by Lynda Roemer
Thin places are places on the earth where the Presence is so strong that they serve as portals between one world and another. Personally, I think thin places are “places, or times, or people in this world that make everyone around them feel something so powerful and impenetrable that it can only be described as the presence of God.” How do we feel God’s presence? It’s not a physical sensation or an analytical thought. In a word, the presence of God feels like Love. I thought about the times I have felt that God had a strong presence for me. Sometimes you have to open your eyes because at first it may not be that evident.
When I was younger, I yearned for a much more grandiose presence of God: the prevention of natural disasters like floods and tsunamis, the end of wars and human conflict, the changing of evil in men’s hearts. Why wouldn’t God just “fix things” for his people? As wonderful as those types of miracles might be, I have come to look for God in much quieter, less dramatic ways. I see the presence of God, his Love in the patients I see every day who show God’s tremendous love and strength, in what they do caring for each other. They simply let the love of God and the Holy Spirit work through them. They ask for help and they receive it, there is no other explanation.
Many years ago, my minister from my teen years gave me a high school graduation gift I have enjoyed. It is Frederick Buechner’s Wishful Thinking, A Theological ABC. At first look, his definitions seem too simple. Then with more thought, they are deep. This is his definition of LOVE (page 53).
The first stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love. The middle stage is to believe that there are many kinds of love and that the Greeks had a different word for each of them. The last stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love.
The unabashed eros of lovers, the sympathetic philia of friends, agape giving itself away freely no less for the murderer than for his victim (the King James version translates it as charity)—these are all varied manifestations of a single reality. To lose yourself in another’s arms, or in another’s company, or in suffering for all men who suffer, including the ones who inflict suffering upon you—to lose yourself in such ways is to find yourself. Is what it’s all about. Is what love is.
Of all powers, love is the most powerful because it alone can conquer that final and most impregnable stronghold which is the human heart. It is the most powerless because it can do nothing except by consent.
To say that love is God is romantic idealism. To say that God is love is either the last straw or the ultimate truth.
Here are a few examples from my practice. Several years ago, I was seeing Bruce, one of my diabetic patients with heart disease. In fact, at a young age he had already had a heart attack and triple bypass. He was a manager at Dupont and put in long, hard hours. I was frustrated because his diabetes was dangerously out of control. I had been educating, explaining, cajoling and nagging him for months to take his diabetes control more seriously and finally said to him, “How can you not take care of yourself? Aren’t you afraid you’re going to have another heart attack or open heart surgery?” He looked directly in my eyes and said with a soft voice, “Yes, I am afraid but every morning when I wake up, I ask God for one more day and then I have faith that he will give it to me if it is his will that I live.” That set me back on my heels for a moment. We were not talking about God. We were talking about diabetes and heart disease! However, it occurred to me that he was talking about God. To him, his health and his faith were the same. His faith was his comfort. He would accept God’s will, whatever that may be.
As a health care provider, I deal with facts, medicines, and procedures. I have, but do not usually, pray with patients or talk about religion. The two worlds do not usually intermingle for me, but that day they did. Bruce and I came to an agreement. I would try to do the best I could to get him through the year and a half to retirement and he would do the best he could to come under better control. That was eight years ago. Either medicine or faith or both have seen Bruce through years of productive living. He is very active in his church and regularly participates in counseling prisoners at Alden Correctional Facility. Bruce did survive, but it was not a surprise to him; with his faith he always knew he would.
Bruce’s story is not important because he got better. It’s important because he displayed faith in the secular world of medicine and science.
My next story doesn’t end as well but I’m going to tell it because my next patient, Sam, displayed a level of love and compassion that was exceptional. Truly, he was filled with the Holy Spirit. He was a 29-year-old patient I had known for about 15 years and was losing his battle with melanoma. He had come in four months earlier with a large lump under his right arm. I knew then the diagnosis was not going to be good. I thought lymphoma but it was worse: nonmelonmic melanoma. (a melanoma with no visible mole, a total sneak attack of a very aggressive, deadly cancer.) It was a death sentence, very unfair. At the time of diagnosis, he already had metastasis to his lungs and brain. He was in pain. His girlfriend and his dog were helping him cope. However, that day, he came in with another problem. His mother (also my patient) was not being realistic. She expected and believed he would be cured. She refused to believe he would not beat this illness.
Sam’s relationship with his mother had been one of bitter betrayal from a young age. But just as Bruce knew he would live, Sam knew he would die. Sam wanted to help her so that she could deal with his death. Even through his terrible suffering, he was trying to help his mother. He was not as bitter as one might expect with this diagnosis; disappointed and sad yes, but not bitter as most of us might be. He was worried and caring for his mother. What was even more amazing was that he was somewhat estranged from his mom. She had gotten divorced from his father when he was very young, and the couple had had another son who was favored over Sam. I remember his struggles at age 15 to 17. Now with his end near he was working to help her. His suffering had transcended the estrangement. His love had overcome his feelings of injustice and betrayal.
An old man wheels his wife into my exam room. He walks unassisted but he is stooped and slow. She smiles pleasantly at me as he unwraps her coat and adjusts her lap blanket. He hands me a bag full of meds, sits down, and pulls out his list of questions. She has a sore on her leg, what should he do to heal it up? He wants to switch some of her meds to dinnertime, which ones can he move? He needs a script for a moveable bath seat so he can swivel her into the tub. He just cannot pick her up any more to put her in. He hands me the record of blood glucose tests and blood pressure readings and wants to review them. The new med is working out well and her blood sugars are down. She watches his every move, nods, and smiles, pleasantly demented. He is so careful, so tender, and so fragile. She lives because of him. He lives for her. There are no children, no other family to help. I start in on our list, not even mentioning placement for her in a nursing home today as I have in the past… He says they will not take care of her the way he does and she would not like living away from home. His days are spent in service, unrelenting fulfillment of someone else’s needs, almost more than a healthy 30-year-old could handle. Where does he find the strength? How does he handle the loneliness? When I ask him he says God helps him, and I believe him. I have several couples like this one.
I see these people daily who, with God’s help and strength (they tell me this), manage their difficult lives with calm, determined LOVE. It has become apparent to me, that it isn’t just love, it’s God’s love. I agree it is with God’s help, by letting the love of God live in them and through them. They ask for God’s help and they receive because they are open to receive it. I see God’s love quite often. I’m not saying I still wouldn’t like a grand miracle (like changing the hearts of the leaders in the Middle East), but I do thank God for helping my patients, and I am grateful for witnessing these small miracles on a daily basis.
This is the fourth in a series of stories by people who shared their “Stories of Good News” during the Lenten season at North Church in February and March.