Joy, Faith, Hope

IMG_1446“To live is Christ and to die is gain.”

I wrote back in December, “This is the Christian life. Joy and sorrow. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away, blessed be the name of the Lord…I know that God has good things in store for us. The Lord is faithful.”  In some sense, this paragraph has set the tone for this blog, and for me in life, since.  I’ve been seeing life now through the lens of mercies and joys in the context of our Christian faith, and it has been incredibly helpful to me.  And it’s true: Lutherans are very focused on the Cross of Christ, the theology of the Cross.  We don’t claim to have all the answers to the questions of why, but what we do know is Christ suffered and died for us.  He is with us always, and comes to be with us, to comfort us, and to strengthen us in His Word and Sacraments.  The Christian life is not a life of unending joy and glory.  Rather, it is a life of joy through tears, of faith through suffering, of hope of the life to come.

We have been rejoicing because we have a new pastor.  God brought us a very faithful man.  We issued a call to him, and he recently accepted.  (Our vacancy pastor Sunday was amazed that we have a new pastor after only one call–apparently a little rare around here!) We needed a pastor after Pastor Matt left, and we happened to enter the call process just as this pastor and his family were re-entering the U.S. from two years in the mission field.  In hindsight, I can see how God had His hand right over us, guiding us towards our new pastor and guiding our new pastor to us, at so many points during the call process.  Of course we know He did, it is a Divine Call, but when you’re in the midst of so much going on, nothing seems certain except that the Lord is faithful.  And He was!

At the same time this was happening, a few weeks ago, a pastor that we know in San Diego lost his oldest son in a tragic car accident.  His son was only 17.  I consider this pastor to be a friend–more than that, a brother in Christ.  We’ve talked several times: at convocations, Lenten services, a Higher Things conference, and at various Lutheran school activities.  So poignantly, his son’s death came shortly after our community of confessional Lutherans came together,  discussed, worshiped, and communed our Lord in an amazingly beautiful Divine Service at our latest Catechism Convocation.  It was as if the Lord was strengthening this pastor in Himself, surrounding him with community, and unifying us to support him in what was to come.  I saw several of the pastors from the Convocation there Sunday at the funeral.

In another twist of the story, our new pastor went to high school with the pastor who lost his son.  Since he’s not yet installed at our church, our pastor went and ministered to them at their church for two Sundays.  God brought these two old friends back together at just the right time. For God does not leave anyone alone:

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore
(from Psalm 121)

Sunday, at Pastor’s son’s funeral, I felt so encouraged and hopeful.  This was a funeral where Christ crucified and risen was proclaimed in almost every sentence.  I mourned with my brothers and sisters in Christ, and yet I also rejoiced for all the people who heard the message of Christ. I rejoiced because death cannot separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus  (Romans 8).  While death is a sad parting in this life, in Christ it is only temporary.  As this pastor said, “we will see him again.”

Throughout all of this, the paradox of the Christian life has been playing out before my very eyes: joy through tears, faith through suffering, hope of the life to come.  I am comforted because God blesses all of it, uniting us in the Christian life, in rejoicing and mourning.  We are one united family in Him, for God does not leave anyone alone.

A Lesson in Failure

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” Galatians 6:2 (NIV)

Many of us look back in life and realize that we’ve failed in some way or another.  When I was a new RN, I worked at a hospital in St. Paul, MN, on the medical/surgical floor.  It was a great job.  There was so much variety in patients, so many new things to learn, and the other nurses were so supportive and helpful to me.  We had nurses on that floor who had been there twenty years, which is unusual.

I made my share of rookie mistakes.  More than once during my initial training, I took out a patient’s IV before he had his last dose of antibiotic, and the other nurses always helped me through that mistake.  Usually the charge nurse would call the doctor and say that the IV came out, and would he like to order oral antibiotics instead?  It was a great learning environment.  I learned how to handle six patients at a time, how to do lots of technical things, including feeding tubes, IVs, and tracheal suctioning, how to give so many medications–shots, IV, everything.  I learned how to clean up messes and bathe patients in bed.  But they never really taught us how to help someone through the dying process.  The hospital had a hospice floor; that was the floor for dying, not med/surg.

Yet there I was, a relatively new nurse, and my patient was dying.  She had an infection, and had become septic, so the infection was winding its way through her whole body.  Her husband said she didn’t want to be intubated, so she wasn’t sent to ICU.  Her oxygenation was low, and her blood pressure was low.  Without going to the ICU and being intubated, she was going to die.  And even if she did get intubated, I don’t think she would have made it.  She had a lot of other things wrong with her as well.

I called the doctor, and instead of showing up, he ordered albumin to try to raise her blood pressure, and he ordered that she be put on bipap to help her breathe (bipap uses pressure to help a person breathe in and out, but is not as invasive as intubation–though it is fairly invasive because it involves wearing a large mask).  The chance of these things working were a very long shot, but the doctor never came to tell the family that these things weren’t going to work.  It was a weekend. That, apparently, was up to me.  I sat her husband down, and said her oxygen was low and her blood pressure was low, and it didn’t look good.  Her husband seemed genuinely surprised that she was not going to make it.  He still wanted everything possible to be done, short of intubation, and we stayed the course. But that was my fault, because I didn’t have an alternative to offer him. It was a sad way to die.

My failure in this instance wasn’t necessarily an active failure; it was more of an ignorance.  If I had to do it over again, I would have gotten the hospice people up there to make some suggestions to me.  I would have been more assertive with the doctor.  Maybe I would have started morphine so that she was more comfortable in her breathing, able to take that mask off, and say goodbye to her family.  The morphine might have made her blood pressure drop more, so she might not have had much time, but she would have been more comfortable.  I would hope that I could have at least convinced them to move her to the hospice floor, where she could be in a nicer environment (and have more experienced staff) to die. But I didn’t.  Honestly, I didn’t know what to do.  I felt stuck between the family’s hope and the reality that her death was going to occur.  I couldn’t prevent her death, and yet I couldn’t take away that small glimmer of hope they were hanging onto.  She was still alive at the end of my shift, and I passed her along to the next nurse.  She died that night, and her family was there.  I don’t know how comfortable she was. I’ve thought about her many times since then.

It’s not always a bad thing to fail.  That’s been a hard lesson for me to learn in my life, because I always wanted to strive to be a “good” or maybe even a “great” nurse. I wanted to be a nurse that people would look up to, that people knew they could count on.  But we can’t learn what we need to learn until we know that we need to learn it.  Maybe this patient set me on the path that led me to hospice nursing, I don’t know. What I do know is that, even though I don’t remember her name, I have never forgotten her.

I know now that if you want to make a difference in people’s lives, sometimes you’re going to fail.  Sometimes you’re going to do the wrong thing, and you’re going to say the wrong thing. It matters that we do or say the wrong thing, very much so, and we should always try to learn.  However, I also know now that the worst thing to fail at would be to fail to care.  People forgive ignorant mistakes much more quickly than they forgive failing to care.

Caring seems easier once we realize how vulnerable we all are as human beings and how much our Lord loves us.  We don’t always have the right words or the right actions, but caring is always right.  Caring will lead us to do better.  Even though I failed to help my patient in her time of need, I do take comfort in three things: that I did not fail to care for her, that I did eventually learn how to take care of dying people, and that my Lord always forgives my daily sins and failures.  He is a merciful God, to my patient and to me.

“Mischief Managed”

IMG_2804I came to be a fan of Harry Potter late in the game; I think we only got to see the last two movies in the theatre.  I was suspicious of both the insane popularity of Harry Potter, and the fact that certain religious institutions made such a big deal out of it. Because of the concerns, when my kids were getting old enough to read the series, I thought I should read all the books myself and make sure they were ok for them. I ended up being a bigger fan of Harry Potter than either of my kids.

All the books are well-written, but Rowling develops as a writer as the three main characters grow up.   I read them all in succession before watching the movies and truly enjoyed the adventures that Harry and his friends get themselves into.  Finally, I got to the seventh book, Harry Potter and the  Deathly Hallows, and found even more depth.

Magic is what made the books controversial, but the controversy is silly.  Just as in Narnia or in Lord of the Rings, magic is a tool.  It can be used for good or for evil, much like a hammer can be used for fixing something or for hitting someone.  A hammer doesn’t have a nature in itself, and in the Harry Potter books, neither does magic.  I was so disappointed that my kids’ Lutheran school would not stock the Harry Potter books in its library (despite the advocacy of the school librarian for them). Good, evil, sacrifice, redemption, love, courage…it’s all there.  And in the Deathly Hallows, the Gospel is there too.

The Gospel is a little more subtle in the Deathly Hallows than in Narnia, for example, although there is the obvious sacrifice and resurrection.  Harry goes to Voldemort and allows himself to be killed so that Voldemort will not kill his friends.  After Harry comes back, Voldemort’s magic will not touch Harry’s friends anymore.  He puts spells on them, but the spells are not binding and do not last.  Voldemort himself can no longer do evil to Harry’s friends. This is grace.  Jesus died on the cross for our sins.  He sacrificed Himself in our stead, and now we are free.  Satan cannot touch us.  It’s true that we are not free from sin and the consequence of sin while on earth, but we are free from working to save ourselves.  The more we try, the less we succeed.  Once we realize we cannot fulfill the law, we give up trying, and then we understand grace. Our sin is forgiven, it cannot harm us eternally–it is no longer binding.

I think this is why certain books reach out to me: they remind me of God’s grace.  They remind me of my loving Savior, they remind me that there is good in this world, and that there is always mercy.  But it all begins and ends with God.  The magic in our world is something that most people don’t even know how to look for. They think they have to climb mountains, run a marathon, become CEO, or diet and exercise to get the perfect body.  But really all they need to do is go to a good church.  God’s magic is there.

God’s magic is there in the water that is poured over you in your baptism, washing away your sins, making you His.  Your pastor doesn’t have a magic wand, but he does have magic words: “I baptize you, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  That begins your life in grace.

Then, every week, God’s magic is in the bread and the wine that we eat and drink in the Lord’s Supper.  Your pastor stands over it and says the Words of Institution, and Jesus feeds us His body and blood “in, with, and under” the bread and wine.  “…This is my body…This is my blood, shed for you for the remission of sins…”  By His wounds, we are healed.

And when you kneel every Sunday to beg God for forgiveness for your sins, for the crazy stuff you did last week, your pastor kneels with you and begs God for the same forgiveness himself, and then he stands up and says God’s magic words, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  We are free.

This magic sustains your faith and nourishes you every week, so that you can go back out into the world and all of its complexities and try to do good in your vocations for your neighbor.  And just when you get so weary of it all, you come back to church for more.

IMG_1272Real magic doesn’t look like much.  Real Christians don’t look like much; most of us are barely distinguishable from non-Christians.  We’re not rich or powerful or even especially wise.  We don’t have $65 million private jets.  Our churches are small.  We just know that we’re broken, that we’re not better than anyone else, and we know where to go to be forgiven.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”  1 Corinthians 1:26-31