The fascinating Gospel reading (Mark 8:31-38) this week got me thinking about some of the difficult situations I have faced over the years and how they changed me. As I remembered there was the awareness of my own helplessness and powerlessness in most of these situations. I simply didn’t have anything to offer that would change the situation. As a male I am always wrestling with the expectation of needing to fix situations, make it better, protect… These were usually situations where I was powerless and it felt really hard and I felt vulnerable. I also realised that in such moments I was often pre-occupied with me and my needs, wants, fears or whatever – these things tried to intrude and divert me from what I ought to to do, like it or not.
There was a situation a few years ago. It was a quiet Saturday morning and I was getting on with doing what had to be done, both in finalising stuff for church the next morning and much needed things around the house. It was going well and I had my list of tasks to be ticked off through the day. Some already had their ticks registered and I was feeling pretty good. Then the phone rang. A ringing phone can offer a variety of possibilities but as I answered I had a feeling that this was not going to be an easy one. It was the Uniting Church Chaplain at the hospital. He greeted me and then got into the business of his call. He had just received a request to go to the hospital because an elderly woman needed to talk to the it Uniting Church Chaplain. Her middle-aged handicapped son was dying and she wanted to talk to someone. His problem was that he had to go and do a wedding in an hour or so and wasn’t sure how long this situation might necessarily go on for – he didn’t want to rush away in the middle. He was ringing me as the relieving chaplain to ask if I would go over in his place.
As he was telling this story there was a rushing stream of thoughts going through my head as I listened. They all amounted to me wanting to say ‘no’. I didn’t have the energy. I didn’t have the time. Wasn’t there someone else. I’m not really sure I’m good at this sort of thing. I have nothing to offer… On and on the thoughts streamed through my mind looking for a way out. Of course my sense of responsibility, perhaps obligation, (or maybe just the sense that this is my job?) took control. I took down the details wished him luck with his wedding and reluctantly prepared to go to the hospital, very unsure of what I would encounter. As I drove I felt the usual sense of helplessness, perhaps fear, consume me. What would I say? What would I do? I couldn’t waltz in and make everything better – fix the son or take away the mother’s pain. Words often feel empty and nothing can change the reality of what this mother is facing in this moment. I can’t change all that, can’t fix it or make it better and I found/find that powerlessness and vulnerability sometimes a little overwhelming. I feel overwhelmed sitting before deep pain and grief. I feel it creep into me and sense, even experience the reality of suffering alongside the other, for a time. This entering another’s space of grief, struggle, life takes energy and some sacrifice and is hard.
I found the elderly woman sitting by the bedside of a dying middle-aged man. I introduced myself and wondered what to say. I was still filled with myself, my own feelings and fears and uncertainties and discomfort. It was till about me and what I could be doing, things that needed to be done and were easier but here I was and before me was a dying man and a mother sitting alone in her grief. I asked her to tell me what was happening – knowledge is power and perhaps there’d be a clue as to what I should do. She spoke and talked for a long time about her son and the struggles of his and their life, of the fun and difficult times they had shared. He had lived with her and her husband most of his life but then it became too difficult for them and he had been placed into care. Her husband died and she was alone. She visited him several times a week but now his system was breaking down due to all the medications he had taken over the years for all the things he had wrong with him. Pneumonia was taking him out. She talked and talked, only interrupted occasionally when asked a question or two. As she talked I relaxed and became more present to her and her story. At some point in the experience it became about her and her son, not me. My own needs, fears, wants… were pushed aside, forgotten and we entered into this situation, along with other staff who came in and out or eventually sat with us as well. As the man died peacefully we were able to pray for God’s peace and grace to hold him and finally lift him out of his life’s struggle. She thanked her son for his love and all they had shared together – he simple, child-like acceptance and love.
I realise that ultimately this is what it is all about – love. Love given and received. Love that does not overpower, dominate, oppress, fear, control, pretend, but is raw and vulnerable before the world. Love is the most powerful and vulnerable force anywhere. It is only present when we give up our own egos or fear or need to control and allow love to blossom in what we do and say and how we do it.
The Gospel Story this week is of Jesus telling the disciples that he is going to Jerusalem to give himself in love to and for the sake of God’s Reign in the world – he will give his life in love. He knows that the powers are going to kill him but he goes voluntarily to show them they have no power over him because he is filled with the love of God and love can never be quenched! The disciples don’t understand. They recognise him as ‘the Messiah’ promised by God but don’t understand the nature of what this means – vulnerable, powerless love before the world. It sounds incredibly naïve and profoundly stupid because there are people with swords and spears and armies who will walk over him without a second thought. One commentator put it:
It’s not what his disciples expect. They, too, are children of the world. And although they weren’t bombarded with 5000 advertising images each day as we are, yet they still imagined that the secret to life was strength and power rather than vulnerability and love. And so they interpreted Jesus’ miraculous acts as demonstrations of power rather than manifestations of love. And when Jesus describes the greatest act of love – giving his life for them and the world – they can only object.
Jesus invites his followers to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him on his way. This is about love. It is about embracing the self-giving way of love in which we discover that in giving of ourselves, we receive much more back. When we love others we discover a community of love coming back to us. Barriers fall and the frightening diversity that opens us to differences in people becomes the harmony that fills our world with music grounded in love, wonder, justice and peace.
In visiting the elderly woman I came away tired and weary but filled with wonder at having shared a deeply sacred moment. God was present and that was all we needed!