This originally appeared as part of the Daily Sip, a website from the Rev Canon Charles LaFond offering daily meditations and reflections
After seeing The Infant of Prague (a miraculous wax doll of Jesus with hundreds of dress-up dresses …I mean…seriously?) on the way home from way too many castles, I was hit by a speeding bullet-city-train three years ago. I hate when that happens. Seeing The Infant of Prague, I mean.
The ambulance flew through the streets with me tied to a board and no stewardess with cocktails or even nuts. I laughed at the miraculous Infant and I think it hexed me. Its head turned to watch me. At least I think it did. So perhaps it was miraculous after all…
On arrival at the hospital, I seemed fine, and we all thought I might go home for a glass of wine, to recover from the Jesus doll-baby and the train, but a cat scan and X-ray indicated a double hematoma on the sinus of the brain and a skull cracked into three distinct pieces, floating on jello-grey-matter. Going home for a glass of wine would have meant death in 20 seconds. But then so would sticking my tongue out at The Infant of Prague. Which I did.
Suddenly things sped up, and I remember the long, white staccato lights flashing overhead as I was raced on a gurney through hallway and after hallway to ICU where I was told I would live three hours (bad news) but would fall asleep, without pain, as I died (good-ish news.)
“Would you like anything? Do you need to call or write to anyone?” the nurse asked as if asking if wanted a tissue. What does one say? “Life, please, not stationary.” I thought to myself. “I would like very much to live please.” I held the pencil they gave me over the page two write my directives for my cremation and the care of Kai. I remember wondering if using a pencil would make it really legal.
Five days later I awoke in ICU and the nurse dropped the tray she was holding, in shock. It was as if God had responded “Well, if you are sure. OK. But never look at that Jesus doll-baby again. Never!” back when I was asked that question. (Secretly, I liked the blue dress with the lace and the parasol.)
Recent tests show no change in personality, no thought problems (in fact they were quite generous describing my intelligence!) and no lasting effects except the complete loss of taste and smell – a difficult life-sentence when one was a foodie. And an aversion to parasols.
But I lost one other thing as well. I lost the willingness to be quiet in the face of bullying, abandonment or abuse. And in today’s church, that is a debilitating loss which daily threatens my life. The church is led, mostly, by corporate middle managers and the results are so different than they were when Jesus chose twelve blue-collar buys and a bunch of generous ladies to run things. Ad anxiety to the mix as generations shift and there is quite the toxic system.
My hero, soul-friend and guide, Richard Rohr says that there comes a turning point in men’s lives when there was a before and there is an after. It is usually in mid-life and it usually involves great and terrible suffering. It is that point after which there is no longer a fear of death and so, in a strange way, no longer any fear at all. I am passing through that now. It is hard but feels somehow liberating. The editors’ choice of “Fearless” as my fundraising-in-church book series titles now makes more sense to me. (The new “Fearless Major Gifts; Inspiring Meaning-making” book is soon to be on bookstore shelves! As will also be the New Rule of Life book. The Daily Sip Day-boo of Meditations is next in line!!!)
The call on a priest’s life is to fight for the underdog even if, sometimes, it is one’s self. Sometimes we must decide to stand up and fight a bully, a bishop, or a President – anyone who restricts freedom of speech or basic human rights. And sometimes we must fight for someone, like a woman experiencing homelessness who wants and needs food from our walk-in refrigerator or would like to attend our Wednesday night parish meal. Sometimes we fight for a congregant being scolded for holding something the wrong way by a liturgy-Nazi. Sometimes we even fight God (see Psalms.)
We humans have the most extraordinary inner compass for life. Even when we choose not to live, we live (most of us), because something has been placed within us which craves, grips and locks onto life. Or because we have a dog we don’t want to leave behind.
The truth is we are not safe. Those words are difficult to write but it is true. Many, many like me, chose to enter the church or a monastery because we were seeking a safe place in which to be protected and nurtured, when in fact that has never been its role. And, as the church is slowly, quietly, stealthily unfunded by the next generations, the church will increasingly be less safe as anxiety and scarcity grip it for the first time since the Viking invasions of its churches and monasteries in the Dark Ages. A good bishop helps. And there are some.
But God is safe. God will not protect us from bad things happening, usually. Nor will God always assist when we are abandoned or abused. God does not grab the hand of the person about to hit us nor does God necessarily shut down a growing cancer when we ask for a miracle. Sometimes God does, but not usually. Instead, God moves in very, very, very close. God lingers when we suffer. God sits uncomfortably close and stares uncomfortably into our eyes, even when we look away or at the floor or at Kai-the-dog. And I notice that when I look at Kai-the-dog (my black lab) in order to avoid looking at God’s disquieting closeness, Kai seems always to be looking just to the left or right of me. As if he sees something I do not. Cannot. Will not see. (As I write these words, his tail just thumped thrice against the floor, in another room!)
God lets us suffer so that we may become our full selves. It may seem unkind or even unfair. God grows us, on the inside, by way of our suffering. And especially for men, suffering is what makes us move from boy to man no matter in what year of life. In the end, God does not seek our happiness as much as God seeks our joy. And Joy is so different. Happiness is about pleasure, but joy is about transformation. And like Jesus, walking in the Easter garden with Mary of Mandala, Jesus calls all of us to turn a second time, not so that we may see Jesus’ new body, but that we may see our new soul.
image: the author’s beloved Kai