This one is for Benji who so often warned me of screens. In case you all hadn't noticed, we've been hiding previously unreleased photos of Eleanor in my boring devotionals for those who need a baby fix along with your Jesus.
Good morning, I'd like to welcome you to our time of devotion. We gather here every morning but Saturday at 8:30 for a time of prayer and reflection. You're welcome to join us if you're able. We'd also love to spend some time visiting with you today. If you'd like a visit from a chaplain, please call 2569 from any hospital phone.
A week or two ago I went to the dentist for the first time in a few years to get my teeth cleaned and checked for weak spots. It's always a little intimidating to go there but I've gotten accustomed to the (sometimes) false confidence that comes from this jacket and tie, the seeming importance I sometimes trick myself into thinking it projects. I strolled from my desk in the pastoral care office down the hall to the dentist here in Med tower 1 for my appointment, announced my presence to the receptionist, took the next to last remaining seat, and pulled out my favorite toy, I mean vital piece of work related office equipment, my palmPilot or handheld computer. Facing the rest of the room I began prodding the screen of my palm to pull up something interesting with which to entertain myself until I glanced up at the room. Two adults were scanning two different issues of Time magazine decorated with the faces of terrorists we've recently killed (this was denoted by a big red X across their faces, you've gotta give the Time editorial staff credit for subtlety). One other adult was poking the front of her new Cingular brand smartphone/PDA/handheld computer with Bluetooth (appropriate for our locale) wireless internet, email, QWERTY keyboard, text messaging mp3 function, cloak of invisibility, power lasso and theft deterrent. Her toy made me look like a hillbilly. Her son next to her held out his flip-phone like captain Kirk on the original Star-Trek, apparently scanning the room for life, or at least something interesting. Periodically he would share his readings with his mother who would respond with nods and loud beeps from whatever she was poking on her phone's touch screen. The scene made me stop.
We have so many devices to pacify us, so many ways to avoid being bored. We spend so much time diverting ourselves from the very people and events right in front of our faces. For the past few days I have noticed a young man in the waiting room near the chapel with a game-boy advance sp video game, headphones dutifully plugged in as his family waits for news about their loved one in intensive care. I peak over his shoulder from time to time to see where he really is, where he is taking his mind on this vacation from the long, tedious hours of fear and boredom in the ICU waiting room. It looks like he's skulking through dark dungeons, killing monsters as he goes. I, like many parents, feel a little frustrated when I see kids so immersed in video-game realities that they fail to engage in real life conversation and interaction. I'm always trying to pester my younger brother into talking to me during long car rides instead of turning on his mp3 music player and drifting away. But can I really blame this young man if he would rather be anywhere but here in the hospital? Screens can be useful things. They can give us information, they can transport us out of places we'd rather not be but God knows many of us probably spend way to much time looking at them. From computers, to TV's to cell phones, we focus hard to see what they are showing us. The poet Wendell Berry said once to "beware of screens," intentionally leaving his meaning ambiguous. I think he means the kind of screens we've been talking about. I also think he means for us to see that you can understand that word another way. Because as we hold up the cell phone, the game boy, the pda to see what it's saying, we're holding it between us and what's in front of us, all the electronic screens we surround ourselves with can literally become screens which block our vision of reality. Especially when that reality hurts.
I've stood a countless deathbeds with patients and families at the last moments of life and traced the paths of loved ones eyes not to their dying patient's face but to the screen displaying the falling blood pressure, breaths per minute, oxygen saturation, heart rate. True, this is useful information but I think our eyes are drawn to it both out of habit (we have trained ourselves well to watch screens so we don't miss anything) and because the screen, though saying the same thing, is easier to look upon than our dying loved one's face. I'm afraid that sometimes, by fixing our eyes on screens we miss what is behind them; that is, the deep, rich, heart-wrenching, life-enriching intensely personal realities of life, and it's absence, death.
Working here in the hospital, "neck deep in the human condition" as my boss likes to say, constantly surrounded by suffering and crisis, it can be overwhelming. There are times when I am with families who are experiencing unspeakable stress as they watch those they love suffer as their bodies disintegrate and shut down, there are times when I feel like I'm holding my head underwater, just being in the presence of such pain, suffering, such immense significance. There are times I need to step out and take a breath, to turn away from the searing pain and look at something innocuous and synthetic, like a screen, a watch, a pager anything other than the face of a human in pain.
Sometimes you need to take that break, in fact if you don't learn to take those breaks, to come up above the surface of the flood of emotion that has engulfed you, you may feel even more swept away and hopeless. But on the other side of the coin, it is sometimes easier to divert our attention from the real suffering of others rather than engaging it, coming into their presence and feeling it with them. Grief, loss and suffering are very individual and personal experiences, labyrinths that we all must find our own way through. In hindsight many of our paths may seem similar but when you're in the midst of it, you can only see the next step forward, if that. Finding the balance between facing the pain of reality and giving your mind and emotions the space to absorb it is the work that many of you here in the hospital are working on.
But it is my pleasure to remind you this morning that there is one who takes no breaks, who interposes no screens between his glorious personal presence and our contorted painful suffering. In fact he looked so deeply into it that he dove in, head to toe immersed in bodily existence, incarnated to engage our suffering, to feel with us for a while and eventually to embrace feel it in every bone in his body on the cross. It is in Christ that we can say even more fully than the writer of Psalm 22 "You who fear the Lord, praise him; all you descendants of Jacob glorify Him, and stand in awe of Him. All you descendants of Israel. For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither has He hidden his face from him; But when he cried to Him for help he heard."
In the old days there was a veil, a curtain, a screen hung between the place in the temple where God dwelled and the place where people were allowed to come. On the day Christ died that screen was torn in half. And though we may have to put up screens from time to time, just to get room to breathe, I think we would do well to remember that it is when we take them down, fold them up, turn them off and put them back in our pockets and look out with openness to the people all around us, it is then that we are most like God. Lets pray.
God, take down our screens. Show us new levels of empathy with the suffering and may we see more clearly the need and glory of those all around us. Amen.