From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?” But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the Lord, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The Lord said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the Lord, saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”
I sat at the kitchen table at my in-laws house looking out of their picture window at the brown grass, as a humming bird flew by and took a quick drink. My sister-in-law, sitting with me, made the comment, “This is the driest I have ever seen their front yard. It doesn’t look like they have had rain in weeks. My in-laws have lived in the same brick, ranch home on five acres in southern Illinois for the past 46 years. Not much, if anything has changed in that house in the past 20 years that I have visited there, but the small town where they live has changed. It’s always been a small town. – At least small to me, 5000 people, high school classes of at the most 150 students, country roads, oil rigs and farmland as far as the eye can see. Southern Illinois has always been an area of the country at risk. Infrastructure, resources and economic stability have always been minimal, but we could tell that the town was like most rural communities today, slowly dying.
We were there because a tragedy had come to my husband’s family and this small community. We drove into town on Tuesday evening. We were the only car on the dark street as we drove into town passing the Walmart, the Dairy Queen, the video store and the few streets lights in the down town. Where is everyone? We turned the corner to the funeral home, where saw a line reaching outside of the funeral home and down the block. Cars everywhere. “We are here” we texted. “Avoid the line, just come right in” the text replied. We walked into an old funeral home with wood paneling and stain glass windows. Flowers were everywhere and a huge picture of Jesus hung in the middle of the room, over a casket that we could not believe was there.
The warm light of the room, and the crowds of people overwhelmed our senses as we were overcome by the familiar faces and hugs that greeted us. Brothers and sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts, little children, past teacher’s, parents friends, all came up and hugged and embraced Blake especially as we walked in. We were there to grieve the passing of his uncle, who was really more like an older brother – only 9 years older than Blake, who died suddenly from a heart attack last Saturday. He was an all star athlete, a warm, charismatic, incredibly friendly, great man, who was suddenly gone from this earth.
No one could believe this had happened or that we were here for this reason. But we knew we were not alone. We were not the only family asking the question, “how could this happen?” this past weekend.
Many of us woke up last Monday morning, discovering that there had been a shooting in Las Vegas. We didn’t know the severity or the circumstances at first, but as the story has unfolded, we discovered that we found ourselves in the worst mass shooting in modern history.
I’m sure you share with me in the empathy and deep sympathy for the families of those who lost someone they loved and the profound shock and disbelief that they are now gone, when they had no reason to believe that wouldn’t talk to them tomorrow.
Mix this desperation in with the reports coming out of Puerto Rico, where 50% of the country is still without electricity and running water. One reporter from the Hill, describes the outcome of not having clean water as a “toxic mix” of “poverty and lack of access to clean water practically guarantees that you’re going to see outbreaks of waterborne infections, particularly waterborne diarrheal disease,”
This could include typhoid and the remote possibility of cholera.
Near the town of Utuado, Rosario Heredia, 56, who is diabetic, is in her house, which is spewing water from every corner. She reaches high into her closet for a piece of clothing and squeezes water from it like a soaked sponge.
Trees are broken and twisted on the island, leaving behind a wasteland. Roads have washed away, and others are blocked by debris.
After losing everything, some Puerto Ricans say the only thing they have left is their faith.
“Really, we are people who serve God,” Wilfredo Villegas said. “And yes, we are saddened because when you lose every little thing you may have, it’s not easy to recover … but we have not lost our faith.”
In the midst of all of this misery, one cannot help but ask the question that the Israelite’s asked Moses, and ultimately God, “is the Lord among us or not?” Fair question, when you are in the wilderness and you are dying of thirst, fair question, when your friend or family member goes to a country music concert and ends up being shot, fair question, when you lose absolutely everything, fair question when a 54 year old father dies suddenly from a heart attack, Is God with us or not?
That’s the question the Israelites ask Moses, and Moses says, “ask him yourself,” and so they put God on trial and they ask for evidence, right here, right now. It’s in the moments when we are dying of thirst that we need a drink of grace, of hope, of love, of something that tells we are not alone. Moreover we know that we won’t be thirsty just once in our lives, just as we need water again and again, daily, seven full glasses daily to be exact, so too do we need to be assured that God is with us.
It would be too easy for me to pivot here and say to you, to simply say, of course God is with you. Of course, God is with those who are quite literally dying of thirst, or drowning in grief, of course God provides living water, but that would disarm the truth about disaster. So to just “trust and man up” belittles the truth about disaster.
But the root of the word “disaster” means “a star coming apart and no image expresses better the look in someone’s eyes after they have just heard the unbearable.”
Paul Kalanthi is a neurosurgeon who at 36 had sat with countless families. Discussing grim prognoses for cancer. Paul has some standard pieces of advice: “it’s a marathon, not a sprint, so get your daily rest.” And: “illness can drive a family apart or bring it together – be aware of each other’s needs and find extra support.” He tried to be honest about the diagnosis but also to give some measure of hope.
When Paul faced his own lung cancer, he wanted to know how much time he left. He knew there were all kinds of reasons doctors cannot answer that question. It’s impossible, he says, even irresponsible to be more precise than you can be accurate. Sure enough – when he asked his oncologist how much time he had, she refused to answer.
Paul’s life’s work had been about treating cancer. He knew the next steps. Prepare to die. Cry. Tell his wife she should remarry. Refinance the mortgage.
Yet at his next visit with his oncologist, she suggested he return to work. He was confused. Should he write the book he always intended to write? Invest more time in relationships with those he loved? Or go back to negotiating multi-year job offers? The oncologist said: “I can’t give you a time. You have to find what matters most to you.”
He reflects: “I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.”
Wanting to know the details, the specifics, the statistics regarding our time left, is like trying to quench a thirst with salty water, he comments.
But the path forward for Paul – the way forward for all of us through the journey of our lives – could be found in seven words from writer Samuel Beckett. “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”
In the wilderness, whatever wilderness that may be for you today, or tomorrow, allow yourself the paradoxical reality of living and dying, you can’t go on and you will go on.
We stood by helpless, as the casket was closed and we watched it be carried from the funeral parlor to hearse and his 12 year old daughter cried for him to come back. We held each other as we stood at graveside looking out over rolling hills of farm land and a little white church where the family had once celebrated weddings and baptisms. We stood in the hot sun, waiting for a slight breeze as the preacher read from the 23rd Psalm…”surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
I can’t go on. I’ll go on.
After a meal, we told each other we loved each other, said goodbye, and drove home. When we got home that night, we had just a little time for a light dinner of fruit and crackers and tried to settle down with some television before bed.
We just happened to come across the final Harry Potter and the scene in which Harry faces his own death walks into the forest after a long battle with Voldemort. On the one hand Harry can’t go on, and on the other hand he must. It was at that moment when he pulls out the resurrection stone and suddenly all of the people who had died before him, who loved him, are there for him, and say, they have never left him after all. And Harry is able to go on.
And so, we turned off the light and went to bed, and that night, it began to rain.
Paul Kalanthini. 2016. When Breath Becomes Air. Random House, New York.