To hell and back

highway hearse 2014

I went to visit a parishioner in the hospital once and was completely thrown by what I discovered when I walked into her room.

Maybe I hadn’t been paying enough attention. Someone had told me what this woman was in for, I remember that. But I’m afraid it had gone straight in one ear and out the other. So when I walked into the hospital room, I was surprised to discover there was no bed. Instead there was this thing in the centre of a large space. It looked like some kind of miniature circus ride. Or a space-ship pod, or a climbing frame or something.

Hello? I said, tentatively. I stopped in the doorway. Was I in the right place? Then from the middle of the tubing and bars I heard the small voice of my parishioner: “hello….I’m down here.” I peered closer. Near the floor. And there she was, strapped right into the middle of that contraption. Hanging upside down.

I walked up to it. There was a bed there, all right. I could see it at this point. But it was an upside down bed. There was also a chair beside it. When I sat in the chair I couldn’t see the woman at all. It’s called a Stryker frame, she informed me dryly, while I sat down, got up again, and then kind of wandered in a circle around her, looking for some way I could actually make eye contact. Are you having trouble, pastor?

Obviously, it should have been me asking HER this question. But there we were. I have a spinal cord injury, she told me, while I dithered and fidgeted. I’m going to be in this thing a month, at least. My poor husband’s stuck at home working his job and taking care of three kids. We’ll be lucky if we’re still together by the time I’m out of this thing. You can stop shuffling around like that. She sounded annoyed. I’m not going anywhere.

I stopped shuffling around.

Are you okay? She asked.

I’m okay, I answered her.

Well, I’m not, she said. Welcome to my own personal hell.

Now when all the people were baptized, it says, and when Jesus likewise had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “you are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

So pleased, apparently, that God would lead this Beloved Jesus, also, to his own personal hell, tortured and dying, on a cross. Someone once said: beware of being one of God’s favourites. It gets you into trouble every time.

And when you think about it, isn’t that true? Martin Luther would’ve been burned at the stake if they could’ve gotten hold of him. Or Martin Luther King, shattered with a bullet for speaking up for justice. Or Thomas a Becket, run through with a sword right there, on the steps of his altar. Or Saint Paul, persecuted and ridiculed and shipwrecked and murdered. Or any of a thousand Syrian Christians right now, in a country that was one of the first blessed with the Gospel, fleeing desperately to save their lives.

With you I am well pleased. That’s what the voice said to Jesus when he was baptized.

It’s an odd sort of pleasure.

In trying to understand the mystery of why Jesus was baptized at all, I think about the woman in the hospital, who told me she was in her own personal hell. Or the comment I saw on Facebook yesterday, congratulating another woman on her first cancer-free diagnosis. After five years of hell, said the Facebook post, finally free!

Yes, I think. I understand hell, when you put it like that. Probably all of us do. Certainly any of us over – I don’t know – 40 years of age. You don’t make it that far without a few cuts and bruises: cancer, divorce, separation, child problems, parent problems, dreams lost, dreams found. Who knows? Life, we eventually realize, isn’t what we do when we’re not suffering. Life eventually becomes, more than we might think, the ways in which we DEAL with suffering. Live through it. Rise, not above it, exactly, but with it. Sometimes, even, because of it.

So maybe the baptism of Jesus makes sense if we think of baptism, not as something that leads away from suffering, but something that leads straight through it. And then, if that’s it, the fact that Jesus was baptized means that he was willing to take on, willingly, the kind of voyage into hell that the woman in the Stryker frame was talking about, or that the Facebook post person was just getting over. The human condition.

I felt like such a fool for the first few minutes I was visiting that woman in the Stryker frame. I just stood there, towering over her while she complained bitterly and then cried about what she was going through. I felt completely out of place, awkward and embarrassed. It took me forever to realize the simplest thing: that I didn’t need to be standing at all. Eventually, when the nurse came in, she found me where – if I’d been sensitive enough to realize it – I could have been from the beginning: on my back, on the floor, parallel to the bed, looking up at this parishioner. Sharing her perspective.

What really pleases God, it turns out, is solidarity. That’s what the baptism of Jesus is probably really about. For Jesus emptied himself, Paul writes, taking on the form of a slave, and in that form – on the floor, lying beside our human suffering, he became obedient, in love, to the human condition, even death on a cross. Only then was he raised. Like Jesus, it will be for us only when, trusting in the compassion and community we see in the cross, and finally beginning to understand this strange way of being God’s favourites, that we too, through death, in solidarity with the one who went first, will know what it means to rise again.


  1. Thanks for this. It was very timely for us today: Ian as one who needs care and was having a bad day and for me as caregiver. Then our daughter called to tell us her husband who has chronic pancreatitis was once again hospitalized with an acute attack – and maybe more. Thank God we have Jesus’ example of overcoming with God’s help.

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