One of the great privileges I have as a minister is visiting people, often in the hospital or a long term care facility. There is often great loneliness involved in these places. It can be quite challenging to the spirit, and yet it is paradoxically often the source of greatest joys. One person I have been visiting over the past year was, during my visits, unresponsive. I would go, I would say his name, I would hold his hand… just nothing. Since there was evidence he was at least sometimes lucent – for example I would sometimes be guided to the dining room where he would be sitting with a meal in front of him – I had even begun wonder if he just didn’t want to see this minister he didn’t know. Was I imposing? Might be a valid question… but I realized I had, briefly, made it about me.
I checked myself on that. And during some prayer time that followed I was reminded of my own grandfather – who spent the last couple of years of his life in a similarly almost always unresponsive state – and yet occasionally, very very occasionally, the wires would connect and he’d be “there” for a bit – especially for people he knew and deeply loved. This person didn’t know me – it’s not surprising he didn’t connect.
But I discovered, in that time of prayer, that I did know him. I knew him because he, too, is a beloved child of God. I knew him because others knew him. After being frustrated for months because I didn’t have connections – I started simply trying to be the connection. This person, me, and God – Christ, the Spirit, the divine… whatever vocabulary you want, would gather. And it would be enough. I would spend the time thinking about my Grandfather, my Grandmother and times we’d spent together. I would reflect on my own journey into ministry that was so very much shaped by the last years of each of my grandparent’s lives. Interestingly, I started finding other connections – longtime members at the church I serve would learn, somehow, of my visits and share a memory or express gladness that I was visiting him.
The last time I visited this person, I held his hand, as usual. He was listening to music, as was often the case. This time there was a video of a fireplace running with it, I sat and watched the fire and listened. I relaxed and was just there. This time he squeezed my hand. I squeezed back. It was nice. It wasn’t much, but it was a connection – a recognition of shared presence. I shed a tear – a hint of sorrow, but lots of joy.
Another of my great privileges is to have been called to give the invocation and benediction for several years at Memorial ’70. Each year on October 2nd, at precisely 9am – members of the Wichita State community, my alma mater, gather to remember the tragedy of a plane crash that killed members of the WSU football team on their way to a game. Survivors and their families gather to give voice to their grief and their thankfulness for their own lives. They pause to give tribute to how memory of their teammates has helped them on their journey. They share stories. Strong men openly hold hands, hug, weep. And they laugh. We witness to the shortness and fragility of life.
There is a survivor tree planted – it was donated by a surviving player’s family when he passed away a few years ago. It is a sapling from a tree that survived the Oklahoma City bombing. Each year its leaves seem more radiant and colorful as it has grown. Beauty salvaged from two tragedies linked by a determination to live on anyway. An insistence that death does not have the final word. A shared belief and hope that unites despite the very diverse and different vocabularies of faith and philosophy those gathered hold. We are reminded those differences matter – but they need not divide us.
This week I am preparing to help lead two funerals – one is for the person I mentioned above. A man I never really met – but who is now an important part of my own journey and witness. A part of my humanity. A friend.
I am also thinking about Memorial ’70 because as you may have heard, tragedy struck Brazil’s Chapecoense soccer team. 71 of the 77 people on the flight died when the plane crashed in the Colombian mountains on the way to a game. I am a huge soccer fan – and in the days since the accident I have been reminded of how closely I am connected to this team that I had never previously heard of. Players I’ve met, players on teams I root for – as close as FC Wichita and Friends U and as far off as England and Germany – are from Brazil. Many of them knew people who were on the flight. 2 degrees of separation. People from different parts of the world that I would likely never have met – but they are not them. Not with two degrees of separation. They are us. We are connected.
Sometimes we become so concerned about our stuff, our resources, our power, our control – we focus on maintaining our fences and knocking down theirs. The stakes get higher, the other becomes dehumanized. In our competition we go overboard. In a quest for control we poison our own wells, we miss our own connections.
But that’s not what it’s about – competition isn’t about wining, its about growing and challenging ourselves. It’s about getting better and working as a team, recognizing that even those now opposing us may be teammates next time. Life is ultimately about holding each other’s hands. Not in spite of differences… but because of them.
It’s awfully lonely otherwise.
Blessings on your journey.