Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A Twenty Minute Drive

Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? (Psalm 139:7)

The call came to me in the Kroger parking lot. I had been there to get some soup, feeling a slight sore throat and hoping to stave off a head cold. I’m not sure soup actually does that, but it feels good on cold days and sore throats.

One of our church members was dying. Over Christmas she had been told that her final days were imminent. On my last visit, when conversation was still possible, we had spoken of this. Answering my phone, throwing the soup in the back of the car, I learned that another pastoral visit would be welcomed. I left the Kroger parking lot and made my way to her room at a hospice facility near Lenox Mall.

The drive took twenty minutes.

Twenty minutes from Kroger: from pricing soup, rummaging the cart of marked down books, assessing check out lines and using the self-serve pay kiosk, scanning each can and placing it in the bag as instructed by the kind electronic voice.

Twenty minutes to Hospice: people speaking in low voices, solemn. The room quiet, the only light coming through the window. A family member sat by the bed, holding her sister-in-law’s hand, stroking her head from time to time and telling her that she loved her. Such moments and places are sacred, not morbid, not frightening. Holy ground.

Twenty minutes from the everyday trappings of Kroger to the sacred space at Hospice. In the Kroger, standing in the soup aisle, God’s presence doesn’t register. At the Hospice, standing at bedside, God’s presence is unmistakable.

What would it take to shorten those twenty minutes? How do we erase the distance that keeps the sacred confined to certain moments and places? Is it possible to know God’s presence in the Kroger with the same kind of certainty that we know God’s presence in the final hours of life?

When you’re close to the events of birth and death, the beginning and ending of life, everything else in between is momentarily transformed. Reverence spills on anything you touch. But as the distance from birth and death lengthens, the everyday is nothing more than that. Blessing is eclipsed by boredom. We are more aware of the hassles than we are of the holy.

The Psalmist asked, “Where can I go from your Spirit?” The answer is implied in the question: nowhere. There’s nowhere we can go to escape the presence of God. Highest height, deepest depth, far side of the sea. God’s hand holds us fast and we are hemmed in, behind and before (Psalm 139: 5, 8-9).

We change the question. We ask “Where can I go to find your presence?” We live our days punctuated here and there with God, spending most of our time in the plain settings of grocery stores and office buildings. Somehow we’ve gotten it in our minds that God is best found when we go to certain places: A trip to the mountains, a worship service, a conference or retreat. The journey may be minutes or hours, but it is still a journey, going someplace to find the sacred. All the while, the sacred is in the everyday.

The memorial service was held earlier this week. I left the chapel and walked back to the office for a meeting to review and proof Sunday’s bulletin. I’m still working to close the distance between the holy and ordinary moments, praying that someday they’ll be indistinguishable.

How far is that distance for you today?

“Lord, where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens you are there. If I make my bed in the depths you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.” Amen (Psalm 139:8-10).

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