Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Breaking From Thunder

You, my God, a babe of wonder
All through the night
The dreams you dream can't break from thunder
All through the night

~Ar Hyd Y Nos (All Through the Night), one of many alternate third verses

He said, “Your name won’t be Jacob any longer, but Israel, because you struggled with God and with men and won.” Jacob said, “Tell me your name.” But he said, “Why do you ask for my name?” and he blessed Jacob there. Jacob named the place Peniel, because "I’ve seen God face-to-face, and my life has been saved.”

Genesis 32:28-30 (Common English Bible)

The crest of the hill rises in my field of vision as the road begins to twist gently, then sharper and sharper, to my left.

The car hums beneath the gentle movement of being steered into a new direction after a few miles of straight ahead movement.

And the gates of the Mount Solo cemetery stand gaping, open, waiting to see if I am here to enter, or simply passing by, like so many other drivers do every single day.

I know my people who are buried there.  I could tell you all about them as I walk you to their resting places.  I can share with you of the beauty of their funerals, the lavish affairs of love and memory that took place in my church's Gothic sanctuary, and I can recount the stark, intimate grace and pride of their interment ceremonies, as what remained of them descended far from the sight of eyes but never far from the sight of souls.

For a half-second, my left hand flits from the wheel to my turn signal, as though perhaps I am going to stop and visit, to say hello to those whom I have buried.  I could set out my lunch, pour out some coffee, make a real visit out of it (note to self--see if I can do this before the autumn Northwest weather arrives for good).

I used to avoid driving this particular stretch of road.  Not out of fear or any sort of badness, but simply because this monolith represented a reality that I would just as soon not have to grapple with like Jacob with God at Peniel in Genesis 32.  At least, not grapple with on a daily basis.

Never mind that I had served at funerals before, or that my first night as the on-call chaplain for a network of four hospitals in downtown San Francisco came with the deaths of two patients on my service.

Never mind that I am fully capable of recognizing mortality when it rises to greet me, whether in a hospital room or along a winding roadside.

No, it just isn't something I care to meet face-to-face on a daily basis.

Perhaps that should not be so, as a minister and pastor on behalf of a Messiah who has conquered death and left it bereft and empty-handed in His wake.

In truth, though, I think it is precisely because I deal in soul-sized work that I have come to acquire my own existential unease with death, which I liken on the blog to the thunderbolt.  It is because I have become all to aware of its expanse and implications, not because I have tried at all costs to avoid even acknowledging its existence.

Which means I still have that dread of when the phone call comes, that something has happened, that the thunderbolt has broken once more and the realm between life and death has been bridged again.

That call came again this week, regarding a woman who had worshiped here some few years back, who, along with her loving husband had, like many people who stop and stay with us for a little while, eventually drop away as well, not through any fault of the church, or of me (though try telling me that sometimes), but because that is the nomadic nature of humanity's collective quest for spiritual depth.

Maybe it shouldn't be affecting me like this, but it is.  I can't help that it is.  Given the choice, I'm not sure I would help that it is either.  There's a part of me that thrives on this internal struggle.  It makes me stronger.  It makes me better at my work.

It makes me a pastor who cannot break from the thunder, much as I would some days long to.

It gives me a sort of strength that is easy enough to make a caricature of, as the sort of strength you see in a feel-good movie when the protagonist overcomes the loss of someone dear and close to them.  Maybe that sounds cynical, and if it does, it there may indeed be some cynicism in it, because pressing onward in the face of bereavement isn't so much about filling the void the person left behind with whatever your quest may be, but in recognizing the zen-like truth that the void someone leaves behind never can be filled and that you are stronger for having made that recognition.

And I think that I am indeed stronger for that acknowledgement of my own reality, that I struggle and wrestle and strive against the thunderbolt, because it forces me to confront the prospect of my own emptiness, of my life potentially filled with the voids and gaps and aching absences left behind by those whom I have cared for and cast out, like a fisher's line, into the next and greater kingdom.

I'm on the bridge over the Columbia River into Portland now.  I'm here more often now, now that we've moved from Longview to Vancouver to be closer to the hospital my wife works at, and it's usually for something fun--my hometown soccer team is playing the Timbers over at Providence Park, or I'm on my way to play in a game myself for one of my amateur teams, or I'm there simply because I can be.

But every once in a while, I must cross the river on business, to see a congregant or a congregant's family who are engaged in this thunderbolt of life and death collapsing in upon the other in a Portland hospital.

And now, when I do make that drive, I remember that hesitant flick of the left hand to signal a turn that never came, and I know that there can, and likely will, be yet another day when I must grapple, like Jacob with God at Peniel, with my own fear of the thunderbolt, face to face, breath to breath, soul to soul, deep in the heart of the City of Roses.

Vancouver, Washington
September 21, 2015

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