The first day I spent with my mom a little over a week ago turned out to be the best day. Not what I’d call a good day, but the best I got in those too few days I was able to make the trip down. (And thank you to Aldersgate for letting me know that was ok and to the staff that had to fill in while I was gone.) Not terribly responsive, she at least seemed to allow my presence with her. She let me feed her lunch and sit with her for a while that day. I asked if she wanted me to read to her, and I think she said yes. I read anyway, and she seemed to listen, somewhat. I read through three chapters of The Harvester, by Gene Stratton-Porter. I grabbed the well worn copy sitting in the table in her room and read that story she once knew by heart. We slipped into another world, my mother and I, a simpler one, a quieter one, rural Indiana, a century ago, things were simpler, gentler. I liked it there, I have to confess. I kept asking the other days if I could read, but she wouldn’t let me.
I kept reading, that first and only time, even though there was too much activity going on outside her room. I wanted to close the door, but also didn’t want to interrupt the cadence of my voice which seemed to be soothing. So I kept reading as nurses and aides and curious other residents of the memory care ward wandered in and out of the room across the hall. I kept reading about a world of love and loss and hope and despair, as two strangers disappeared into that room and closed the door. I kept reading about a world insulated from the heartache of today, yet full of its own tragedy, as the door across the hall opened and the two strangers wheeled a Gurney with the all too familiar zippered bag discretely covered with a sheet down the hall and out the locked door. When mom fell asleep and I asked that she be put to bed for a nap, before I left to check on Dad back at the house, I stepped into the room. It was Winnie, or Miss Winnie as she was there in Tennessee. I stood in the room now emptied of her presence and prayed for her and her family and for all the other residents who most likely wouldn’t know what happened.
It was daytime, mid afternoon as I prayed in that room, yet it felt like night. When the questions come and doubts rise up, the night when our failures seem too heavy to bear and our losses like wounds in our soul. I hadn’t eaten all day worried about mom, but the hunger in my heart was for more than food.
Psalm 63:1-8 O God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water. 2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory. 3 Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you. 4 So I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name. 5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips 6 when I think of you on my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; 7 for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy. 8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
Psalm 63 carries the superscription “A psalm of David when he was in the wilderness of Judah.” Given that David spent a lot of time in the wilderness, we can’t really know what time is being referred to. We don’t know what was going on. But we do know of a couple of time when David fled to the wilderness of Judah in particular. The first was when he was young and somehow fell into and out of favor in the palace. He sang soothing songs to calm King Saul’s moods, but then had to run for his life from that King who wanted him dead. He was in the wilderness running for his life. Later, as King, David fled into the wilderness when his son Absalom attempted an insurrection, wanting to be king in his father’s place. David fled for protection while his generals sorted out this battle. Then he wept for his son who wanted him dead. It was not a happy place, the wilderness, not for David, not for kings, not for fathers and sons.
And yet. Look again. Yes, there is hunger and there is thirst. There is a longing for the presence that is as real as the longing for food and water. In the wilderness, you’d think the first thing on the list would be physical sustenance. But no, the deeper hunger, the more powerful thirst is for God. He is fainting for God’s presence, driven to see not his own safety, not his own revival, but the very face of God. O God, you are my God, I seek you.
And underneath, this is the amazing part, underneath the need, underneath the hunger and thirst, underneath the wandering in the wilderness, there is this confidence. A certainty. I have looked upon in you in the sanctuary. I have, not I will, or I want to, or please let me, but I have. You have been my help. There is a memory here that is sustaining. That’s what he is doing in the watches of the night. Not despairing, not doubting and fearing. Not letting the wilderness swallow him up, the emptiness of the room across the hall echo in his soul. No, he is remembering. I will meditate on you in the watches of the night.
How do you meditate? Isn’t that some Eastern mysticism? Some foreign practice not a part of our religious tradition? Doesn’t that involve nonsense words and uncomfortable positions and chanting monotones and smoke? Lots and lots of smoke? By no means, as St Paul would say.
I will meditate on you in the watches of the night. I means finding a memory. A word, a verse from the Bible. Or even better a moment. A moment of joy and hope. A moment of encounter, of intimacy and healing. A moment of shared love and closeness. And holding it like a jewel in your mind. Looking at it, remembering it from every angle, letting the light of understanding shine through it, sparkling with presence and with comfort. I will meditate on you in the watches of the night. I will remember the moments when you felt close. When we were one, and now in the darkness of this wilderness time, I will let that moment fill me with love and with hope and with joy. Because that moment defines me more than this moment. That togetherness, that union, that is where I reside, even though right now I am alone in the dark. I will meditate on you in the watches of the night.
And suddenly the darkness is not the absence of God, but is the shadow of the healing wings. Suddenly the darkness is not a place for whispers and for tears, but for singing and for joy. Not a place of hunger, but of feasting. My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast. Because I remember. I was meditating on a moment, on a word that meant something at one time. A word that spoke to me. A word perhaps from another important to me. A word that survives the wilderness.
Some of you who know me, who have to listen to me more than you probably want to, are wondering how I am going to take this obviously individual psalm and turn it into something corporate. That’s our Lenten theme remember, the Beloved Community. We are meditating on the prayer for the church in Ephesians 3:14-21. Specifically the phrase in verse 17, “as you are being rooted and grounded in love.” The “you” there is plural (all y’all), but the I in Psalm 63 is obviously singular. Isn’t this something I have to do? This meditating, this remembering, as well as this feasting and this rejoicing? I am the one who needs to cling to God. Right?
Right. But. But, my experience of God is always plural. Always. We are Trinitarian. We experience God as community, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer - or Father, Son and Spirit in the traditional language. God is always plural. There is always community. But, even more so, my experience of God is always shaped by the community in which I live. In which I grew. I know God because of you. Because I love you and you love me, I can have an inkling of what it is to be loved by God. Because of the experiences I have had with you, and those who came before you, I can remember God in the watches of the night. Part of what I remember is not just God, but the God in you. The God I know in you. Your love, your support, your care, your correction, you. You.
And her. She is part of my you. It was not a good day, but it was the best day we had this time. The other days were more distant, more agitated, more lost. But this day there was a glimpse. Fleeting to be sure, but a glimpse. I was wheeling her by someone in the common room and she reached out and said “How are you doing?” and sounded like my mom again. Caring for another, loving and welcoming another. It wasn’t me she was speaking to, but it was her for a moment. A moment. We got to her place at the table and I wheeled her around to her tray, put the napkin around her neck and sat beside her with a fork to feed her. And she looked at me and said “Do I know you?”
Yes, Mom. You do. I’ll remember for you. I’ll remember us. And together we will live in the memory of God, and in the watches of the night we will sing for joy. For what was and what is and what will be.