We should value each other more than politics

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2016/02/26/value-each-other-more-than-politics/80922306/

Allow me to spin tangentially off of politics for a bit, if you don’t mind. (I promise to bring it back around.) After all, I suspect even the most passionate political advocate would welcome some news coverage of an alien invasion or a cat that speaks French, or anything just to take our minds off of the endless drone of political conversation. I feel like Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, in the classic movie, Groundhog Day. ‘There’s no way… this winter (or election)…is ever going to end.’
Instead, I want to talk about perspective. Many readers and friends will recall that five short years ago my wife Jan had a metastatic throat cancer. She endured some pretty miserable radiation and chemotherapy. After that she had a large pulmonary embolus (blood clot in the lung) which put her into intensive care and scared us all.
Over time she recuperated fully and our family went back to life as before, but with some incredible perspectives on the value of life, love, health and the inevitable passage of time. She recently had her last oncology visit and was released. Like a cat tip-toeing on wet grass, the years crept up on us and the thing we hoped and prayed for arrived at last, with less fanfare and perhaps more joy than ever. This year we celebrate her 13th birthday, on February 29th, seeing her as the treasure she is.
The great insight here is that all of our battles, won or lost, illustrate an often neglected fact. Which is that however much we may care about elections or economies or all the rest, the real joy and pain of life circles around that person, or those persons, we love the very most. And anything that makes life better for them, or us, probably won’t come from any elected official of any party but will mostly be the fruit of individual effort (and insight) motivated by intimacy and love.
Indeed, those who govern us have their effects, but hour to hour, day to day, year to year, they remain (quite expectedly) unfamiliar with the unique issues of the many and varied lives of their citizens. We, who love one another year to year, hour to hour, day to day, are best suited to improve the lives of our friends and family members, simply by holding them close in life’s assaults.
Happily, this election too, shall pass. Winners and losers will rise and fall, switch places and mostly end up as impotent to steer the ship of state as all those before them. Scandals will strike, accusations fly, a few good things will result and standard political doldrums will likely set in as always. The political pendulum will pause and swing back and forth as it has for ages, with utter disregard for our messianic political prophecies.
The future will come however we fret about the present. In the end, we will (hopefully) leave behind all of our invective, our screaming, our memes, rallies, slogans and our absolute conviction that a particular candidate will end or miraculously transform life as we know it. We’ll simply move on, as all humans do, to new idols. We’ll then cast the current objects of veneration on the dust-bin of history.
Perhaps, if we are attentive, we’ll then see that the things we dread about the future rarely come to pass at all and suddenly, five years, or ten, will pass and we will still be here, expecting the worst. All the while, of course, living in what is possibly the best time to be human in the history of the world. Many of the things that seemed so immediately critical will probably fade and many of the things that really mattered will remain despite the way we ignored their value. Then we can move forward…till the next election!
Ah, but those we love! Their troubles and victories will remain. Our shared joys and struggles will go on, bonding us together as no election ever could, motivating us far more than any party. They are the arena, they are the causes and campaigns where we make the most difference. They the ‘candidates’ who need and deserve our endless, unwavering devotion and sacrifice.
In our deep need to follow, let’s never forget to follow most closely the ones entrusted to us in the daily trials and wonders of ordinary life.

 

Christmas is Rooted in Imperfection

This was my column in Sunday’s Greenville News.  Merry Christmas my dear friends!

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2015/12/20/christmas-rooted-imperfection/77441958/

Christmas appears, if we believe the marketing, to be a season for the rich, happy, safe and whole. The time when vast, intact families of beautiful, healthy people gather around lavish feasts and exchange mountains of gifts, all while understanding ‘the real meaning of Christmas.’ Children come home from college, husbands and wives embrace, grandparents sit quietly around the fire attended by grandchildren and even the dogs have shiny coats, pawing open their toys from palatial pet stores. Outside the window snow falls and Santa slips away with a smile. I love it! Except, it isn’t always that way. In fact, it isn’t mostly that way.

Maybe that’s why it started the way it did. Humble and dusty, in a shed for animals, with poor parents, traveling far from home and having a baby whose identity and destiny were, at the least, overwhelming. Christmas started in a place where poverty was not merely widespread but baseline. Riches, means, these were the outliers. When Christmas is temporally perfect, that’s grand. But Christmas is for those struggling. At Christmas, Jesus is born into the midst of difficulty and brokenness, not into a palace.

Furthermore, the Christ child came to a people with a clear cultural memory of slavery, in a time when they were subject to the vast power of almighty Rome. He came in a time when being forced into slavery, because of debt, crime or conquest, was simply a fact of all too many lives. It is comical that those who object to Christianity use the term ‘slave religion.’ Of course it is. It was and is a slave religion because it cared for the slaves (and others nobody wanted), embraced them, and because Jesus himself said came, among other missions, ‘to proclaim liberty to the captives.’

And of course, we are slaves and captives still. Slaves to the illusion that politics (or worse, politicians) will redeem the world. Slaves to possessions. Captive to the idea that only money matters, and that with enough money every person will be good, healthy, kind and just if only we can shuffle it around adequately. Slaves to the beliefs that we can control everything, that success is all and that education and intelligence somehow excuse us from trouble. Captives all around, though the shackles are prettier than the heavy iron of old days. But they hold us still.

Jesus was not born so that we could have a nice holiday, although I love Christmas as many of us do. He was born, launched into this world, a teacher, healer, deliverer, redeemer. And this is very important for all of those whose lives are broken at Christmas. I’ve seen them over and over. Christmas can be a time of grieving, worry, fear, sickness, loss, mourning and loneliness as surely as it’s a time of beauty and wonder. And why not? It fits the story. Angels and heavenly songs attend the infant King, born into a place of trouble and suffering, point-counterpoint.

So then, move past the limited accounts we have of that first Christmas. Watch the Gospels after Christmas and see the child become a man. He healed the possessed, the blind and lame. He taught mercy and turned human judgment upside down time after time. He raised the dead. And he forgave sins, which is maybe the one thing we find the most objectionable of all (because it would mean we have to believe in sin and our own guilt).

Trouble at Christmas is especially hurtful, simply because we want everything to be just right. But we must not be ‘troubled at the trouble.’ Christmas happened, and happens, exactly because of trouble. The world needed more than kind words and beautiful ideas. It needed a deliverer, who would plop right down in the midst of every dark thing that binds and wounds us.

I hope that everyone has the perfect Christmas, with loved ones and prosperity all around. But most of the world won’t. Which is, beautifully and ironically, exactly why Christmas happened. And why the man Jesus, years later, said in John 16:33, ‘I have said these things to you that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.’

If that’s not a Christmas greeting for everyone, nothing ever was.

Merry Christmas.

Prayers for a quiet night

Many of you, dear readers, work in busy hospital settings. And often, you do so at night.  I have written a lot about nights down the years.  In fact, my first book was a compilation of columns titled ‘Working Knights,’ in a word play on a column I wrote called ‘The White Knights of Medicine.’

My 2 years of locums haven’t been too bad as nights go. Usually I’ve worked overnight in critical access facilities where nights often meant actual, uninterrupted sleep.  But I’m facing three busy nights, starting tonight.  I’m working in Medium Community Hospital, in a popular tourist location.  I’m not excited, but neither am I filled with dread.  Over the years, I think I have become hardened to nights in a way. While I’m working, I can really pull it together.  Having 22 years under my belt, since residency, makes for confidence.  Working so often alone, in the middle of ‘East Egypt,’ also adds a level of certainty and resilience.  The recovery is the difficult part.  The next day I usually feel fairly awful.  But I get the patients seen, and more importantly (these days) I get the charts done.  I feel like I’m at my peak as a professional.

Some of that also has to do with routine.  I have things I do when I work nights.  First of all, I rarely sleep well the first night.  I accept that fact.  Second, I take enough food and enough drink to stoke the fires all night long (and it’s a pretty big fire when I’m tired).  Third, I wear a jacket or soft shirt because my cortisol drop at night leaves me shivering.  Fourth, I pray.

Yep, that’s right. I have a routine.  It’s no secret that I’m a Christian. I write about it with some regularity.  And thus, I incorporate prayer into my pre-shift routine.  I do it, in fact, for every shift, whether day or night.  Occasionally I forget. God understands.

So what do I pray? Let me give you my routine.

I pray the Doxology, the Gloria Patri, for my family, for my patients and then the Lord’s Prayer ( or Pater Noster if you’re of a Latin inclination).  (If you grew up in some churches you sang the first two and you may know the tune.)  My routine goes like this:

Doxology:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow,

Praise him all creatures here below,

Praise him above ye heavenly hosts.

Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

Amen.

Gloria Patri:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy  Ghost.

As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.

World without end,

Amen.

Pater Noster:

Father, God, please watch over Jan, Sam, Seth, Elijah and Elysa tonight and keep them in your care.  Bring us all safely home together.  Bless my patients, and let no one be seriously injured, or killed, or die.  And give me insight, wisdom, knowledge and love to do my work.  In Jesus’ name.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  They kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.  Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.  And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.  Amen.

I’m not saying everyone should do this. It’s my thing.  It’s my strength in time of trial and fatigue.  And despite it, bad things happen.  God is sovereign over ER’s too.

But I’ll tell you this.  With the right prayer, the right food and drink and a warm jacket, I can endure almost anything night shift throws my way!

God bless you on yours.

 

 

The value of religious faith in the practice of medicine

The value of religious faith in the practice of medicine.  Delivered to students at the Virginia College of Oseopathic Medicine, Spartanburg, SC, earlier this year.

Faith in medicine? Why does it matter? I’ll tell you a couple of reasons.

Let me qualify, this is not about evangelism and it is not a crusade. I am a Christian, but you may not be. Nevertheless, you must attend to the three things I am going to mention.

First, it matters because of your humanity and that of your patients. You’re just starting your journey, full of love and goodness and hope. But It matters because humans can be difficult. ‘Check yourself!’ Stabbings, abuse, shootings, overdose, lies. It matters because doctors can be difficult and we need to recognize that. To assess ourselves soberly. ‘You check yourself!’ The rant in the mud and blood. My ‘take it to the parking lot’ attitude.

Next, it matters because however difficult they are, they’re wonderful and beautiful. And however beautiful and wonderful, they’re difficult and sometimes dangerous.  It’s easy to spout platitudes about serving humanity, and it’s even easier when humanity is sweet and gentle and appreciative.  It becomes harder when humans, like doctors, are ugly, angry, uncooperative, resentful, hateful and violent.  Faith teaches us to overcome the problems of humanity in ourselves and in our patients.

Faith also matters because 0f suffering. Biology doesn’t answer suffering. Darwin for all his insight doesn’t answer suffering. This is not to disparage Darwin. It wasn’t his purpose. Neither does chemistry or pharmacology or anatomy or surgery or emergency medicine or oncology. All of those are things to manage or describe suffering. Why suffering? I have some answers, but they lie in theology. You must have some answers. It is part of your job to comfort your patients (as we comfort those we love most, often simply by loving them). But you must answer suffering for yourself. For I believe that much burnout is an excuse to excuse ourselves from the presence of too much suffering. I am not entirely convinced it is wrong to do so.

Finally, faith matters because of hope. What can we offer outside of temporary relief? What can we offer the young mother with life altering cancer? The parent of the dead child? The terminal diagnosis, the lifelong disability, the endless pain? If this world is naturalistic, meaningless, devoid of purpose, then it is doubly hurtful.  It is a horrible thing to experience suffering and then to conclude that perhaps nature is just weeding you out as either less fit or of no further use.

Can you find hope for yourself? Can you give hope if someone asks?

Here are some quotes and insights that have been of value to me.

“There is the great lesson of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ that a thing must be loved before it is lovable.”
G.K. Chesterton

“What a chimera then is man. What a novelty! What a monster, what a chaos, what a contradiction, what a prodigy. Judge of all things, imbecile worm of the earth; depositary of truth, a sink of uncertainty and error: the pride and refuse of the universe.”
Blaise Pascal

Hope means hoping when things are hopeless, or it is no virtue at all… As long as matters are really hopeful, hope is mere flattery or platitude; it is only when everything is hopeless that hope begins to be a strength.” G.K. Chesterton

Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”  G.K. Chesterton

“God is love.  That is why he suffers. To love our suffering world is to suffer…The one who does not see God’s suffering does not see his love.  So, suffering is down at the centre of things, deep down where the meaning is.  Suffering is the meaning of our world.  For love is meaning.  And love suffers.  The tears of God are the meaning of history. ”

Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, who lost a son in a climbing accident.

“Contrary to what might be expected, I look back on experiences that at that time seemed especially desolating and painful. I now look back upon them with particular satisfaction. Indeed, I can say with complete truthfulness that everything I have learned in my seventy-five years in this world, everything that has truly enhanced and enlightened my existence has been through affliction and not through happiness whether pursued or attained. In other words, I say this, if it were possible to eliminate affliction from our earthly existence by means of some drug or other medical mumbo-jumbo, the results would not be to make life delectable, but to make it too banal and trivial to be endurable. This, of course, is what the cross signifies and it is the cross, more than anything else, that has called me inexorably to Christ.”  Malcom Muggeridge

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which,if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilites, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – These are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”  C.S. Lewis, ‘The Weight of Glory’

I have received no assurance that anything we can do will eradicate suffering. I think the best results are obtained by people who work quietly away at limited objectives, such as the abolition of the slave trade, or prison reform, or factory acts, or tuberculosis, not by those who think they can achieve universal justice, or health, or peace. I think the art of life consists in tackling each immediate evil as well as we can.” C.S. Lewis, ‘The Weight of Glory.’

At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in.” C.S. Lewis, ‘The Weight of Glory.’

The Cross Pokes us with its Sharp Corners

This is my column in today’s Greenville News.  Happy Easter!  He is Risen Indeed!

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2015/04/04/ed-leap-cross-pokes-us-sharp-corners/25273309/

I have a cross necklace that I received as a gift for Christmas. This cross is a little larger than others I have worn. It is noticeable. And it is also a little annoying. When I sit, it pokes me in the chest with sharp corners. I have to say that I’m glad. Crosses, the ones with real meaning, are like that. They are, one might say, offensive.

Christians use the cross as an emblem of our belief. It’s on our churches and the back windows of our cars. It’s draped around our bodies in jewelry and tattooed on our skin. It decorates the walls of our homes (which remain vampire free; it works). We could have stuck with a fish, or some symbol that looked like an empty tomb. But we are drawn to the cross, to the horizontal and vertical confluence of earth and heaven, the geometric representation of the person of Jesus.

Today, the holiest day of the Christianity, we remember that ultimately powerless cross of 2000 years ago, where Jesus of Nazareth died for a while. Crucifixion was hardly unique. It was just one implement of misery used by an empire adept at causing suffering and death, for all their greatness in other areas. (Like all powerful empires and nations.) I think that maybe his cross can seem offensive to moderns because it was not special. Thorns, scourges, beatings, blood, nails, ropes, spears, insults, nakedness. The way common convicts died, in pain and fear. Is it offensive because it was so common? Maybe. We like our deities the way we like our politicians, super-heroes and entertainers; rich, powerful, invulnerable. Jesus, on earth, was none of those things.

Of course, the cross may be offensive, even painful to us today because we can inherit it. Jesus said, ‘if any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me.’ It looms over the believer’s life, saying ‘what have you done for the one who hung here?’ But we prefer small crosses, with smooth edges and no demands, that we can stow away for Sunday.

Or it could be that the cross is annoying and offensive because it meant judgment and punishment. We prefer to pretend, in our moral and spiritual superiority, that there must be no judgment of anyone, for any reason. And we certainly don’t want to see punishment meted out, unless it’s against our ideological enemies. But just maybe, the entire story we celebrate today offends because it exactly what we need, and exactly what we refuse. The world wants the love of the teaching, healing Jesus. The world is offended and frustrated by the moral, righteous Jesus and by the very idea that we sin and need atonement. (This despite the fact that we believe fully in sin, we just call it things like intolerance or hatred, phobia, greed or ignorance.)

The story is also offensive to us because it spits in the eye of death, the one thing we fear most of all (an idol for modern man if ever there was one). I mean, that we decorate ourselves with the instrument of our Lord’s torture and murder can only be by his design; perhaps it’s even his way of goading the devil; a cosmic, ‘told you so!’

The resurrected Jesus also offends because he rises above the hatred we want to hold so closely as our own possession. Jesus lives, dies and rises for all who will accept the gift: for ISIS fighters and the Christians they usher into martyrdom, for gay rights activists as well as fundamentalist Christians. The same for liberal and conservative, rich and poor, for Israeli and Palestinian, city and country, atheist and believer, Democrat, Republican, Communist or Tea Partier. Easter offends because the tortured, resurrected Jesus gives us no excuse for our own varied ways of hating and marginalizing. The stunning, love soaked sacrifice he made was the most democratic, the most universal, ever offered.

Today, we celebrate the offending, offensive, loving, pursuing, resurrected Christ. No amount of apologizing for him will make him less annoying to the world, so we needn’t worry about trying. And no amount of your own pride or sin will make him love you less. His cross, wounds and empty tomb are witness to that truth.

He is risen indeed!

Cheering His Doom. (A poem for Good Friday.)

Cheering his doom. A poem for Good Friday, but I’ll be on the road tomorrow. (I posted this last year, but wanted to bring it out again.)

Jesus on the Cross with Heavenly Sky Above

 

 

Cheering his doom

 

Tattooed and angry,

drunk or hung-over,

violent and frothing,

through the streets of Jerusalem

they called out

rude names and screamed

‘crucify him!’

 

It was sweet to see the healer,

the hypocrite, the charlatan

brought to a just end.

But any bloodshed was

better than boredom,

or the quiet hell of guilt.

 

And behind them, arms crossed

over fresh, clean robes,

were the sober

the good and proper who,

also, shouted or whispered

(those whispers were venom)

‘it’s a good thing too,

a trouble-make he is;’

terrified, all of them, that the man’s

words were a threat to their dusty,

ages-old ease,

or might awaken their numb souls,

so long free of nagging prophets.

 

Yet it was neither Jew nor Roman,

barbarian, Scythian, slave, or free,

male or female who lined the streets

where spit-covered palm fronds,

one week old,

decayed beneath

his bloody feet.

 

It was not Protestant or Catholic,

not Orthodox or Pagan,

not Muslim or Buddhist or Hindu

or even atheist.

 

It was I, me, mine, us,

who loved him first,

then found hate more natural than

the higher, harder nature he offered.

God indeed!

 

And we cheered (and cringed) as the scourge flew

and the flesh flew and the fists

and hammers fell hard,

and the thorns made blood into wine,

while nails

sank into those carpenter’s

holy hands

(leaving holes for future doubters),

and a spear opened a fountain

of baptismal fluid on the hillside.

 

And on that third day, well,

who saw that coming?

 

Except him, of course.

He forgave our ignorant

complicity from his

transient throne of cross-beams.

 

Blind, helpless fools.

In our murder, we merely

let him save us.

 

Edwin Leap, 2014

 

Death takes another Holiday. My December EM News column.

http://2.bp.blogspot.com/-5i4cdnmRWmQ/T9yc-PltQ8I/AAAAAAAAGhQ/0Xe4eoAx3p0/s1600/4.jpg

 

Death takes another Holiday

My December column in Emergency Medicine News

http://journals.lww.com/em-news/Fulltext/2014/12000/Life_in_Emergistan__Death_Takes_Another_Holiday.11.aspx

 

One Christmas morning you wake to head off for your standard Christmas shift. Then the news flashes. “This just in: There is no more sickness or death. Hospital workers are directed to remain home today and enjoy the holiday.”

Figure. No caption a...

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Attribute it to whatever you want. Sudden scientific breakthrough, alien visitation, divine miracle.

You call the ED. “Is everything all right down there?”

You hear celebration in the background, music playing loudly. “It’s crazy,” says the secretary. “Something happened. We have no idea what, but the waiting room is empty. Before midnight we were 30 patients deep. Back pain, chest pain, fever, flu. Remember the woman you left? The one dying of melanoma? Around 2 a.m. there was a flash, and the computers rebooted. We figured she only had hours. We walked into her room, and she was asking for hot apple cider. She got dressed, left, and brought us donuts. Can you believe it?”

You head to work, puzzled. Your neighbor with lung disease is rolling up a snowman with his grandkids, who were in town to see him for what they believed was a last visit. Speeding past a nursing home, you see cars lined up to gather the belongings of the formerly infirm. They are carrying their own bags and crying into the embracing arms of children they had not viewed with clarity for a decade.

Shaking your head, you pull into the parking lot. All of the ambulances sit quietly in spaces. “Busy morning?” you ask the shift manager. “Haven’t gone out since 2 a.m. Strangest night ever. First Christmas Eve without a tragedy.” He tears up and pats your shoulder.

The doors hiss open as you swipe your badge. Inside the rooms are full, as you suspected. But full of revelry. Nowhere in the vast trauma center does anyone gasp, nowhere is a ventilator sustaining the head injured. A man with a head bandaged like a war hero chats with his family in the conference room. All you hear is, “They said they would harvest your organs.” He pulls away the last of the bloody bandages where no blood now flows.

Into the chaos comes the on-call administrator. She is frantic. “This is ridiculous! Someone needs to get these people back into their beds! We are violating privacy and contaminating everyone!”

She hears a voice and looks behind her as her bedridden husband, afflicted with MS for his entire adult life, walks in looking for her. She runs to him. And wonder of wonders, he lifts her.

You are incredulous. And you walk. Up the stairs, down halls, into operating rooms. Nowhere is there any order, as the end of suffering brings joy. Laughter is everywhere, along with weeping powered not by grief but by relief. Sick children skip, ancient patients walk. Curved backs are straight. Nurses and doctors wonder, “What now?”

There are emergency meetings. Angry fists pounded over lost income. Confusion over bonds and debts and staffing. Decisions on how long to remain open. A while, for sure. This might be a fluke.

The hallways are empty except for those awaiting family from far away. No morphine is given. No fluids, no labs. Every pizza place in town has sent food. You realize, from historical photos, that it’s like the liberation of POW camps. The march of men and women who were on the steps of the gallows, now picking flowers and hitching a ride home to people they believed, only hours before, they would never see again.

At the end of a dark and empty hallway, where you pronounced patients dead, you collapse onto your knees in relief and cry a little yourself. You pull into the driveway, and your wife, her eyes misty, kisses you and holds you close, then sits you down to a sumptuous dinner.

You have no idea how you will pay the bills, how you will support the family, what you will do with the knowledge, the skill, the experience. “If everyone is OK, are you still a doctor?” the little one asks.

“I don’t know, my little dove,” you say. “But the thing is, I just don’t care!”

And the best Christmas, since the first, has come at last.

Anemic angels are not for me

http://tinyurl.com/ltay4hk

 

I have noted, to my distress, that our home Nativity Set lacks an angel.  It’s an artistic set, very pretty and there are some angels drawn onto the other characters.   But there’s no stand-alone, in your face, announcing the Good News, scaring the shepherds kind of angel!  Even as a child, our nativity set had an angel.  The angel was lovely and gentle, arms spread over the scene with flowing robes and the wings of a dove.  Granted, I wasn’t there in Bethlehem.  I can’t speak to the actual appearance of the Heavenly Host.  But from all accounts, they were unsettling, to say the least.

So I went looking for angels.  I looked online for images for this post.  I found cute angels, sweet angels, fat angels, funny angels, angels meant to look sexy, fairy-like angels, evil-appearing angels, Manga angels and all manner of others.  (I had to look for Medieval Angels and Archangels to find the one above.)

I’ve checked book stores and card shops and all the rest.  What I’ve found has been, well, boring.  If one of the angels I’ve seen in stores had been posted with a flaming sword outside the Garden of Eden, we’d all still be there. Adam could have chased that angel off by throwing rocks, or yelling loudly.  ‘And don’t come back, either!’

http://images5.fanpop.com/image/photos/24900000/Beautiful-Angel-angels-24919961-1024-768.jpg

(See what I mean?)

If the angels we see in modern pictures and nativities bear any semblance to reality, they would not have blinded the wicked men of Sodom, but have brought them soothing cups of tea.  The anemic, tender angels I find in stores would not say to the shepherds, ‘Fear not,’ but rather, ‘pardon me, I don’t mean to be a bother, but down yonder is the Son of God.  Go ye and see Him, if it isn’t too much trouble.’  Instead of ‘Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord!’  Our sweet angels might not have warned Joseph to flee Herod, or have guided Hagar and Ishmael in the desert to water.   (They’d hate to get involved in politics or family feuds, but they’d bake cookies and call the authorities.)

The Bible’s angels are ‘a flaming fire,’ ministering spirits, and protectors; powerful players, some of whom, the Bible says, rebelled against God and ‘lost their first estate’ and will be consigned to eternal punishment for that act.  They waged war in heaven, and those of us who are believers are convinced it continues to this day, led by Satan, once the most beautiful angel.  Cherubs?  Not so much.  Dogs or cats with wings?  Not hardly.

Angels guard us for God, though we are instructed not to worship them, for they are created like we are.  God ‘gives his angels charge of thee, to protect thee in all thy ways.’  They bring good news, about other births, like those of Isaac and John.  They told Mary Magdalene about the resurrection.  They comfort believers.  The angels fought battles and delivered messages to the saints and patriarchs, and gave the Law to Moses.  Angels shut the mouths of lions and will, we are told, announce the return of Christ and stand around the throne of the King one day.

I guess that’s why I can’t find an angel that suits me. It would have to scare me a bit.  ‘Yes sir, I think I have such an angel for your nativity.  But it’s large, and seems to inadvertently burn things.  And the last person that opened the box ran out and never came back.  It’s bright and a little loud and tends to sing songs of praise at all hours.  Although, I’ll admit, we do feel happier with it in the store; even if it seems a bit dangerous.’

That’s the angel I want.   But then, that’s the faith I want.  I don’t want a faith of milquetoast saints and weepy eyed angels, of endlessly apologetic and fearful believers or uncertain clergy who can’t make declarative statements.  I want a faith that is so overwhelmingly good and hopeful that it turns all of our darkest horror-movie images of evil into little more than cockroaches in the corner.  I want a faith where the fiery servants of God don’t have to negotiate with evil, or run from it, but laugh in its face.

I try to imagine, sometimes, the opposite of a horror movie.  A movie so infused with the love and creativity and power of God that it is almost frightening.  A movie where, if evil appear, it is shown for what it is. Small, transient, inadequate, temporal.  A movie where angels, my kind of angels, are what they are meant to be.  Emissaries of good and light and mercy and justice and judgment.  Who, for all their power, bow before the Great King of Glory who comes in the end.  A movie in which every dark places is opened up to light and every cruel act is ended and every injustice is righted and every loss corrected.  An ending that makes the ending of all the best stories seem inadequate in its grandeur.

But then, Christmas is the trailer, in a way.  And perhaps, Easter is another (even better) trailer.  Both show us a good so vast and so magnificent that we can barely imagine.  One day, goodness will erupt.  I believe I will see angels, in this life or the next.  I believe that I will see things so incredible that they will be the best kind of frightening, the most wonderful kind of terrifying, the most hopeful kind of overwhelming.  That the pit of the stomach, sweating hands, eyes wide kind of feeling I had over bad things will finally come over the ultimate good; it was a feeling stolen by the enemy for a while, you see.  When it happens,  I’ll know deep inside that bad is finished.

It won’t be awful.  It will be awe full.  And I suspect there isn’t a work of art that fully expresses it.

I hope you have a very, Merry Christmas.  And that you ponder the numinous, marvelous terror of seeing angels and that magnificent wonder of knowing, as the witnesses to the birth of Jesus did, that ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it’ (John 1:5).

May angels guard you fiercely, now and always, and preserve you till that great day.

Edwin

 

PS.  Here are some verses on angels if you’re interested.  Not exhaustive, but interesting.

http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/Bible-Verses-About-Angels/

Pause and remember our real bounty. My Greenville News Thanksgiving column.

http://www.greenvilleonline.com/story/opinion/contributors/2014/11/22/ed-leap-pause-remember-real-bounty/19344775/

 

The first Thanksgiving was a celebration of the harvest. The Puritan settlers of Plymouth Plantation, Massachusetts, declared a day of thanks in the fall of 1621 because they had a very good year. So much so that they took several days off to celebrate. There are scant written records of that day, but from what we have, it’s apparent that they were thrilled to have plenty of crops, as well as Indian corn, water-fowl, turkey, local sea-food and whatever else nature could provide.

It was not without precedent. It was an old European tradition (an old human tradition) to celebrate the harvest. From the descriptions, they celebrated it in a way we in the South could respect. They prayed and then ate…and ate. They also hunted and practiced with their assault rifles…that is, muskets. (Just like us Southern Baptists!)

And they had their friends over; in fact, some 90 Wampanoag Indians with their Chief Massasoit, who brought the venison. They stayed three days, eating with their fair-skinned neighbors. The bounty was so great, in fact, that the Pilgrims wrote letters to relatives in England, describing it.

The Puritan Pilgrims understood the power of Thanksgiving. They understood that it was an important thing, a thing of perspective. Given that they were ‘right wing religious nuts with guns,’ they took seriously the injunction to give thanks to God for their bounty.

It’s all too easy for us to associate their Thanksgiving with ours. First of all, theirs was a very specific, intentional act. Ours is a national holiday, and has been since 1941. One that we easily take it for granted. In the big picture, our national bounty is so great that Thanksgiving can become just another holiday we struggle to understand, just another time of family stress when we try to do too much and launch ourselves into the frenzy of more mindless bounty at Christmas.

Keep in mind, however, that the Pilgrims lived on the very edge of a vast, unknown continent, thousands of miles across the Atlantic from the things they had always known. Their close neighbors were starvation and disease. One bad harvest could end the colony. One case of pneumonia, one infected wound or childbirth gone bad, and a new grave would be necessary.

There were no hospitals, and there were no shopping centers. An i-Phone search for ‘nearest Supermarket’ would have yielded ‘no search results.’ Starbucks? 350 years away. Luxury was what they created. At any moment, their native friends could have swept them from the earth. They faced potential catastrophe in America and oppression back home. Rock and a hard place, devil and the deep blue sea. But they were thankful.

We can learn so much. In the midst of our political and cultural battles, we should step back. Yes, there is hunger in America. But we have, without doubt, the tools and the bounty to solve it if we choose. Yes, there is political dissent; and then some. But despite the dramatic changes of the recent election, guess what didn’t happen? No bombs at polling places. No one rounded up and executed, body tossed in a ditch because of their political views or ethnicity. Yes, we have various divisions along religious, philosophical, and racial lines…even along lines of sexuality. But guess what? We don’t put our opponents into camps or prisons. (We do say mean things on social media, though.)

Some people understand. Those who survive terrible diseases, or those who know they won’t, but have to view life as a gift they have already opened and enjoyed as much as possible. Those whose families had trouble, but who came through intact. Those who endured war and came home to their loved ones. Those who served in places of hunger and sickness around the world, and saw what it was like to fly home to a city with food, shelter and clean water literally everywhere.

As we think about Thanksgiving this year, and begin to give thanks, we should pause to remember our bounty. Not the theoretical bounty of the ‘horn of plenty’ on our tables, but the bounty of life, every single day in our modern, richly endowed nation. For all it’s problems, it’s pretty amazing. And for the great gift of perspective. Because as the Pilgrims knew so well, true Thanksgiving is understood best at the junction of profound struggle with breathless gratitude.

If God had an ER, I’d be a regular. (A devotional reading)

This was originally given to a group of Christian physicians and their spouses. But ultimately, I think it is relevant to everyone, physician or not.

If God had an ER, I’d be a regular!

They come from every walk of life, every age, race, nationality, financial status, sexuality and gender. All hours of the day, and of the night, they trickle or pour through the doors of the ER.

I have been doing it for 21 years. And I am, by now, seldom surprised. I am not stunned by intimate complaints, I am not shocked by bloody injuries, I am not amazed by ridiculous questions that suggest a complete lack of knowledge of their own bodies.

I am, however, petty. I am sinful and sometimes angry. I am snarky and sarcastic. ‘What did you think would happen?’ I ask. Or this one, at 3 am, who came by EMS for a wart: ‘So tell me, what’s YOUR emergency?’

I am tired; that’s the reason for some of it. And I am unable to change much. The fixed realities of modern medicine are largely unyielding to me, a small fish in a small pond.

But sometimes, I am prideful. ‘I would never do that!’

Sometimes I am greedy. ‘I’ll never make a dime for this.’

Sometimes I am uncaring. ‘She’s going to die; why can’t they accept that?’

And other times I am insensitive. ‘It’s just a fever, I don’t know why that mom is so worried!’

They are so needy! Oh my goodness, their need exhausts me. This is my confession, that I am overwhelmed.

This one needs pain medication and that one needs a work excuse.

He needs discharge papers and she needs a cup of ice.

She needs a referral but can’t afford it. He won’t take his medicine even though he can.

She thinks she might be pregnant but won’t get a test. He wants help for his drinking. But he’s drunk right now, so that doesn’t count.

They were in a minor car wreck and their lawyer said ‘go get checked.’

They were at work when someone vomited, now everyone is vomiting and thinks they have been poisoned.

This one was exposed to an STD. That one wants a Viagra refill.

He thinks his 15 years of back pain needs a specialist now. She thinks she saw a spider on her leg and thinks it might be fatal; she saw it on Discovery channel.

After a night like this recently, I came away with an insight.

‘Lord,’ I said, ‘you must love us a lot because we all act like my patients.’

So let’s pretend, for a little bit, that we are the patients. We are the annoyed, annoying, needy, sick, dying, worried patients.

Question 1: What’s the most ridiculous or annoying thing that anyone has ever brought to you as a physician? What complaints or issues simply make your hair stand on end; make you want to run out and get a welding certificate? What seemed so silly, so obviously unnecessary, that you almost said something you’d regret? (Shop vac and spider)

Now this Question: What’s the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever brought to the Father?

Pause to consider it.

Was it ridiculous to you?

Was it ridiculous….to Him?

Do you think for a second that he laughed, or turned you away?

The children were brought to him so He might put His hands on them and pray. But the disciples rebuked them. Then Jesus said, ‘Leave the children alone, and don’t try to keep hem from coming to me, because the kingdom of heaven is made up of people like this.’ After putting his hands on them, he went on from there. Matthew 19: 13-15

He knows your need. And he does not mind your asking. Even if it’s the ridiculous question of a child; or an adult. In fact, you are expected to ask, to come with your need.

‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with out weaknesses, but One who has been tested in every way as we are, yet without sin. Therefore, let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us at the proper time.’ Hebrews 4: 15-16.

Question 2: Has anyone asked you for something, as a patient, that you just didn’t have the energy or will to do? Have they had a complaint you didn’t want to pursue? Have they had a need for a prescription, form, anything that you just didn’t or wouldn’t do? I confess that sometimes I don’t want to write the work excuse. Or check that extra test they ask for; just because I feel I’m being pressured. (I’m not always nice…but then again, none of us are.)

What need have you brought to the Father? Think about it for a minute.

Pause

Did he turn you away? Oh, he may not have met it the way you wanted. But did he turn you away?

Whatever you ask in my name, I will do it so that the Father may be glorified in the son. If you ask ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. John 14: 13-14

Question 3

Do people come to you, as a physician, with questions for which the answer seems absolutely, obviously, painfully simple? Do you wonder why they don’t know the answer? Do you want to ask, ‘Are you kidding me? It’s just…a…fever!’ Does it ever seem like your job is simply reassurance? Do you forget, sometimes, that they didn’t go to medical school?

Do you ever come to the Father with questions that you should already know the answer to? With fears and doubts about His love for you? With uncertainty about your already certain destiny? With doubts that He knows what He’s doing? The same way people ask you, ‘are you sure I’m going to be alright?’ Or ‘how many times have you done this?’ Or, to me, ‘Are you going to have a practice someday?’ Or ‘I couldn’t get into the real doctor, so I came here.’

Pause for a bit to consider the questions you’ve brought to ‘God’s ER’ that you ought to know the answer to, as a believer.

Do you believe, for an instant, that he minds calming your fears; for the hundredth time? Jesus says:

I have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. 1 John 5: 13

and Paul says this

Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses every thought, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Philipians 4: 6-7

He does not condemn the worrier, but reassures the worrier. So much of the scripture is a reassurance in the midst of a worrisome, terrifying, fearful life. Just the way we find ourselves reassuring patients that things are alright. They don’t always know it and they need for us to tell them.

The Father tells us over and over. And like our patients, we keep coming back with the same fears.

It’s OK, he doesn’t ever say, ‘don’t ask me again.’

Question 4: Do people come to you with questions you have NO idea how to answer? With complaints that seem to be genuine concerns to them, but do not fit any recognizable pattern? ‘The pain goes from my left eye to my right knee, every night at 8 pm, and makes me have dizziness and itching for 30 minutes. What is it?’ Or do they say to you, in your exhaustion and at your wits’ end, ‘I’ve been to Mayo clinic and Cleveland Clinic and I’m here because I can’t stand this pain anymore. Can you help me?’

Snarky, sarcastic me, says: ‘I’m not smart enough to solve your problem this morning at 3 am.’

Consider this: Do you bring situations to God that simply haven’t been solved? Questions that haven’t been answered? Do you bring to him desperate conditions or hopeless scenarios? Do you doubt HIS professionalism? Do you wonder if he has an answer or a solution to your pain?

Pause to consider.

I’d say that there is always an answer. Sometimes, however, it’s not an easy answer. You may have to keep asking and looking and trying.

Suppose one of you has a friend and goes to him a midnight and says to him ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread because a friend of mine on a journey has come o me and I don’t have anything to offer him.’ Then he will answer from inside and say ‘don’t bother me!’ The door is already locked and my children and I have gone to bed. I can’t get up to give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he won’t get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his friend’s persistence, he will get up and give him as much as he needs. So I say to you, keep asking, and it will be given to you. Keep searching, and you will find. Keep knocking, and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who searches finds, and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Luke 11: 5-10

The search, the asking, the seeking itself is working some change in your heart and soul. It is chipping away rough edges. It is heating the iron of your eternal self and shaping it into the perfect being that lies in your future as you become more and more like Him.

Question 5: Do people ever come to you simply because they have nowhere else to go? With questions that make no sense, with stories that are so wildly confabulated that there must be another problem? With bruises they won’t explain? Or with tearful eyes and clutched chest and you say, ‘have you been under any stress?’ And they suddenly sob? Do you ever think, ‘I really don’t have time for this today!’

Do you, yourself, come to the Father with nothing but your own brokenness? With no way to even ask the deep questions? With no knowledge of the answer you want? With a crushing sense that everything is spinning out of control?

Pause to consider a time when you did this.

Do you think that God was wearied by your desperation? Do you think that he puzzled over what you were saying? Do you think he was unmoved by your sorrow?

In the same way the Spirit also joints to help in our weakness, because we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with unspoken groanings. And He who searches the hearts knows the Spirit’s mind-set, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. Romans 8: 26-27

And this, which always makes me think of the masses, the desperation, the confusion I see and you see; and that He sees, in you and me.

So as He stepped ashore, He saw a huge crowd and had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Then he began to teach them many things. Mark 6:34

The thing is, we are all the same as the patients who vex us. We are all the crazy lady in the ER hallway, the needy person in the room with the call-light, the drunk angry at the world and straining against handcuffs, the one quietly mourning, the one anxious for no good reason, the suicidal, the hurting, the dying.

We’re all those patients. And that’s OK with Jesus. He never leaves the ER anyway, but just waits for us to come to him. And thus he says:

Come unto me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. All of you, take up my yoke and learn from me, because I am gentle, and humble in heart, and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. Matthew 11: 28-30

Rest, and remember to show compassion. For you have received it. And remember that you are loved and adopted by the God of the universe.

And he’s even in charge of the ER.