At 22 years old I was certain that most of the world was going to hell if I didn’t do my part to personally build the detour. So, I was thrilled when, just a few months prior to seminary graduation, I was getting a chance to stem the tide of hellfire.
I was invited to preach a “revival” at a local church. If case you didn’t know, a revival is a series special church services held every night for a week – guilt in its most concentrated form. I was preaching my last sermon during this preaching marathon and building the steam that usually sends at least a handful of elderly ladies weeping down the aisles. Suddenly, one of the parishioners loudly announced, “Margaret has passed out again.”
Mid-sentence, I quickly stuttered that I would conclude the service.
“No, no, that’s ok,” the woman’s pew mate announced, “I’m a nurse. She does this all the time. I can take care of her. You keep preachin’, preacher.”
Really? No, we have to stop. Are you sure? Ok.
So, off I set again – down the road that is wide to destruction. The flames were stirring again when the nurse announced, “She’s having a seizure. John,” she called to the deacon, “Call 911”
“Ok, Ladies and Gentleman,” I announced, “we must dismiss.”
“No, preacher, the deacon persisted. “She does this all the time. Finish your sermon.”
“I can’t. This lady needs medical attention.”
“Don’t worry. She’s getting attention,” he said kind of nodding his head toward the nurse. “Please,” he said, “the people need to hear the message. “Wiping the look of incredulity from my face, I finished my last tear-jerking illustration as I approached the most critical part of my sermon – the “invitation.”
It is called the “invitation” because the preacher invites people to “walk the aisle” to the altar. Due to the circumstances, I was willing to forgo the invitation. I pleaded with the deacon. “We need to simply dismiss the congregation and take care of this woman.”
“Preacher,” he responded with some annoyance, “this woman does this all the time,” his staccato inflection verbally underlining his remaining words. “Let’s have the invitation.”
“Perhaps only a few verses,” I allowed.
“No,” he said in his damn-the-torpedo approach. “Let’s sing all 6. She will be ok.”
With that, the song director began to drag us through the first few verses. During the second verse, the paramedics barged through the front doors. With their walkie-talkies blaring to the tune of Amazing Grace, they pushed the gurney up the center aisle and stopped just short of the communion table which was engraved with, “This do in remembrance of me.”
I signaled the director to stop, but he was taking directions from the deacon. “Four more verses” was the order. On the last verse, patient and paramedics made their escape. When the service was over, I was still wondering who would be inviting me to supper, when the deacon approached.
“Preacher,” he said, “you must realize that she does this for the attention. Easter Sunday, she fainted here by the door,” he said hooking his index finger downward. “We had to walk over her to get home for dinner.”
The pressure built inside my mouth and it was all I could do to contain my breath mint and keep from spraying him with Certs spit. This church had settled into a different kind of normal and was walking around the fallen. Some of you will probably point to this as an example of what church people are like – stepping over the wounded – answering questions no one is asking or ignoring the questions that are being asked.
That analogy would be a comfortable ending for most of us, but it goes beyond the church into our culture. After we experience tragedy, we sometimes build a detour around the pain of others. We compare it with the awful things that happened to us and we lessen the degree we are able to see the pain of others.
During the 9/11 week, one of my parishioners lost her only daughter to cancer and when I saw her crying at church, I assumed her tears were for the fallen heroes. Her pain was discounted in the tremendous shadow of those falling buildings and I found it hard to find the compassion to give her. I walked around her. That was wrong.
The whole incident at the church reminded me of Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan – but not the Samaritan himself -the two church staff members who walked around the wounded to get to their church. On that road, where many people had been robbed and beaten, the church of the day had responded by building a detour and accepting the detour as the new normal. People had learned to walk over the wounded so they could make it home for dinner.
My biggest concern with the 9/11 events is that they have thrust upon us a new kind of normal in which tragic events are normal or they are minimized as not being near as bad as it could have been. So we urge people to go about their business as normal. But if developing a “new kind of normal” means normalizing tragedies into every-day occurrences through our comparison with 9/11, give me the old kind of normal – fast.