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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Dirty Rocks and Grub Worms

I published this some time ago. I thought now is a good time to revisit it:
"So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom" (Psalm 90:12).

As soon as they burst through the emergency room doors, I knew something was wrong. The parents, still in damp bathing suits, almost threw their limp two-year-old daughter at us and screamed something about a swimming pool.

Within moments, physicians, nurses and technicians swooped into Trauma Room One. In what can only be described as a coordinated frenzy, the resuscitation team slapped wires from the heart monitor onto the child's chest. They inserted a plastic tube into her throat and forced air into her lungs. They pierced her veins with intravenous catheters and pushed emergency medications into her blood stream. In the corner of my eye I spotted the hospital chaplain standing quietly with the child's parents in the hallway, his arm around the dad's sagging shoulders.

But nothing we did -- no amount of drugs or machines or prayers brought her back. Nearly two decades later, I can still see the dad draped across his daughter's body as it lay on the hospital gurney. I can still hear her mom's convulsive sobs echo across the caverns of my memories.

During the years I worked as a nurse in that emergency department, hundreds of desperate people tore through those same doors. They arrived in rusted-out Chevy pick-ups and high-gloss sedans, in ambulances, taxis and on foot. Young and old, rich and poor, educated and not-so-educated, blue-collars and executives. I saw no one is guaranteed safe passage through human experience. Heartache slips in and out of life's shadows, and when it chooses its victim, neither power, money, prestige . . . nothing restrains its hand.

I think it is because I've seen the tragedies rip so often into others, as I move past my sixty-first birthday, I find myself often re-examining my own priorities. That's why the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip caught my attention.

Calvin is shoulders deep, busy shoveling dirt from a hole, while Hobbes, his stuffed tiger watches.

"What have you found?" Hobbes asks.

Calvin's eyes sparkle. "A few dirty rocks, a weird root, and some disgusting grubs. There's treasure everywhere!"

Isn’t it true? Children find treasure in the most unlikely places, and no one is surprised when they showcase rocks and worms. But I found another message in that comic strip. As a child, I also showcased things like rocks and roots. But now I am more sophisticated. Instead of grub worms, I showcase "real" treasure -- new cars, university degrees, job prestige and a continuing litany of "bigger-better-more."

I could be quite content with those adult treasures were it not for the gnawing memories of emergency rooms where bigger-better-more never comforts those who grieve at the bedside of their dead. I learned long ago that a hospital room is where everything we hold dear washes out: money, popularity, passions, careers -- like charred timbers after a house fire, a death-bed places it all in cold, clear perspective. Perhaps that's one reason the Psalmist prayed, "So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom" (Psalm 90:12).

I don't believe it coincidental that the day I read Calvin, I was also studying my way through Ecclesiastes. King Solomon had it all -- money, power, prestige. And he used them all to satisfy every whim that tantalized his flesh and thoughts. "All that my eyes desired I did not refuse them," he wrote in chapter two. "I did not withhold my heart from any pleasure." For years, possibly decades, he fed his lust for bigger-better-more, and it was not until he neared the end of his life that he recognized the true worth of his treasures.

"Vanity of vanities," he called them. He could have just as easily called them dirty rocks, weird roots and grub worms.

To his credit, Solomon recognized the truth about his treasures before it was too late to make things right. Before his body returned to dust (Ecclesiastes 12:7) he discovered the bankruptcy of bigger-better-more. At last, he understood true treasure. "The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment . . . whether it is good or evil" (v. 13-14).

At the time, I taped the Calvin cartoon to my refrigerator doorwhere it remained awhile to remind me of the importance of checking my spiritual bank account day by day. It reminded me to nurture my real treasure -- my relationship with Christ -- through frequent deposits of Bible study, prayer, Sacraments, and fellowship with other believers.

Someday I might be on the other end of the emergency room doors. I don't want to discover at that moment my treasures were nothing more than dirty rocks and grub worms.

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