By Norris Burkes Feb 14, 2016
Christian Lent began this week with Ash Wednesday. The 40-day season is a time in which Christians will sacrifice something fairly inconsequential, such as coffee or tea.
Fortunately, few will experience the biblical measure of sacrifice described by John 15:13. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
The verse always takes me back to a steamy summer evening in 1993 when I was working as the chaplain for Houston Northwest Medical Center. That was the night paramedics brought us a 17-year-old electrocution victim, an employee of the nearby Splash Town water park.
As the staff worked hard to resuscitate the boy, I went to the waiting area in search of his parents. I didn’t find them, but I did meet the boy’s co-workers as they streamed into our waiting room telling a dreadful story.
The young man had been playing volleyball with coworkers when one of them decided to referee the game by climbing a light pole beside the volleyball court.
Just as the boisterous climber reached the top of the pole, it began to sway. The climber, no longer confident for his safety, slid down and jumped clear of the hazard.
Our patient watched the pole teeter toward the screaming crowd and quickly surmised that not everyone was safe. In reaction, he reached to catch the pole in his bare hands. His actions saved several friends from injury, but the 220 volts from the light tragically electrocuted him.
After they recounted the story, one of the employees produced the victim’s home phone number. For the next few hours I repeatedly called, but there was no answer. Finally, a woman answered and I delivered the usual script we use in the ER – “Your son’s had an accident and we need you to come to the hospital as fast as is safely possible.”
The woman spewed questions.
“No ma’am. I can’t tell you more,” I said. “The doctor will explain it all when you get here.”
When the parents arrived, the doctors broke the news of their son’s heroic death. Then, for some reason, I felt the need to add the Lenten footnote from John 15:13.
The mother responded with a question.
“Do you know why you had such trouble reaching us tonight?”
I recognized the sound of a set up, so I just shook my head no.
“We were visiting our other son who is dying from AIDS.”
None of us moved.
“So please forgive me,” she said, “if I’m wishing it was my son’s coworker in your morgue instead of my son.”
When she stood to leave, she added, “That verse may help me someday, but it doesn’t help me now.”
I confess, this isn’t the kind of happy ending you look for in a chaplain’s column, but it’s always served as an important lesson to me in understanding how to minister to grieving people.
In short, they don’t need you to quote verses. They don’t need you to explain theology or defend God. They need someone to stand beside them, to grieve with them and honor their tears.
So, if you’re still looking to give up something during Lent, please relinquish the pat answers we give people just to make us feel better about God.
Because I can tell you that at the end of the evening, the woman was right – I didn’t know a damn thing about sacrifice. And my prayer, after I’d put my four kids to bed that night, was that I’d never have to know.
– Write Norris at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 247, Elk Grove, CA 95759. Twitter @chaplain, or call 843-608-9715. Norris Burkes will be coming to Florida during the first ten days in March. During those weekends, he is available for public speeches, church retreats, marriage seminars, worship services, university or private high school chapels, in-service for healthcare and hospice, and veterans’ events. If you would like to host Norris at your event, please email email@example.com.