present moment. 

Are there others who help you to wait and to listen for God in your present moments?

And are there others yet in the world that you live in, who will be able to wait and listen for that presence of God in their present moments, because of what you share with them of your experience, strength and hope?

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