I am a pastor. I spend time with people, not only preaching and teaching, but also checking in on them, visiting them in the hospital, praying with them and talking with them before operations about which anxieties are high. But in March, the day after Ash Wednesday, the tables were turned.
I spent almost three weeks in the hospital, one week of which was in intensive care. I was extremely sick, but for a while, none of the seven physicians could ascertain a root cause. I went through a significant regimen of scans and tests and exams and lab work and biopsies as I continued my downward decline. I was having difficulty breathing, was being pumped full of fluids continuously and in incredible constant pain. It was a scary time for my family, and it was a scary time for me.
It was a time in which, instead of caring for others, it was I who was being cared for by other pastors, and members of my congregation. I was cared for by members of my family. I was cared for by my beloved.
Night time was particularly scary. While I was hooked up to all different types of machines and nurses checking on me every couple hours, I was afraid of what might happen when I go to sleep. Would I stop breathing? Would my lungs continue to decline in their ability to absorb oxygen? Would my heart finally give out under the tremendous strain to which it was being subjected?
My beloved sat with me many days and every night. We tried to carry on some of our routines and watched Jeopardy every evening. But we could not follow our routine, and we both knew it, and we worried that we would not be able to return to our routine.
One night it was getting late and my eyelids were getting heavy. My beloved saw this and she took my hand and held it and patted it. “Go ahead and close your eyes,” she said to me, “and I’ll stay here and sit with you for a while.”
So often we wonder why, when sickness or tragedy befalls us, why didn’t God do anything to prevent this? Why doesn’t God fix this?
It’s a valid question. It is a question that I have asked many times.
But I also wonder if we tend to place our focus on the wrong thing. Perhaps we ask the wrong questions. What if the amazing thing about God’s presence in tragedy is not that God will prevent it or fix it, but rather that God simply sits at our bedside?
While I am careful not to deify my beloved, I do strongly believe that God works through people in the world. While the face and the voice was that of my beloved, I have no doubt that the words were God’s, “close your eyes, my child, and I will sit with you, and keep watch over you.”
I fell asleep and I know that my beloved did leave that night, but even though she left, it later became apparent that God never did. Sometimes God manifested Godself in tangible form: my beloved, a visitor, a chaplain, or a nurse who was concerned not only with my physical well-being, but also my emotional and spiritual well being.
This, I think, is the wonderful thing about God’s presence in our lives and care for us. It is not so much that God waves a wand and makes it all better, but rather, that God spends countless hours, and sleepless nights sitting in the chair next to the bed, allowing us to sleep because of the assurance that God will watch over us when we cannot watch over ourselves.
While my sickness was serious, I am thankful that it was not what they initially thought. It was treatable and the treatment should completely resolve it. I’m doing much better now, and at the same time that I am filled with gratitude, I grieve for those who are not as fortunate, and are diagnosed with something without a cure, or something for which the treatment is difficult and the outcome uncertain.
But I never cease to be amazed that in these dark hours, when things look bleak and the shadows seem to come ever closer, God remains in these hours. Sometimes working something more clearly miraculous, other times simply sitting at one’s bedside keeping watch.