Today I was moved to share this bit of the Bible with a couple at a nursing facility:
For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling— if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.
II Corinthians 5:1-6
I wasn't comfortable reading this. If there's anything to these words, it is better understood by the couple across the table, who have suffered more bodily impairment - "destruction of the tent" - than I can even imagine. And if they find the words empty or insincere, I have little experiential knowledge from which to dispute them. I've been blessed with a healthy life so far.
Yet the couple across the table, judging from the glint in their eyes and their nods, did hear something true in the words. Not something to "make it all better," but something true that was more than the moment and that made the moment part of something more.
Those of us who seek Jesus need to use the Bible when we offer comfort on his behalf. Too many of us speak in pop-psych platitudes and affectations, by which we abandon our strongest resource and offer a cheap burlesque of what a legitimately trained psychotherapist might bring. We don't bring our best to those who need it. The Bible has time-tested spiritual power, insight and depth; we are limited by our own small experiences of reality.
Looking at that Scripture after the visit, I realized how much was "going on" beyond my understanding. Those few verses said so much more to the couple across the table than all of my words offered over an hour long visit:
- + the earthly tent we live in: There's an amazing dose of reality. Our earthly body is a temporary place to stay. It is not a permanent structure that can be retrofitted, repaired or rebuilt for as long as we want. This is counter to all of our uncritical faith in fix-it medical technology and pharmacology, Nip/Tuck feelgood cosmetic surgery, values based on looks and youth, magic diets and supplements, and so many other death-denying assumptions.
- + we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. There's some awesome theology - "knowledge of God." There's the idea that if we have something more than this body, it is not of our own making. There's the insight, both in symbol ("house" replaces "tent") and statement ("eternal in the heavens") of a reality not limited by natural finitude. There is the love of a divinity that gives us this new "building" in which to live forever.
- + For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling: There's the sweet empathy that our pop-psych aims for and generally misses. There's the affirmation that it is both human and holy to groan under the sufferings of this life, and to long for something more.
- + if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. There's the chance to help those who can't be "fixed" physically. "Are there things you still need to say or hear or do? Are you at peace with God?" Here, for Christians, comes the time for sacramental ministry, be it Baptism to "put on Christ" or Confession to peel off patches from our moldy old tent or Unction to mark the site of God's newest "building."
- + so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. There's a promise of transformation. Not "life support" to keep some function, any function going, but a disappearance of that which suffers and dies so that only life emerges.
- + He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. There's the good news for a person of faith. "You're not at a dead end. You are at the end of the hard path and near the narrow gate. You are about to finish the race as a winner."
For a follower of Jesus, The Bible is "the Word of God containing all things necessary to salvation." It will express what God has to say better than our efforts at eloquence. Paul instructs the recipients of one of his inspired letters, "Therefore encourage one another with these words" (I Thessalonians 4:18).
So, are we just robotic readers in our pastoral visits? Hardly. Along with the Word, God sends us. "Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn" (Romans 12:15) is but an affirmation that we are chosen to be the face, the voice, the touch of Jesus himself:
When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, "Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died." When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. "Where have you laid him?" he asked. "Come and see, Lord," they replied.