“We get wet and we corrode and now we’re covered up in rust
We drink and we dry up and now we crumble into dust” – The Holy Steady, “Stuck Between Stations”
Yesterday I (re)learned two facts about life:
1. The Hold Steady are a true American treasure
2. Ash Wednesday in a level one-trauma center brings a whole new meaning to pondering your mortality.
As many of you know, my lovely wife and I are no stranger to dead bodies and awful prognosis, she as a med student, and I having lived through a parent with cancer, and three other family deaths over the last decade, and now working as a chaplain resident.
But being 24 (almost 25) brings with it some perks, none more perky than feeling like you have the rest of your life ahead of you. That the promises of the future always beckon. That one day, just right around the corner, I will finally get my proverbial shtick together. I’ll no longer be selfish, or an addict, or have a singing voice that I hate; whatever the heck I want to fix about myself, there is still a chance. As if then, I’ll return to God, and say: “Ok, I’m ready to do the whole ‘Jesus thing.’”
But, as if on cue, God proclaimed that this year, my twenty-fourth and twenty-fifth years of life in the Kingdom, would be spent as a chaplain resident in a level-one, inner city, trauma center and regional hospital.
Oh yeah, and as if I almost forgot: The emergency department/trauma pager would be one of my assigned (and desired) units.
Yesterday, we sat around the table at morning report, and my chaplain mentor and I decided we would “split” the trauma pager for the day, myself in the morning and him in the afternoon.
We proceeded down to the chapel at our Catholic hospital, and we received ashes on our forehead. As many of you know, I am a bit of a rebel, so following Jesus’ command in the Gospel text to not “practice your piety in public,”
I washed them off.
God, being God and all, thought that was a brilliant idea, and decided instead of ashes on my forehead, to make the rest of my day ashes in front of my face.
“Beep, beep, beep, beep,” Adult trauma priority, motor vehicle accident.
I mosey on down to the Emergency Department, and prepare myself for the inevitable unknown. And of course, just then something really does happen. Instead of getting one trauma, we get two, the second one in far worse condition, from the same accident, and: 18 years old.
Then the EMS says this: “His head was, like, sandwiched and contorted between the steering wheel and seatback.”
This kid had his whole life in front of him, and now, because another guy, a nice guy too, ran a red light, that all has gone out the window.
And here I am, left to figure out who he is, wait for his family to show up, and wait to be present with her when she learns of this new, awful reality.
And thinking that this kid, this one kid, this one is young, younger than me.
Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.
“Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming near – a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness!” – Joel 2:1-2
This time, I hear the commotion across the hall in the ED.
A 25-year-old, born six months after me, who has had multiple seizures one after another following a headache and vomiting. If you aren’t up to speed on the medical profession, the simple diagnosis is: that ain’t good.
So I sit with his mother in tears, his baby daughter, and other family members as they cry, as they tremble, and as we pray. Praying for God’s mercy and peace.
I sit with them as they recall the time, three years ago, when he was here after being ejected in a motor vehicle accident and nearly killed.
I sit with them when the doctor comes to talk with them.
This time, me, sitting with my green chaplain badge on, as a constant reminder of their son’s mortality, and of the fragility of any life that meets our emergency room.
This time, it’s me that’s the ashes.
From dust you were created, and to dust you shall return.
I’ve now been in the emergency department since 930, without having left, and the nurse coordinator looks at me, and says: “We have a full arrest coming in, it’s not good.”
Then I see her, with the automatic compressions unit, which is lovingly called “the thumper” on her chest, pounding away.
And this time, I look to the heavens, and say: “So…are you trying to tell us something?”
Without much fanfare, she dies, quickly, as an addict who accidentally overdosed while trying to get clean.
But she is not “other” than me, she is a sister, as mortal and broken as I.
And once more, it’s me, on the phone with this family that lives on the East Coast, far away from our Midwest locale, giving them condolences, condolences on their wife and sister whose life, far too young, has ended.
It doesn’t take much to realize, I suppose, when you do this work, that your mortality is in your face, constantly.
But most days, as a twenty-four year old chaplain, I can ignore it. I can continue to believe that God will wait for me to get my crap together, that God is just dandy with me returning to Him whenever I damn well please, once we’re making money, once we have kids, once I’m done with school.
On this day though, I heard the call of Ash Wednesday far differently before, because there was no suburban bliss to blind me. There was no pretense that being young means that the future is necessarily guaranteed. There was no sense any longer that this God is a leisurely, relaxed, “I’m ok, if your ok” kind of God.
This is the sort of God that is constantly hunting us down, chasing us down, trying to scream in our ears: “CHILD! Remember that from dust you were created and to dust you will return. The day of the Lord approaches. RETURN TO ME.”
This sort of God, an Ash Wednesday sort of God, doesn’t want evolved beings that have transcended their circumstances, their feelings, their tragedies. This God wants the you and me, the you and me that was formed out of the atoms and molecules of this very peculiar universe.
In the last week, more than a couple staff members in the ED have asked me: “I don’t know how you do your job?”
And I haven’t responded to them yet, at first because I wasn’t sure what to say, but now, because I want to make clear why it is that I can, why my colleagues can, and why we all can.
Hans Kung asks: “Can it not be said that only if there is a God is it possible to look at this infinite suffering of the world at all?”
And the answer, most certainly, is yes.
Furthermore, it is only possible to sit with, and be present in that suffering, if this God is the sort of God who takes on flesh to suffer-with-us.
And it is this long-suffering God, who on Ash Wednesday, reminds us not with crosses on our foreheads, but with the opportunity to be those ashes in the world, to be both the reminder and the reminded.
Dead in sin, alive in Christ.