Thursday, February 22, 2018

Approaching the Morgue in Search of Life

I know it’s still Lent, but let me tell you an Easter story.
A long time ago in a hospital far, far away, I was a chaplain where the Sisters who ran it were very intentional about communicating their Catholic mission and identity. My former pastoral care department did many activities during Lent and then late on Holy Saturday decorated the hospital lobby, public spaces and chapel for Easter. It was the job of the On-Call Chaplain over Easter weekend to transform these spaces from the austerity of Holy Week to the festivity of Easter.
The first time I had to do this, I came back to the hospital very late Saturday night after attending a local parish’s Easter Vigil. The job included putting up the white hangings in the Chapel, changing the veils on various crosses around the building to white, and putting out Easter lilies and tulips in the main lobby, the chapel and a few other places. We ordered lots and lots of flowers.
I commandeered a handcart and, along with other chaplains and some volunteers, started my rounds.
Only a day or so before, we Chaplains along with many folks from the hospital community had walked these halls in a special way. We did The Stations of the Cross on Good Friday. Instead of being in a chapel, these Stations were scattered throughout the building—we went to places where people met suffering, pain, hope, fear, loneliness, death and new life. These stations were the places where people ministered to human frailty sometimes with awesome technology and just as often with compassion and simple touch. These were the places where divine healing met human need in everyday ways so often that, if you weren’t careful, they would became mundane.
These were the places Jesus walked. The cross stands at the intersection of brokenness and hope. And when Good Friday comes, we will walk with him to places where suffering and compassion could not be plainer.
Anyway, back at that hospital, when it came time to get those Easter flowers, they were gone! When I went to where I saw them delivered, they were not there! Where’d they go?  After much searching, I called security.
The guard was expecting my call. He said, “I’ll show you.”
We met and took the elevator to the basement. We turned a corner and walked down a long dark hall in the oldest wing of the hospital. We turned a corner to an unmarked door. The guard sorted through his wad of keys and opened the door. We entered the morgue.
Just before he turned the knob, he said to me “Don’t worry, Chaplain, there was a body in here tonight but now it’s gone.”
He was right. When he opened the door, there was no dead body. But there were flowers! Everywhere there were lilies and tulips, covering the examination table, the counters and even in the walk-in cooler! A place of sterility was filled with color! The medicinal “laboratory” smell was overcome with the perfume of blooming flowers.  A place of death had become a nursery.
It turns out that the housekeepers had brought the flowers to the morgue because they thought they’d keep longer in the coolness of the morgue. “I hope you don’t mind,” the guard said.
So that’s my Lent and Easter story, or at least one of them.  What’s yours?
Let me tell you another story, this time a Lenten story. 
I spent Ash Wednesday in quiet and made it a media-free day, on purpose. I wanted to spend the day in contemplation and then end it with the Trinity community at the last Ash Wednesday liturgy of the day. I preached. We shared ashes. We confessed. We prayed, and then we broke bread and poured out wine. It was only at the back door that learned of the killings that afternoon in Parkland, Florida. 
The shock between the quiet of the day and the news of that violence was like a tear rending our hearts. 
Death has been in the news a lot lately. We think about those seventeen murdered students and teachers perpetrated by a young man with a powerful gun. We think about the people who were killed in Las Vegas by another angry man who set up a snipers nest overlooking an outdoor concert just a few weeks before that. We add them to the list of the many mass killings in schools, churches, and public places over the last few years. Not to mention the war, the crime, the sexual abuse, and the violence that infect our world. We live in an age of fear—from terror to values, our culture shows itself dominated by fear.
These are dark places in our collective soul, and we fear that they may overwhelm us.
We have a lot to repent and death is closer than we think.
As we move through Lent, we look into our hearts and find our empty spaces and deep longings. In a few weeks, we will walk with Jesus on the way to Jerusalem, and experience with him the betrayals, the abandonment, the suffering of so many of our relationships, but we also walk with him as he discovers care and mercy on the way of the cross. Each week as we walk the Stations, we experience how a woman cared for Jesus, how Simon carried Jesus’ cross, how Joseph donated his grave, and Mary and the other women waited and walked with him, even in their tears.
We are only about a quarter of the way through that Lenten journey that is preparing and leading us to Easter: The cross and empty tomb show us that all these dark places are no longer homes to death, but have become a nursery for new life. The Gospel of Mark tells us that the women found the empty tomb and ran away, startled and afraid. Matthews’s account and Luke’s both tell of angels meeting the women. The Gospel of Luke tells us that an angel asks the women “why do you seek the living among the dead?” John’s gospel tells us that Peter and the beloved disciple run to the tomb and they peer in and found nothing but bandages.
In all these Gospel accounts, we discover that a place that had been reserved for death had become a home to life. I love to tell the story of the lilies in the morgue because it reminds me of just how, in my own experience, life has shown up in what had been empty, dead places.
But first, we have to confront and experience the fear, the loneliness, and the death.
Our Lenten fast, Holy Week journey, and Easter discovery must lead us to pray, work, and advocate for a world that is not defined by fear, or disrupted by violence, or placated with empty condolences.
We have a lot to confess, and much to repent from, and as we journey to the Cross. During this Lenten journey, we discover that Christ is with us. In his passion he is removing the barriers to new life, making renewed relationships possible, and makes justice roll down like a river.   
Lent takes us into the depth of human sin and pain. Easter shows us that we will find life in unexpected places; that the Risen Christ will show up in places we thought were reserved for the deepest hurt—a healed emotional wound, a renewed relationship, or perhaps a kind word or generous act that we neither expected nor deserved. It is like finding life where we expected only death.
May your Lent be holy and prepare a space in your heart and living for the Crucified and Risen Jesus.

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