Being Patients (127)

Here’s the way the story was told in the New York Times: B.J. was a sophomore in university. Early one morning he and some friends were horsing around and they decided to climb a parked commuter train. He was the first one up. The train was powered by electricity that ran through overhead wires. B.J. climbed to the top of the car, stood up and eleven thousand volts arced into his arm and shot down through his legs. He woke up several days later in a hospital burn unit. He survived but he had both his legs amputated below the knee and lost much of his left arm as well.

B.J. Miller in now a hospice and palliative care doctor working in San Francisco. He says that in the early days of his recovery one of the things he did right was to try to understand his life, even after the accident, as simply “a variation on a theme we all deal with.” The theme he saw was simply that being “human is really hard.” It may have helped that Miller’s mother used a wheel chair, so his accident connected them in a new way. Since then Miller has come to realize that on the night those eleven thousand volts sprung through his body he began a new relationship with death. He came to see suffering, not as an intrusion on normal life, but simply as a part of normal life. He came to realize that his suffering could isolate him from others and from the sensuous world in which we live, or it could connect him.

One of the sources of Miller’s wisdom is the change in course he made after he got hurt. A year or so after he was sitting in an art history class. He had taken up that major in order to learn perspective. In that class—I imagine a professor clicking through a set of slides—he was struck by this fact: he and his classmates were sitting there looking at photographs of ancient sculptures, all of which were missing parts or damaged in some way. You’ve seen pictures like these: a nose broken off, a torso without legs, hands missing fingers. The class sat looking at these imperfect works of art which everyone believed were beautiful and important. How is it, Miller was prompted to wonder, that we have come to view these ancient figures this way, yet we do not grant ourselves the same grace?

We have become convinced that our suffering, our missing parts, our limitations, mean we are abnormal or disabled. We are often pushed to believe these forms of suffering mean we are not whole, not beautiful and not ourselves.

In addition to the story in the New York Times, there is a publicly available TED Talk that Miller gave in 2015.  What Miller’s story reminds me of is something each of our scriptures readings this morning (March 5) point to: that is, to be human creatures, such as we are, is to suffer. Paul tells us in Romans 5 that, as much as we are in Adam we are linked to death. As Adamites—or we could say, as ‘earthlings’—we are bound to death and sin. Though there may be some forms of suffering that are avoidable, there is much that is not. These unavoidable forms of suffering are simply, as Miller says, “part of the deal.” I think Paul would have agreed.

In our reading from Genesis 2, Adam and Eve eat from the one tree that was prohibited to them. They gain knowledge, knowledge of good and evil. We might say they gain self-awareness. They gain the knowledge that both good and evil are possible for them. That is, they lose their innocence and gain the troubling awareness that they are limited, frail and capable of destruction. This primordial couple becomes ashamed and their knowledge creates isolation.

Finally, the story of Jesus’ temptation in Matthew 5, which we usually read at the beginning of Lent, shows that even he is not impervious to temptation. As we will see at the end of this season—and as we enact whenever we celebrate Communion—Jesus suffers too.

Miller says that when his relationship with death began he realized that he would, in some sense, always be a patient. That is, he would be one who suffers. “I guess we’re all patients,” he said later. The Christian scripture would correlate his observation. We are all patients. Suffering and brokenness is the normal. At least it’s the norm in these middle chapters of the Great Physician’s story. Miller says, to this necessary suffering “we are called to make space, adjust, grow.” He goes on to say that these experiences can help us “realize forces larger then ourselves.” What’s more, “they bring proportionality . . . a cosmic right-sizing.”

Last Wednesday night I marked members of our congregation with ashes, as a sign of repentance, and I spoke these words over each person: “from dust you come, and to dust you will return.” Lent offers us a chance to undergo cosmic right-sizing and a chance to reset our relationship with God. These coming weeks are an opportunity to realize that we are frail, that suffering is part of the deal and . . . this is key . . . our weakness tempts us to look for shortcuts.

We are tempted to try to run away from our own vulnerability and to sidestep the way of the cross. Yet we cannot escape the fact that we are patients. We will suffer. We will not get out of life alive. Lent offers us an opportunity to reset our perspective. Or we could say to Lent offers us an opportunity to repent. Or we could say Lent offers us an opportunity to reshape our hearts. That is why we take up new practices during these forty days, practices like those Jesus mentioned: prayer, fasting and giving.

Several weeks ago I met with an Orthodox priest. He said that the Orthodox, he was from Ukrainian stock, think of sin more like a sickness than like breaking some rules. And if sin is a sickness then the medicines offered us are the practices of the Christian life and the sacraments of the church.

The temptations Jesus faced all involved taking a shortcut to fulfillment and glory. They all involved stepping out of his relationship with God the Father and they all involved skipping suffering. Jesus responded with a word from scripture, “It is written . . . .” We live in a time when so much of life is negotiable and when so much can happen so quickly. None of this trains us to be good patients or to suffer well. For contemporary patients like ourselves, tempted to think of suffering as optional, maybe we should refer to these words from the opening chapter of Colossians where “it is written”:

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light.

Don’t miss the phrase, “endure everything with patience.” Friends, I wish I could tell you that everything will work out, but obviously I can’t. We will all suffer in this coming year, and it will not be fairly distributed. In his Summa the great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas says that “Patience is chiefly about sorrow, for [someone] is said to be patient . . . because [he or she] behaves in a praiseworthy manner by suffering things which hurt here and now, in such a way as not to be inordinately saddened by them” (ST, II-II, 4). Being a patient who endures with patience means suffering without giving in to despair.

So I urge us all to practice patience now. In the little things. In being family, in negotiating public transit, in playing hockey, in having a body that doesn’t always seem up to being ‘normal’. We can live into the gift of the Spirit’s patience by praying or giving up for a time some form of physical pleasure or by sharing of our resources more readily. We can let practices like these perform a cosmic right-sizing on our self-perspective. We can let these practices and this Lenten season reset your relationship with God.

In the weeks after his accident Miller was cared for in a hospital burn unit. All parts of a hospital are concerned with the possibility of infection, but as I understand it, this is especially burn units. As such, staff are required to do their best to maintain a sterile environment. Unsure whether he really wanted to live or not, Miller found this isolation compounded his suffering. On top of unavoidable suffering there was suffering that was invented.

One day there was a snowstorm. Several of the nurses commented on how it was difficult for them to get to work. Miller caught himself wondering about the snow, imagining it. But of course being in a windowless, sterile environment, he could not experience it. What medicine can generally do for our suffering is give us an anesthetic. That is, it can dull our pain. One of Miller’s nurses, though, tried something a little different. Against protocol, she smuggled in a snowball. Instead of being satisfied with dulling Miller’s pain she let him hold this compacted crystalline form of water. Miller describes that experience as “rapture,” the coldness of the snow on his burning skin, the visual pleasure of watching it melt into liquid.

The nurse took a risk and put him in contact with the world. She traded anesthetics for aesthetics. She traded dulling the senses for engaging them. She made a connection. She showed compassion. She connected with Miller’s own suffering. In some way, maybe, she suffered with him. There’s a lesson here for us.

Because they have been practicing patience for a lifetime, Christians should be model patients. When we approach acute suffering we should be well-schooled in the virtue of patience. We should know that we undergo suffering best through the grace of connections and through the grace of allowing our story to play out in the richness of a world that is itself a gift. We suffer patiently because we never believe we do so alone. We suffer patiently because we believe we share in the inheritance of the saints of light. We suffer patiently because we know that the unmistakable reality of death and pain is not the end. Finally, we suffer patiently because we realize that the paradigmatic actions of Adam and Eve are not the most important. We are not bound to the shame of imperfection. It is the actions of Jesus that are the ones that truly matter. In Jesus the creator of this good world suffers with us even unto death—and overcomes it.

We can be patients who practice patience because it is a matter of enduring for a time. It is not submitting indefinitely.

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