This has been a dark and gloomy week. At least there has been that overtone for me for the last week.
It really started the day before Thanksgiving in a text message exchange with my dear friend Janice. Janice has been on the liver transplant for several years due to a rare liver disease that has an unknown origin. Her younger son is close in age to my two older children and they have been close friends over the years. Often the years, our two families spend much time together, especially immediately after Thanksgiving and often for New Year’s. Janice texted me that she was having pain in her chest and maybe we should not worry about getting together after Thanksgiving.
By that evening she was in intensive care with pneumonia.
On Monday, the darkness descended upon me when her older son called me and told me that I needed to come to Northern Virginia and say goodbye. That phone call was shocking and as I finished the conversation I was certain of two things. First, I needed to get to the DC area as soon as I could, not only to tell my friend goodbye, but to be there for her family. And second, the darkness of this Advent season—the darkness that I embrace every year as I prepare for the coming of the Light of the world—had suddenly become darker.
So, I prepared for a journey to say goodbye to one of the dearest friends and treasures that God has given me in my life. I knew that it would be a difficult trip. I knew that I would need comfort as well as I would need to offer comfort. I knew there would be darkness and I would need Light and hope.
And so, the prayer of my heart began to echo the words of Isaish: “The people that walk in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.” (Isaiah 9:2, NRSV). Truthfully, this verse has been a prayer in my heart since the beginning of the summer when I discovered that another dear friend was going through difficult, dark times and it has been my constant prayer for him, but suddenly, as I began my journey to say goodbye, I knew the words of Isaiah were for me.
These words of Isaiah are familiar to us because this verse is a hopeful prophecy that comes in the midst of Advent. When we allow ourselves to truly focus on Advent as a season of penitence and preparation we remember that prior to the birth of Jesus, the world was plunged into darkness—darkness that comes from injustice and greed. If we allow ourselves to truly focus on Advent as a season of penitence and preparation we recognize that the world is still in darkness of injustice and greed.
Each generation has to learn again the lessons of love and each generation has to recognize the Light of the world and all that Jesus offered to us and taught us through humility, mercy, and love. And unfortunately, we are not always good at learning these lessons of Jesus, nor are we good at passing down what we have learned.
So, I began my journey in a darkness of sadness and grief and began to watch for the presence of hope and comfort, knowing that the holy presence of God was with me and that this trip would also include sacred moments in the midst of the darkness.
Over the years, as I have traveled back and forth to visit Janice and her family my travels have always taken me passed Seneca Rocks. Seneca Rocks have become for me a beacon on the journey. I have climbed to the top of Seneca Rocks countless times and I find this place special–a testimony to the beauty and uniqueness of God’s creation. It is also a testimony of the steadfastness of time and the strength of the earth. It is my favorite place in West Virginia and I never pass it without taking a picture.
On my journey, as I got closer to Seneca Rocks I found myself anticipating the Rocks and as I got closer I felt a sense of calm and hope. The Rocks rose up before me and reminded me that the One who created those Rocks so long ago that no human was around to tell the story, was the same One who was present to hear Janice’s first cry and would also be holding her as she made her way back and it is the same One who gave to both of us the gift of our friendship that has offered joy and laughter and companioned tears that have offered support and strength for the times of sorrow and challenge.
Of course, I got out of the car and took a picture.
I entered Sentara Northern Virginia Medical Center at mid-afternoon. Walking into the hospital was difficult because I was not exactly certain what I would find, and yet, I knew exactly what I would find. As I walked in the doors I was greeted by a woman named Lulu who went over and beyond making me feel comfortable. As a pastor, I have made these last visits countless times, but this was different. This time I was saying goodbye to someone so dear and I admit that I was anxious, even though I know that life is eternal.
Lulu was amazing! But I was soon to discover that Lulu was not unique. Indeed, it is the entire “culture” of the hospital to be comforting, hopeful, and compassionate. Everyone that I passed in the halls, everyone that came into Janice’s room in the ICU, everyone who took care of her, everyone in the hospital is a light in a dark world!
I saw this light most as I sat for hours in the ICU with Janice. She was on a ventilator, sedation to keep her from fighting the machine that breathed for her, powerful medicines to maintain blood pressure, steroids to help her lungs, and so many monitors that I lost count of how many and what they were for. She was almost never alone as she had nurses and doctors and respiratory people that took care of her constantly. In all that time, with all the people coming and going there was a constant presence of compassion.
Her nurses and doctors and attendants were a multitude of different cultures and accents and colors and they were beautiful! They were all focused on doing their jobs, but they were focused on bringing life in the midst of the pain of uncertainty and dying. They were all focused on shining light even in the darkness. They were all so loving and compassionate and healing. Of course, there was pain and discomfort, not only for Janice, but also for her husband, her sons, and me. These professionals went over and beyond. They did their jobs with great patience and precision, but they took care of Janice and all of us with care.
I appreciated that each of them felt that their jobs were a calling and I think that they knew that how they performed their jobs could make a difference for a family in the most difficult time of life. I loved their accents, the places that they represented, their beauty in and out. They were part of the light that I found in the midst of this dark journey and I am so deeply grateful.
One morning as I sat having coffee at the hotel before going to the hospital I encountered another of God’s lights in my darkness. Suddenly, there appeared by my side a little girl named Ayle. She was an inquisitive two year old and she came over to ask me what I was doing. We chatted, she and I, about things that a two year olds and middle age friends talk about! I thought she had left me when she suddenly appeared by my side again with a gift of two tiny packages of peanut butter.
Of course, I thanked her! I ate one and kept the other. And as she left I wondered if something in this little one’s soul helped her to know that there was sadness in my soul. Ayle will never know how much hope she brought me in those few moments that we shared together. I know that not only am I grateful, but that this child will be in my prayers for the rest of my life and I pray that she will never lose the ability to offer hope in this world.
The hours in an ICU are long hours of watching and waiting. Over and over I thought about my watching and waiting and thought about this time as a metaphor for the watching and waiting of Advent. During Advent we are watching and waiting for the coming of One who makes all things new, who offers mercy and justice and hope and compassion. In the last days I have thought so much about how Janice has offered mercy and justice and hope and compassion and love and life in my life. My life is so much better because the paths of our live’s journeys crossed. She has been the sign of hope and calm for many people in her life because she has felt the same hope and calm from the One who created her and loves her more than any other.
And so this day, as I write this, I am watching and waiting in the coming of light in darkness that we call Advent and I am watching and waiting with Janice and her family.
In my soul I hear the words of “A Gaelic Blessing.” It is a choral work by John Rutter that I sang long ago, in 1979, my freshman year in college. The text is from an ancient Gaelic rune that is simply known as “Deep Peace.” The choral work was originally published in 1978 by Hinshaw Press. It is a benediction of deep peace and the Light of the World, Christ and I offer it now for Janice and for all of you.
“Deep peace of the running wave to you.
Deep peace of the flowing air to you.
Deep peace of the quiet earth to you.
Deep peace of the shining stars to you.
Deep peace of the gentle night to you.
Moon and stars pour their healing light on you.
Deep peace of Christ,
of Christ the light of the world to you.
Deep peace of Christ to you.”
To God alone be glory!