God is not a Chair
Just about 20 years ago I spent a summer as a student chaplain in a hospital. This training is part and parcel of a seminary education, and it is designed to provide a guided formation experience for prospective pastors as they learn the basic of pastoral care. Each student was assigned two floors, one regular (medical/surgical) and one specialty. My special area was oncology. Looking back over the years, I realize just how remarkable a blessing it was to be given that area and to be tasked with offering pastoral care to the people on it. At the outset, it was terrifying. In many ways, that floor held some of the 'sickest' people in the hospital. At the same time, it was a cradle for the most incredible experiences of healing, and of God that I can recall. Those months taught me in new ways just how unique, wonderful, awesome and special each human being is, while at the same time always reminding me of the temerity of life.
In reading today's passages, one even stands out: the story of an elderly woman on that oncology floor who was struggling with two great burdens: One was terminal cancer; and the other was a life-long struggle with schizophrenia. Despite those two challenges, she was someone that I invariably found in good humor when I visited. She was a woman of deep faith, and though her dying and much of her life contained tragedy galore, she still expressed hope in Christ and in the life to come once she was done with this one.
When we first met, I only knew that she-like everyone else on the floor-had cancer. Arriving in the room that morning, I introduced myself, and asked if we could spend some time together. She was eager for a visit, but wanted me to know that she was also mentally ill. Describing her diagnosis, she explained that at times she heard voices. "Whose voices?" I asked.....
"Sometimes, the furniture..." At that point, she seemed to hesitate. I asked her why the hesitation. She explained, "Well, sometimes the chair has more interesting things to say."
I still respect and honor her memory and her name in my prayers, and among the many names of people I have known who have passed to glory, hers is one I name each All Saints' Day as I thank God for the saints I have been able to know in this life. Her admission that first morning reminds me continually to listen for God's true voice, and to be as aware as I can be of the difference between the things God has to say over and against the opinions of inanimate objects.
If you think that tendency is reserved only to people needing medication, then re-read today's lessons. Isaiah is intent to exhibit the falsehood that humanity indulges in when we think we can imbue objects with divine personality. Paul reminds Timothy that faith in God means just that, faith in God above all else. The Psalmist reminds us that real deliverance comes only from God. All else is distraction. That reality is a tough one to embrace. We have so many temptations around us...things beckon for our attention; people extend opportunities to indulge in ways that divorce us from our connection to God; our own nature makes it hard to keep a prime focus on God's will, when our own dances from thought to thought, thing to thing like a butterfly on a flowering bush.
In the end, what matters most? The gift of focus that comes with knowing the difference between God and a chair. To know this is a blessing, and a real gift.
I am still learning that lesson from that dear woman I met so long ago...and will be learning it until that day I too pass from this life to the life of Christ. It's not something you can learn just once and for all. That much is sure....