patient stories

Journeying with the Cross

This month at work, we had a patient that shook up the whole staff. It takes a lot to rile up a single staff member in the Emergency Department. We’re used to insults, pain, and tragedies. A run-of-the-mill misfortune doesn’t faze us. In fact, it’s usually the fodder for our dark jokes. No, it takes a breathtakingly tragic event happening to someone spectacularly good to shake up everyone.

This month at work, someone stupendously upstanding had something horribly tragic happen. Even with wiping names and details away, I cannot say anything else in order to respect HIPAA and this patient’s privacy. The story was too tragic and unique. Everyone working had heard what happened, and no one was talking, or joking, about it.

Hours later, I greeted one of the technicians coming in for the night, routinely asking how she was. “I would have been a whole lot better if I hadn’t gone up to the ICU,” she said, despondent. She was a family friend of the patient, and every new detail she told me about this patient and their family tore at my heart strings.

One particular grievance of hers struck me. She said, “We see punks every day who don’t give a crap about anything but themselves who end up fine. Why did it have to happen to one of the most hard-working, loving people I know? How can God do that?” I knew her frustration. I knew her pain. I could think of exact people and cases who had made me question the exact same thing.

Working in an inpatient trauma unit for my first job, I was always struck by the fact that trauma affects everyone. The death of a beloved classmate was one of the very reasons I entered the profession. I wanted so badly to help my patients, but I discovered my own powerlessness more than anything else, especially when it came to questions of “why.”

I wish I had an answer to provide my co-worker that night, but all I had were stories. And I told her a story, a breathtakingly tragic story that happened to someone spectacularly good.

In late winter 2013, my roommate Maggie* came home crying. Her colleague’s wife was in the ICU after collapsing at the gym. She had a blood clot at the base of her brain, and the doctors were not sure how much brain function she had. She was in her early thirties, a beloved wife, a beloved daughter, and a doting mother with 5 kids.

Maggie asked me to pray for a miracle, but the miracle never came. She died a few days later. She left behind her story, a grieving community, and several organs which were donated to recipients and research.

“I heard about her,” my co-worker said. “They didn’t know she was for a while because her gym bag was locked up, right?”

“Yeah,” I said, puzzled.  Her story was covered in the local newspapers, but I had no idea how my co-worker knew this minute detail from a tragedy that happened 3 years ago over a hour’s drive away. “That’s right.”

We talked a little more, hugged, and went our separate ways for the evening. As I was driving home, I finally let out a few tears in the safety of my car. And I asked in the silence of my heart, “Why?”

I’ve never understood suffering. I see it all the time in my line of work as a nurse, but no explanation has ever justified it for me. Why do bad things happen to good people? I prayed. When Bad Things Happen to Good PeopleMan’s Search for Meaning, and others have helped me re-phrase the question to why do good things happen to bad people, and I have learned the abundant mercy of the Lord.

Yet, every once in a while, when someone stupendously upstanding had something horribly tragic happen, I cannot help but ask, but why, Lord, do bad things happen to good people?

I thought of all the good people I knew personally and informally who had tragedy strike. My good friend was devastated when her friend, a popular, sweet, kind Bible-study leader, was murdered and another friend died of cancer.  I heard from third-party connections about the tragic murder of another young, faithful man and was amazed at his wife’s forgiving heart despite her unborn child never meeting her father. CNN headlined with the tragic death of a pastor’s pregnant wife and his call for forgiveness. I’m still in shock at the 9 people who were killed at a church in Charleston and the 4 Sisters of Charity killed in Yemen for their faith.

I was overcome by the weight of all this tragedy when I realized something: It takes the tragic death of a good person to make us stop rationalizing and start sitting in the brokenness and pain of our human condition.

My co-worker could rationalized the horrible traumas we see because our patients make poor decisions. (They do. Sometimes, they really do.) Does it make it any less horrible that they’re shot? Killed? Die? Not at all, but we can rationalize that pain away by convincing ourselves they deserved it.

But did this patient deserve it? No. Did my friend’s colleague’s wife deserve her death? No. Did my friend’s friend deserve to be murdered? No. Did my friend’s friend deserve to die young of cancer? No. Did that young, faithful man deserve to be murdered? No. Did that pregnant wife? No. Did any of those people in that church? No. Did those sisters? No. 

We cannot rationalize their suffering! So much of our suffering we rationalize away instead of just admitting it hurts. I think we think we’d never get through the day if we really allowed ourselves to feel the pain of everything horrible that happens.

But numbing ourselves isn’t the answer. We cannot selectively numb ourselves to pain without numbing our capacity for joy. As shame researcher Brené Brown wrote:

“We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”

– Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection

If we want to feel joy, we have to allow ourselves to feel pain.

When we really sit in our emotions and think about suffering and tragedy in the context of people “deserving it,” what calamities do we deserve? I know I ought to be smote. I’m not perfect by any stretch of the word. If I held myself to the standards I hold others to, I’m pretty much the worst person I know.

No one “deserves” a horrible death, not even criminals. But we human beings like to kid ourselves. We like to think everyone gets as they deserve, but yet we want abundant mercy and forgiveness for ourselves when we mess up. We accept this blatant hypocrisy every day, until our rationalizations don’t make sense anymore.  And it takes a breathtakingly tragic story that happens to someone spectacularly good to wake us up that our rationalizations of suffering are more senseless than suffering itself!

And it struck me: Jesus, is this why You had to suffer and die? I prayed. Obviously, I’m not God and cannot even begin to fathom His mind, but I do believe part of the reason He had to die such a horrible death is it was shocking. 

My co-worker knew minor details of my friend’s collegue’s wife’s death from 3 years ago. If she were one of our regular “punks,” no one would have remembered her story a week later, let alone a minor detail from 3 years ago in a different city over an hour away!

But we remember the tragedies of good people because it is so shocking. No wonder Jesus’s story spread like wildfire throughout the world after His death. He was without blemish, without sin, without any stain on his character. Jesus suffering the most humiliating death possible even more shocking! 

Sometimes, our trauma room is like a spectacle. It’s recorded (to help us all improve), there’s a crowd of people (some just watching), and it’s talked about. Most of them time, it’s discussed casually.

Yet, when someone stupendously upstanding has something horribly tragic happen, it affects us. No one was joking after what happened to this patient, and I’m sure many went home like I did, hearts heavy from what happened.

And bystanders of the Passion reacted the same way! Even the most causal bystanders at the cross are said to have been affected by Jesus’s death. Luke writes:

“When all the people who had gathered for this spectacle saw what had happened, they returned home beating their breasts.”

Luke 23:48

And then throw in the Resurrection!? Yeah, even if I knew nothing about Him, I’m sure I would have been talking about it.

His death was just so shocking. Even His disciples didn’t understand it while He was alive! I mean, Jesus warned His disciples He was going to die a horribly tragic death. It should not have come as a surprise when it actually happened.

I mean, come on. Total plot spoiler alert here:

“From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.”

Matthew 16:21

They knew Jesus was going to suffer and die! But when it actually came about, His death was shocking. Judas went off the deep end. Peter ran away and denied Christ like a fool. Most everyone kept their distance, probably out of defense to protect themselves not just physically but emotionally as well. 

They didn’t react much better when He warned me. How did they react? Like this:

“God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.”

Matthew 16:22

What do we say when bad things happen to good people? Pretty similar sentence, huh?

Yet what does Jesus say to Peter in reply?

“You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.”

Matthew 16:23

How is it that God thinks suffering is such a good idea that He plans since the beginning of time to have His very Son come and die the worst death possible and suffer for us idiotic sinners who are helpless and can never get anything figured out on our own? Yeah, I think like a human being on that one. This being born to suffer and die thing sounds like poor planning. These little sinners need to just be slapped upside the head and face the consequences of their actions. But thank God He’s in charge and not me!

Like the deaths we see and know of good people, Jesus’s death challenged his followers and even his fiercest enemies to stop rationalizing and start to marvel at the mystery of God.

Reading though Luke’s Gospel account of Christ’s Passion and death on Palm Sunday, I was struck most of all by the centurion. He’s a very casual character in the Bible. He’s got one line in two Gospels, and that’s it. But he’s that character who kind of steals the show, like Eunice in She’s the Man. One line, and boom! He’s a saint.

He probably had heard about Jesus. Maybe he hated Him. Maybe he secretly thought He had some good ideas. Maybe he thought He ought to die. Maybe he thought the whole thing was unjust and politically motivated. Maybe he was ambivalent and was just doing the best he could, trying to get by and provide for his family working as a centurion.

Regardless of his attitude, that centurion and I have a lot in common. We see suffering and tragedy so much that I would bet we’re both pretty numb to it. This guy probably crucified people all the time. The Romans were a very methodical people, and they had this torture down to a science. No doubt this centurion dude knew exactly what he was doing.

For him, Jesus’s Passion and death was just another day on the job. Prisoners moaning and probably cursing at you. Families and friends crying (if they were there). Maybe everything was a little heightened because Jesus was a bit of a celebrity. But I’ve taken care of “celebrity” patients. It’s still nursing. It’s still your job. It’s not that much more exciting, and you can’t even tell anyone about it because HIPAA. Maybe centurion guy had HIPPO.

So, anyway, centurion is going about his day, beating this Jesus guy, getting him to get to Calvary already. I bet he noticed early on that something was different about Jesus. Sure, He wailed in pain like the others, but He didn’t curse him. Sure, people mourned over Him, but He comforted them. And even on the cross, hung by nails, slowing dying by the very weight of His own body, He’s kind to those around Him and praying to the Father.

What is this guy on? I bet he wondered as they journeyed to the cross. Too, the eclipse on Calvary was probably a little disconcerting. But I bet he blew off his emotions and went about his usual crucifixion routine. That is, I bet he blew off his emotions until he couldn’t anymore.

This Jesus guy is almost dead. Centurion man has heard so many things in people’s last breaths: curses, pleas, tragic good-byes. But he’s curious. What will this Man say?

Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit”; and when he had said this he breathed his last.

Luke 23:46

And how does the centurion respond? He marveled.

The centurion who witnessed what had happened glorified God and said, “This man was innocent beyond doubt.”

Luke 23:47

The Greek work is ἐδόξαζεν or edoxazen meaning glorified, as the passage says. But it also carries the connotation of “to ascribe weight by recognizing real substance.” The centurion recognizes Jesus for who He really is. Luke uses the same word in chapter 13 when Jesus heals a woman who has been crippled for 18 years.

In both tragedy and triumph, we are called to marvel at the Lord for Who He is.

Yes, it is horribly difficult to imagine we have a kind and compassionate God when tragedy strikes. Believe me, I know. 2016 has been a rough year, and I have been wrangling with God who both gives and takes away (Job 1:21).  I do feel a little smote, and I’m very much working on this whole journeying through pain and marveling at God during tragedy thing. It’s much easier to marvel when He triumphs and gives me something great!

Yet, in both tragedy and triumph, we are called to marvel at the Lord for Who He is, the God who gives and takes away.

We love it when God gives, but our faith is tested when He takes away. When we love God for who He is instead of loving Him for what He gives us, our faith strengthened, refined, and purified.

Job was a good follower of God before every earthly thing he loved was taken away. His family died. His property vanished. He himself was afflicted with sores and became a social outcast. The devil thinks this suffering will cause him to denounce God, but Job is faithful. At the end, he is rewarded abundantly for his faith. But Job did not need the earthly rewards to have faith in God.  Precisely because of that suffering and tragedy, he became a great follower of God.

When we suffer, we cannot rationalize it. The message of “your faith will be refined!” will make us want to punch that messenger in the face. Saying, “it gets better” does not help. Like the centurion, we need to journey with the cross. 

We need to walk with each other in uncertainty, tragedy, and suffering. And when we enter the very crux of that pain, we can marvel at the cross, marvel at the fact that God would suffer for us, suffers with us today, and understands the suffering within us.

The centurion could have rationalized His last words, rationalized His comfort to the mourning, rationalized His inability to lash out at them, but the centurion had journeyed with the cross. If the he had not journeyed with Jesus from His sentencing to His death, he may not have declared Him to be innocent beyond a doubt. The other casual bystanders left with heavy hearts, but we don’t know if they allowed themselves to marvel at the suffering of Christ and have their hearts changed. But the centurion had walked through the suffering of Christ, and his heart changed.

Precisely because the centurion journeyed with Jesus the entire way to the cross, he was able to marvel at Jesus and the foot of the cross and fully recognize His glory. 

At the foot of the cross, the centurion is marveling that someone so good suffered so much and didn’t deserve it. He was an executioner of the law. Every day he saw to it that justice was served, the wicked punished for their deeds, and order kept in the land. Yet he marveled when someone so good suffered so much.

When it comes to suffering, pain, loss, tragedy, in our owns lives, we need to stop asking why and just marvel at the cross. So, this Good Friday, I want to be precisely where the centurion was: journeying with the cross.

I want to walk into my pain, journey through my brokenness, and allow myself to feel of hurt everything that afflicts me. When I come to the crux of my pain, I want to just marvel at My Lord who suffers for my sake. Babies marvel at their parents and come to know the world and who they are. So, too, we can marvel at the cross and come to a greater understanding of our brokenness as individuals and as a human people who have been redeemed by a God who unconditionally loves us and suffers for us.

I may not know why this patient had to have a horrific tragedy happen, or why my friends’ friends died, or why any suffering in the world happens to me or anyone else, but I do know My Lord. He suffered for me.

As Peter later wrote:

Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his footsteps.

“He committed no sin,
and no deceit was found in his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:9)

When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten; instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly.He himself bore our sins in his body upon the cross, so that, free from sin, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.

1 Peter 2:21-24

My God is a compassionate God. And compassion, from the Latin, means “to suffer with.” We have even more than a God who suffers for us. He suffers with us.

Yes, My God may allow suffering. I don’t know why, and I never will, but He does. Yet I know He does not leave me to suffer alone. So, as I journey to the foot of the cross, as I wade through my pain, as I work through everything that torments me and leaves me feeling broken, I can look up to My God and marvel at Him who suffers for me, Him who suffers with me, and Him who knows the suffering within me.

I pray that I can journey so much with God than when I come to the crux of my hurt, I too can marvel at Jesus like the centurion and say, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39)

*Name changed for privacy.

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