Friday, February 20, 2015

Remembering How to Hope

I've been thinking a lot lately about that complicated mix of emotions that the lent season elicits in me. As I wrote in a post a while back, lent is the time of year during which we reflect on our mortality, our sins, and the journey toward the cross. But unlike those first followers of Christ who found themselves lost and confused by the cross, we can see the cross as a symbol of triumph. Knowing that the grave leads to new life in that story gives can make it be hard to feel "properly penitential" (as I like to think of it) during these weeks. After all, why should we waste time holding these feelings of loss or guilt or darkness when we know that love wins in the end?

The answer lies, as usual, in the hospital. I'm partly kidding, but I think that the hospital is a great metaphor for life. When IV bags and needles are not just plastic and metal but a means of literal salvation, it starts to feel a little more meaningful; a little more sacred.  This week marks six months at my hospital, and I am transitioning from my ICU and med-surg units to behavioral health units on the other campus across the river. Naturally, moving into a new rotation as I am this week is bringing up a mix of emotions that I can't help relating to our lenten journey. It feels strange.

Like graduating from high school, there is this tingly mix of nerves and grief because of saying goodbye and desire for adventure and hope for what might come. I was showing my replacement around my former units this morning, and while I was bouncing a little with excitement for the coming months, I was also realizing that in introducing her to my colleagues there that I was saying goodbye to them at the same time. What an apt metaphor for life, whereby new things almost never come without the end of something else. We move away to college waving farewell to high school friends, and we welcome new babies while the first years of childless marriage fade into a distant memory. Even a divorce from the worst of partners can be bittersweet as new-found freedom and healing come at the cost of familiarity and intimacy. As my dad would say, life is hard.

One of our extended unit interns, Allen Blegen, was working on some things for his own education process, and asked me to take a look at his theological statement of ministry while we were hanging out in the office. What he wrote resonated with me deeply, because he wrote about the "now" of our troubles and the "not yet" we are called to encounter and help others encounter through our lives, love, and ministries. He said: “A person without hope loses the will to live or the ability to envision a future story. Physically, he or she is grounded in the present. One’s body is stuck in the world around him or her and must live moment by moment. However, emotionally and spiritually we all can break out of the present and grow into the future. We can dream, we can imagine tomorrow, we can envision a future and most importantly we can hope that that future will be fulfilling and have meaning.”

His words encapsulated what I have been feeling this last couple weeks with my transition. Both rooted here (on the unit) and there, on planning and making myself ready for the next step. And then I imagined how much harder it would be if, like some of my colleagues, I was not excited for the next step, or even if I were apprehensive of it. We often get through hard stuff because of the reminder that things are going to be okay eventually. Just a few more months of a crappy job, or just another day until Friday. But when we lose our new venture or weekend, what do we have? Sometimes the hand we're dealt is not a pleasant one and it will not be okay tomorrow. My husband grieves as his home country is invaded and the world watches silently. It's not okay now, and it's not okay tomorrow. But hope is the thing that calls you forward one step at a time knowing that a future that is not possible right now will be possible by the power of Christ Jesus. That is the power of our lenten journey. It is walking in the uncertain with faith that even when it's not okay (and often it's not okay), Christ is doing a new thing. It is grieving for loss, holding onto the power of love that transcends death. It is being held up in hope by the community of believers when you have not a single ounce of it remaining. It is living into our darkness with honor and respect for the light that it reveals.

In the end, I'm realizing that lent is not about being "properly penitential" but rather it is about holding the despair and deaths we encounter in a holy place, savoring the very human mix of death and new life so that we may always move through every change, loss, gift, challenge, or growth with the integrity of hope surrounding us and guiding each step. Life is hard. It has been hard since death first touched the face of the world, and it will continue to be hard as we encounter unexpected trials, loss, failure, and change. But I think that lent can remind us that in the same way that we look toward the resurrection on this journey toward the cross, that we can look toward our future with imagination and hope, even if all we see around us are ashes. Blessings to you on your lenten journey. Amen.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Ashes for a Boy

I visited a young man on the ICU, 23 years old,
to offer ashes yesterday.
His mother, teary yet unwilling to talk to me,
Nonetheless agreed for me to give her little boy with cancer this mark of his mortality.
The young man could understand but could make no reply.
I approached him and explained what I would do,
and when I touched his brow with the dusty blackness of death,
tears fell from his eyes.
It occurred to me how little I understood of him and his pain, or his mother's;
indeed how little we know of anyone.
And yet we are all here together bound up in this mortal cloak,
hoping to one day be wrapped again in life.