I knew her as a member of a suburban congregation.
Most of the people
in that tight-knit church community
did not even know her by name
because she only came to the early worship
and didn’t stay for coffee or come to other events.
She was elegant in spite of the oxygen tank
she pulled on the little cart behind her.
Grace and refinement remained her aura
even as she shrank
and eventually, bedridden.
She was one of those people,
fortunate that they are,
who looked pressed and neat
no matter the circumstance or activity.
(My dad was one of those people.
Instead of jeans when he painted or worked in the yard
he wore old suit pants
for which the jacket had long since worn out;
and yet the legs still retained a crease.
Even more astounding
he never got paint anywhere but on the wall.
I didn’t inherit this trait).
Anyway, even dying in the hospital,
the woman I am talking about
I visited her there several times before she died.
In the hospital bed smaller than ever,
oxygen mask over her nose and mouth,
she appeared serene and un-mussed on each visit.
The last time I saw her was late one afternoon.
Funny how you remember little things over time;
I remember it because of the light.
I remember the light of day – the golden hour
with crisp, yellow light
clearly delineating lines and edges with shadow.
When I walked in the room that day
she was looking away from the light,
down toward the end of her bed
I paused at the door
and tried to see what she saw.
All I could see was the wall
and her toes
forming two matching pyramids beneath the sheet.
I asked her who was in the room.
She turned her lovely face toward me
in a graceful gesture, and as she did
I could see her eyes smiling.
Even under the cloudy plastic mask
her lips curled upward at the corners.
She fumbled to remove the mask,
her fingers not performing as she wished.
It was the least graceful thing I had ever seen her do
and she could not quite achieve it.
I stepped to her side and quietly
lowered the mask for her.
“He’s here” she smiled.
“Who?” I asked innocently.
“Jesus. He’s here.”
And then, gracefully, she turned her face back toward Jesus.
She told me he had been there all day,
just checking on her.
I placed the mask back over her lips, worried
as the living do that the dying might die.
Uncharacteristically, I did not know what to say.
It was her mountaintop and I was a flatlander.
The veil had thinned between her and the holy
but my cataracts were as thick and cloudy as ever.
So I sat down, maybe held her hand, I don’t remember.
I do remember that all I could do was think.
Thinking gets in the way of religious experience.
It is good for other stuff but lousy
for religious experience, romance,
or any joyful moment.
Thinking is a problem for me;
maybe you have a problem with it too.
Thinking at the wrong time
and in the wrong place
may be one of the intended punch lines
of that strange story about Peter, James and John –
also flatlanders –
hanging out with Jesus on his mountaintop.
Now just as a caveat, I’m coming to this story
of Jesus in the clouds
with a great deal of 21st century skepticism –
appropriate skepticism I might add.
But for our purposes today,
I am taking Luke at face value
and treating it as a story with a punch line.
Because, factual or not,
it does have a punch line loaded with truth.
Anyway, Peter, James, and John
can tell the veil has been lifted
and all barriers removed
so that Jesus is standing bare
with nothing but light between himself and God.
It is a moment that calls upon us
to do nothing
though we almost instinctively look for something to do.
The best thing we can do
if we ever have a moment like that is stutter.
But Peter starts thinking.
He can’t help it
any more than I could
knowing there was an invisible Jesus in the room
and only one of us saw him.
Peter couldn’t allow himself to just be there.
He couldn’t stay in the moment,
as we might say these days.
He couldn’t just bask in the presence
of whatever it was taking place up there that day.
He couldn’t accept it at face value,
and he certainly could not trust it.
I am going to inch out on the limb here
and speculate that mistrust in spooky stuff
might be an issue for more than just me and Peter.
Most of us, I think,
struggle in any kind of a remarkable moment
to really trust ourselves and stay in it.
We don’t allow ourselves to stay present
to miraculous moments
and instead we start thinking.
We go right from awe
to thought without passing go.
It happens with very small miracles too:
a spectacular sunset;
an ancient, gnarled and twisted tree
older than the nation;
a tumultuous river, its thunder yelling from a broiling froth;
mesmerizing images from the Hubble telescope
of galaxies billowing outward
like cirrus clouds across the cosmos;
or in that fraction of a second
when two eyes meet,
and touch-less contact detonates within both.
Oh so many small miraculous moments.
So very many of them, and so often
we cannot allow ourselves to just be there.
We cannot allow hang-time in the moment
with our heart pounding fast
and our skin alive with a million micro-dancers.
Instead we think
and what a buzz-kill that is.
Many of us move right from awe up into our thoughts
and that immediately takes us out of the moment
and into…well, who knows where?
There is no crime in thinking of course –
but thinking is better done in its own time and place.
Peter asks Jesus
if maybe they ought to build three little booths:
one for Jesus
one for Moses
and one for Elijah.
Now stop and stutter on that for a moment?
If you can’t stutter on it,
go ahead and think about it.
A spectacular re-arrangement of physics has just taken place right in front of Peter’s eyes
but he immediately takes the escalator to his head
“What shall we do?” he needs to know.
That is the killer question, right there.
What shall we DO?
We always want to be doing something
when what it is time for is being something –
being in the moment and simply being infused by it.
What shall we do?
If we are doing
then we are in charge.
If we are doing
then we are controlling the process and the moment.
We have a nanosecond of an experience
and like a rubber band
we snap back into our head.
“Wow, cool! What should we do?”
Staying present –
in a miraculous moment,
or in someone’s pain,
or in our own woundedness –
is something we often jump out of
as soon as we brush up against it.
Being in the presence of something we do not
or simply find difficult and uncomfortable,
threatens our sense of well-being
and rattles our façade of control.
Such experiences put a glitch in the matrix of pretense
that our life is orderly and predictableand that we are in charge of it.
That is the real rub
and why we almost immediately resort
to the safer terrain within our brains.
But there are some experiences and moments
that call for our simple, unadulterated,
Mystical moments, even small ones;
moments of awe, even in small doses;
painful moments, even those we cannot fix;
and woundedness, even the kind that will always be with us;
all of them beg for our presence –
all of them are thirsty for us to simply be present
and do nothing.
There is nothing to do
with a sunset over the lake
except sigh in awe of its beauty.
There is nothing to do
in an unexpected visitation of the holy
except to stutter in gratitude.
There is nothing to do
in the presence of one who is dying
except to be present with them as they slip away.
There is nothing to do
in the presence of pain that must be endured
and wounds that are life-long
except to be present and listen.
But more often than not,
we go right into our thoughts
and wonder what to do.
Let’s not nothing this coming Lent;
do nothing but be present and listen.
In case there is anyone here who is new
and not familiar with things “churchy,”
Lent is a season of preparation for Easter –
as if we need preparation for new life that has been
authored by God without our assistance or approval.
More often than not in Episcopal congregations,
we program a bunch of things to do during Lent.
But Lent is intended to create a season
in which to allow ourselves
to be present to our woundedness;
and to be mindful about how our own woundedness
can generate thoughts and behavior within us
that then wounds other people.
The thing about woundedness is, it doesn’t get fixed.
We have wounds that we were born with
and others we picked up along the way,
and all of those wounds
will be with us always.
They do not magically disappear
even when we experience some healing.
When it comes to our woundedness,
healing does not mean curing.
Rather, the healing of our internal wounds,
takes place when we are cared for and listened to.
To care for our wounds, our internal ones,
we must be able to be present to them
without trying to fix them.
We need to be present simply to listen
so that we come to know them
both as a source of hurt and of power.
The healing of our wounds, the internal ones,
takes place over time
as we are present to them and listen.
We need not do anything, just be present and listen.
If we can allow ourselves
to be present to what hurts
within us and around us,
we will learn a deeper wisdom
than we have ever known.
It is a paradox, the kind of paradox God seems to revel in.
Anyway, back to the story I began with:
she died later that day, quietly.
Sitting there in her presence,
a flatlander to her mountaineering moment,
I kept thinking about what I should do.
“There must be something I should be doing here,”
I thought to myself, “as a priest after all, shouldn’t I be doing something?”
That is what I kept thinking.
But nothing came to me as I watched her glow
in her hang-time with Jesus.
So finally I gave up and said, “Tell him ‘Hi’ for me.”