KOH2RVA: Day 269

doctor-shaking-hands-with-patientI had lunch with Bill and Emily Johnston yesterday, an older couple from First Baptist who have been kind to me from the beginning and haven’t slowed down yet. We went to the Dairy Bar after yesterday’s Senior Adult Bible Study, where I indulged in the special of the day (a barbecue sandwich with French fries) and finished it off with a scoop of Cookies ‘n’ Cream ice cream (note: this is not a healthy meal.  You will pay for it.  I’m getting ready to run five miles as penance).

We talked about a lot of things over lunch, but eventually they asked the question that prompted the invitation. “What do you want us to do?” they asked, and what they meant was, “What do you want us to do to help bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia?”

I was moved by the question.

Here they were, people who have invested their whole lives in Richmond, who have worked tirelessly through the years to bless the city and heal its inhabitants (literally—Bill is a retired pediatrician and Emily was his nurse), asking me what I wanted them to do to bring heaven a little closer to earth. I couldn’t think of a thing, and so I asked them what they were already doing. They began to tick off a long list of volunteer activities around the church but eventually started talking about their regular visits to the hospitalized and homebound. They told me that sometimes they offer to take a homebound person to the store, or out for lunch, and then they looked to me for approval. “Is that a good thing?”

I slipped into the role of teacher for just a minute. I told them about my own parents, who are in a nursing home. When I go to visit them I usually offer to take my mom out to lunch. She is physically very healthy, and cheerful as a cricket, although she admits she can’t remember very much. My dad, on the other hand, is in the hospice wing. He can open his eyes when I call his name, smile and take my hand, but a few minutes later he is nodding off again. So, they have different needs. I visit with my dad for about three minutes and with my mom for about three hours.

I used that example with Bill and Emily to emphasize the need for sensitivity in each situation.  People who are recovering from surgery may not need a long visit if they need one at all. They’re trying to heal, and that takes a lot of energy. They don’t need to use it up entertaining guests. On the other hand someone who is home alone day after day may savor a visit like I savored that scoop of ice cream—relishing every bite and not wanting it to come to an end. “You really just have to be sensitive,” I said, “and do what’s best for each person.”

And then I heard what I was saying and looked at the two of them sitting there across the table, nodding, taking in every word.  I was embarrassed by my own insensitivity. What could I possibly teach Bill and Emily? They’ve been out there day after day, visiting the hospitalized and the homebound. They may not have gotten it exactly right every time. None of us do. But doing it is so much better than waiting till we get it all figured out or coming up with a list of reasons why we can’t.

“What do I want you to do?” I asked, eventually. “Exactly what you’re doing. You two are bringing it—you’re bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

“What more could I ask?”

And One More Thing Before I Close…

Because I knew I was going to be out of town all week, I finished the sermon well before last Tuesday’s earthquake in Haiti.  But at 5:00 on Sunday morning I was up having coffee, adding these paragraphs at the end:

This morning I’m thinking about the people of Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.  For so long now it seems that the only abundance they have known is an abundance of trouble.  After Tuesday’s earthquake a journalist said, “I was here during the 2008 hurricanes that left thousands dead and thousands and thousands homeless, and that felt like the Apocalypse.  But that pales in comparison to this.”  In the aftermath of this horrific tragedy the Rev. Pat Robertson has suggested that the Haitians are cursed because of a pact their ancestors supposedly made with the Devil two centuries ago.  “Ever since,” he said, “they have been cursed by one thing after the other.”  Although he didn’t go so far as to say that this earthquake was God’s wrath poured out on the people of Haiti what else could they infer?  Robertson subscribes to a kind of Old Testament theology that makes every act an act of God, good or bad.  If San Francisco fell into the ocean this afternoon, he would be on television tomorrow, telling us why.  But I hope the people of Haiti will won’t look at things the way he does.  I hope they can understand as we do that bad things happen to good people, sometimes to the best people we know, and for no apparent reason.  When Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”  Jesus said, “It wasn’t this man or his parents.  It was so the works of God could be seen” (John 9:3).

I hope that’s what happens in Haiti.  I hope those people can understand that earthquakes happen not because God is angry, but because the living earth is still shifting and moving.  I hope they will see this one for the natural disaster that it is, but see in our response to this disaster the “works of God.”  As rescue workers come from this country and others, as relief flows into the ruined city of Port-au-Prince, as it comes with an abundance unlike anything the Haitians have ever witnessed may they see it as a sign—not a sign of God’s judgment, but of God’s grace.  May they sense that the door between heaven and earth has been opened just a crack, and may they see light seeping in around the edges.

Suffering Gladly

ballerina_feet1The word passion, in its oldest form, means “suffering.”  When we talk about “the Passion” (with a capital “P”), we mean the suffering of Jesus in those final days of Holy Week.  But when we talk about passion in the lower case we are talking about whatever it is that you are willing to suffer for.  So, you look at the fingers of the fifteen-year-old boy who is learning to play the guitar.  They are cracked and bleeding.  Some of them have Band-Aids on them.  He’s really not very good.  But he picks up his guitar anyway, and struggles through another painful chord progression, and when you ask him why he just looks at you as if it were a stupid question, shrugs his shoulders and says:


“It’s my passion.”


Or you look at the feet of the ballet dancer, red and callused, jammed into toe shoes so many times they look like the feet of a 90-year-old woman—hopelessly bent and crippled.  You ask her why she keeps it up.  Why doesn’t she just stop and give those tired feet a rest?  She smiles to herself as she ties the laces and then looks up with a one-sentence answer:


“It’s my passion.”


Or the artist who has been up all night dribbling paint onto a huge canvas under floodlights, stepping back to see the way the paint swirls and flows, stroking it with his brushes, scraping it with a palette knife, pushing it into the shapes and places he can only see in his mind.  At four o’clock in the morning—his back aching, his eyes bloodshot—he stops to make a fresh pot of coffee.  Why do you do it? you ask.  What’s so important about this?  And he smiles over the rim of his coffee cup.


“It’s my passion.”


Your passion is whatever you are willing to suffer for.  It could be your music, your dance, your art, or it could be something else.  Buddha said “life is suffering”; it is the first of the Four Noble Truths.  And if it’s true that life is suffering then it must also be true that life is worth suffering for.  We do it all the time, don’t we?  Your doctor says to you, “We’ve found blockage in four of your coronary arteries.  We’re going to put you to sleep, stop your heart, open your chest, do a quadruple bypass, and then stitch you up and start your heart again, OK?”  And what do you say?  “OK.”  People regularly endure the suffering of surgery and recovery in order to have a little more life.  Because even with all the suffering that is in it life is the best thing we have ever known.  It’s where we have found the love of family and friends, the beauty of a spring morning, the pleasure of a fine meal.  We love life.  We cling to it fiercely, with both hands. 


Still, someone wiser than me has said, “Most people are not looking for something to live for so much as they are looking for something worth dying for.”  And most of the time it’s not a thing at all.  When I ask people if there is any cause, any movement, they would lay down their lives for they have to stop and think.  But when I ask them if there is any person they would lay their lives down for, they answer yes right away. 


This is where passion meets that word it is so often associated with:  Love.  It’s love that we suffer for.  Whether it’s our love of people or love of life or love of what we do, it is love that is worth suffering for.  Nothing else even comes close.  And the extent to which we are willing to suffer for love says something about the breadth and height and depth of the love we feel.  How much do you love me?  Only as much as you are willing to suffer for me.


Jesus once said to his disciples that there is no greater love than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends.  And then, within twenty-four hours of saying it, he was there on the cross doing it.  When we see him hanging there we want to ask why.  “Why are you doing this?  Why are you putting yourself through it?  Why don’t you let God get you down from there?”  And even in his agony he is able to say, “Why?  Why am I doing this?”


“Because I love you.”


“Because people are my passion.”


“Because you people are my passion.”