Our Salvation is Near

And do this, understanding the hour as already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. Romans 13:11

Our Salvation is Nearer Now

When I arrived in Davao City with Len back in 1998, I expected to maybe go with teams on “practical training” as part of the EE course, carry the first aid kit, and maintain a low profile. But then, on the first jet-lagged night there, our host, Pastor Nick, asked each of us team members to speak in front of his church in the morning.

“Me?” I asked, surprised.

“Especially you,” Pastor Nick said. “People will want to know why an American neurosurgeon came all the way to the Philippines for an evangelism mission.”

I wrestled with the question through the night, and the Holy Spirit gave me two stories to tell.

In the first, I was just starting for home one afternoon when I got a call from the St. Luke’s ER about a woman with a head injury. Already in the car, I was there in only a few minutes.

The patient was a thirty-year-old woman on her way home from work at Publix. A car ran a red light and hit her broadside. Initially awake at the scene, she had become drowsy and then comatose. By the time I arrived her examination showed a right-sided dilated pupil and deep coma and the CT scan demonstrated a large blood clot on the surface of her brain.

I called the operating room to prepare for an emergency operation. To save critical time, I shaved her head in the ER while waiting for the OR to be ready. The surgery was tense, but ultimately successful, the clot removed, any bleeding points controlled, and by the time she reached the recovery room she was in stable condition, no longer needing a ventilator. I stayed with her for a while, talked over her brush with death with her mother and husband, then eventually went home after she had been transferred, awake and talking, to the ICU.

In the morning she was comfortable and happy to be alive. Her husband and mother were with her. I felt like a hero, a savior so to speak; this was one who had surely been snatched back from the jaws of death.

Then I decided to changed her bandage. I cut off the large turban-like dressing and was about to put on a lighter, more comfortable wound covering. Before I could do that though, she asked for a mirror. When she saw the wound and her missing hair, she wailed uncontrollably. She couldn’t celebrate her salvation without her hair. The effect was not brief, either. Although her neurologic recovery was immediate and her wound healed quickly and her hair grew back, she suffered from depression and PTSD.

A few months later, I was called to Brooks Rehab to see a patient who had suffered paralysis due to a gunshot wound to the thoracic spine several weeks before, treated at another hospital and subsequently transferred to the Brooks. The question on the consult was whether or not she needed to continue to wear a brace now six weeks after her injury. I looked at the x-rays on my way to Brooks and had already determined that the brace was no longer necessary, and furthermore the question could have been resolved by a phone call to the original treating surgeon. I was irritated about wasting an hour of my precious life filling out a consult so that the the rehab staff didn’t have to spend five minutes making a phone call. But complaining would take more effort than finishing the job. All I had to do was talk to the patient, do a brief exam, and write a note explaining what I already knew. I sighed, quite aware that I could nothing for her, before finding the patient in her room.

“Can you tell me what happened?” I said.

“The best thing in my whole life,” she replied.

I stared at her, a thirty-something year-old woman who looked way older than her stated age. Her face was sallow and wrinkled, her hair prematurely gray, disheveled and greasy from too many weeks in the hospital. She must have misunderstood me.

“No, no,” I said. “I meant about the spinal cord injury, the gunshot wound.”

“Yes, of course,” she said. “The best thing that ever happened to me.”

I realized then that this would not be a normal conversation. She was probably insane.

“Okay, I’ll bite,” I said. “I’ve seen lots of people with spinal cord injuries. Some adjust better than others, some adjust quicker, some slower, but I have never heard anybody say it was the best thing that ever happened to them.”

She smiled. “It was for me. I was an addict working as a prostitute to support my habit,” she said. “A family of Christians lived in my neighborhood. They knew what I was doing. Every day I would walk by their house, and these little children would say something like, ‘Miss JoAnn, won’t you come in?’ or ‘Miss JoAnn, Jesus loves you.’ The last time it was the little boy. He said, ‘Miss JoAnn, Jesus loves you and we are praying for you.’  

“I remember thinking I’d come and visit the next day, after one more high. But that’s what I told myself every day. A couple hours later I got shot in a drug deal gone bad. I woke up three days later in the hospital unable to move my legs.”

She paused, collecting her thoughts and trying to form an explanation.

“But three great things happened to me that day.  The first: I was delivered from 20 years of addiction to crack cocaine. The second: I was delivered from 18 years of prostitution. The third: I found Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior. I have joy in my heart for the first time since I was a child. So if I never walk again, it’s a pretty good trade.”

Now I have to ask you: The first patient, I performed an operation that snatched her back from the jaws of death, and she was miserable. The second patient, I did nothing for, and she gained eternal life and joy. 

You all know by now that I like to be the hero in my own story. Don’t we all? But I’m holding up a couple of little boys who told a drug-addicted prostitute that God loved her. They woke from their precious little slumbers every day and acted with the “Do This” of Romans 13:11. The “Do This,” to fulfill the commandments of God by loving their neighbor. Maybe their salvation was nearer now than when they first believed…I don’t know…but JoAnn’s certainly was.

Time’s up. Some things can’t wait. If you’re a doctor, you wake up to treat a medical emergency.

If you’re a Christian, you wake up to: 

1.) “Do this,” by which he means love your neighbor,

2.) “understanding present time:” by which he meant we understand the reality of The Kingdom of God and the illusion of the Kingdom of the World.

3.) “the hour has come for you to awake from you slumber,”meaning that God has put opportunities before you this very moment, to feed the hungry, to heal the sick, to clothe the naked, to visit those in prison, and, most importantly, to tell them that God loves them, would never leave them, has sent His son for them and He is here right now, and if you turn around and reach out, He will hold you forever.

4.) “because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed,” meaning that our salvation is the salvation of the world, it is the Kingdom Come, and it started for each of us the moment we first believed, and it will never end.

We are about to meet our Maker. The Kingdom is right here, sometimes behind the thin screen between Here and There, between Now and Then, maybe a step through the mysterious Higgs field to the place where physicists tell us comes all matter. We are about to slough off the material world and the constraints of time, and return to the ultimate and original reality.

What is beyond the Higgs field is uncertain. But the certainty of that meeting with our Maker is absolute. We will see clearly then, as we are now looking as through a foggy mirror. That is not in question. But what will we see?

I feel like we will see every moment in our life, each opportunity taken and each opportunity missed, and the consequences of every decision we have ever made in this life in the context of the complete physical and spiritual universe–heaven and earth if you will. This is something like the Nirvana that Buddhists work toward and ultimate awareness that Hindus and other Eastern meditation disciplines work towards.

But it is not great.

With our inevitable human weakness so exposed and compared to the beauty of the true universe, we will see clearly each and every one of our failures, the evils of our hearts, the lies we told, and the betrayals we made, and the opportunities we missed. We will wail inconsolably. This is the fulfillment of ultimate awareness, and it will never end. And it is Hell.

Unless you know Jesus.

That will be the moment when unconditional love and forgiveness of sins becomes real. That’s when you can let go of all the opportunities missed and celebrate the few opportunities taken. That’s when Esther gets to be glad she took Uncle Mordecai’s advice: “And who knows that you have come to royal position for just such a time as this?”

Our salvation is near. The moment of ultimate awareness and ultimate forgiveness is here. And we have been put in a royal place for such a time, The Present Times, as we are living right now. Our salvation is near.

The Hour Has Already Come

Part III, Len Ministries Annual Gala Keynote

“And do this, understanding the present time: the hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed.” Romans 13:11

In medicine, some things can’t wait. As a medical student, I found this exciting. I could hardly wait until I had the skills and opportunity to be there at those life-threatening moments and snatch souls back from the jaws of death. I think in some form it is a common, maybe universal, desire. Remember the tortured teenager, Holden Caulfield, in “Catcher in the Rye”? He didn’t understand at all what he wanted out of life, and the best he could articulate was that he would stand in a field of rye at the edge of a cliff where children played and, if they got too close to the edge, he would catch them.

In medicine, it’s much more specific. Someone has meningitis, someone has had a heart attack, someone has airway obstruction, someone has been shot, someone is paralyzed, someone bled in their head, or the baby has come too soon, or the baby is coming too late. They all need a “Catcher in the Rye” and they need him or her, now.

This is when it is “the hour to wake up from your slumber” if you are the doctor. You put down your fork and leave the meal, you leave the movie before the climax, you roll over and get out of bed. I remember once leaving one of my children’s birthday party before he blew out the candles.

It doesn’t matter how hungry you were when you put down the fork, how tired you were when you got out of bed, how disappointed your child would be when you left his party. It doesn’t matter if your marriage is on the rocks or if your best friend just died. It doesn’t matter that the last time you got a call like this, you did your best and somebody sued you. The hour has come. Not because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed, but because someone else’s destruction is now imminent.

Paul felt just like this when he wrote this line to the nascent church in Rome. Someone else’s destruction was imminent. Only the destruction that he saw was the destruction of joy and purpose in this life and, in the next, the destruction of a soul. Paul took his responsibility as a follower of Christ just as seriously as a doctor takes his or her responsibility as a healer. In his “Present Times,” greed and lust and violence prevailed, and souls were falling left and right. He had woken from his slumber and wanted other Christians to wake up too.

After about the first three times a medical student or doctor gets woken for an emergency, he or she doesn’t look forward to the next time. We would rather sleep. But once awake, there is a purity of purpose. You don’t have to order priorities, or worry about who you might offend, or if your actions will be profitable, or even rewarded. You have the opportunity to be who you were created to be. A savior.

But most of the time, you are not a savior. Sometimes whatever you do will be an exercise in futility.

On a third-year medical school rotation, before I had focused on a specialty, I was assigned to neurosurgery at the University Hospital in Minneapolis. One Sunday evening, I followed the second-year resident, Fernando Diaz to our little ER to see an unconscious man–elderly to me then, about my age right now–who had slipped on the ice and fallen while taking out the garbage. We rushed him through our evaluation and then to the operating room to remove his acute subdural hematoma. This was my first time being part of the team that stood in the gap between life and death. I was more than excited to be standing at the operating table as the second assistant, and I expected nothing less than success, partly because I felt quite certain that something as mundane as a slip and fall while taking out the garbage should not be the cause of death. But by the end of the operation it was apparent that something was wrong. The blood was not clotting properly. We did what we could, sent the appropriate labs, administered the best medicines and blood replacement products available, and 24 hours later the patient re-bled and died. Welcome to neurosurgery, Mr. Lohse. The hour had come, I woke from my slumber, and nobody was any nearer to salvation…at least not in this existence.

Maybe you have met with a friend on the eve of destruction. You tell them not to take that job or trust that person’s affection or take that drug or take that next drink, because you see the path that they cannot and you love them more than they love themselves. They think that your message about being a child of God and a person of worth is quaint. They smile and pat you on the arm, or worse, laugh in your face. And you experience futility.

Then sometimes, in medicine, the patient seems unwilling to participate in their own salvation.

Our surgery internship class inherited a man named Archie. About a week before we started, while most of us were at our medical school graduation celebrations, he suffered a shotgun wound to the abdomen when a heroin deal went south and had the first of many operations to save his life. Any abdominal wound can be fatal, but a shotgun is particularly nasty because of the multiple intestinal perforations, each of which can be the source of infection–peritonitis–and potentially life-threatening sepsis. Some of the intestine can be sacrificed, but if too much intestine is taken, the body cannot absorb adequate nutrition to survive.

Archie survived his first operation, but had recurring bouts of peritonitis and sepsis. At one point his respirations failed and he needed a ventilator for nearly a month. To “rest” his intestine and minimize further infection, he required total parenteral nutrition, TPN, through central intravenous lines. Over the next few months, he underwent several more operations to find and repair damaged intestines or drain abscesses. Every one of our surgical interns was “woken from his slumber” more than once to take care of Archie.

He was a likable guy. We–all eighteen interns–suffered with him, and never lost hope for his eventual healing, even though every week seemed to bring a new complication and the months dragged on. In all those months, no friends or family members visited. We had the feeling that he had become part of our family at the hospital–the pseudo-family that comes together when dedicated people work together for a common purpose.

Finally, one day in early Spring, word spread throughout the interns scattered through the hospital: after nine months, Archie had made it out of the ICU! Then a few days later–miracle of miracles–he was released from the hospital. The interns and ICU nurses actually had a party for him. With cake!

Three days later, he was back in the ER with a new abdominal problem. This time he had been stabbed.

He actually looked sheepish. He knew how much literal blood, sweat, and tears had been poured into his care. Then we did what we do; we took care of him. But we were deeply disappointed.

The care was simpler this time. Knife wounds are ever so much easier than shotgun wounds. A few weeks later, Archie was discharged again and we never saw him again. Maybe he mended his ways. Or maybe he moved, or maybe he died after the next injury. I don’t know.

What I do know is the change in us, his caregivers. We lost a certain enthusiasm for our unbridled altruism, recognizing that sometimes we care more and work harder at fixing our patient’s injuries than they work at saving their own lives.

We had woken from our slumber and, for a moment, Archie’s salvation had seemed nearer than when we first believed. But only for a moment.

It’s hard not to become cynical. It’s hard not to let the dying die by their own choices. In this evil world, it is easy to let those who have been taken in by the lies of this world to perish. You have told your friend that there is a better way, that they can turn their life toward love and purpose, and they agree, maybe even come to church with you some Sunday morning. Then they turn back and you have to let them go. They know where to find you Sunday mornings if they change their mind.

But Sunday morning is not enough. Sometimes–most of the time, really–someone needs to awaken from their slumber to bring someone else nearer to salvation.

In my office, I kept a photo of a young woman wearing a headscarf and holding a newborn baby. Standing beside her is her proud and happy husband, salt-and-pepper hair, unsuppressed grin. Above is a Thank You in large caps and script. Below, in fine print, I added a line as a reminder to myself: This is why we do what we do.

This couple had waited a long time for a baby. Career choices, late marriage, and fertility issues had all played into delays. Now, as she neared 40, and her husband had already passed that landmark into middle age, their first, and probably only, baby was on its way. Then, during the last trimester, she experienced increasingly severe headaches, severe enough that her OB abandoned her usual caution about x-rays during pregnancy–“woke from her slumber” so to speak– and ordered a CT scan.

Our patient had a large brain tumor with surrounding swelling. Labor and delivery would likely be fatal for the mother, and the pregnancy was not advanced enough that the baby would be safe with C-section delivery. So the mother underwent a long, difficult, but ultimately successful operation to remove her tumor completely in time for her to recover for a normal labor and delivery. They brought me the thank you card on their second post-op visit.

This is why we do what we do as neurosurgeons. Moms and babies live, families are created in a spirit of thankfulness and remembrance.

This why we as Christians do what Paul referred to as the “Do This”–act like Christ–to bring the Kingdom of God into the Present Times. We tell people with our words and our actions that they are children of the Living God and persons of worth. Sometimes our efforts are unnoticed, sometimes noticed and ignored, and no one seems any closer to salvation. But sometimes the Kingdom comes to a little corner of our present times and someone’s salvation is nearer than we first believed.

To Register, go to Lenministries.org or use QR code below:

Understanding the Present Times

Part II of the Keynote Address for the Len Ministries Gala

Elie Weisal, concentration camp survivor and author of “Night,” reflecting on the Nazi doctors he had encountered in the camps wrote this:

One of the brutal shocks of my adult life came the day I discovered that many of the officers of the Einsatzgruppen–the death commandos in Eastern Europe–had received degrees from Germany’s best universities. Some held doctorates in literature, others in philosophy, theology, or history. They had spent many years studying, learning the lessons of the past generations, yet nothing kept them from killing Jewish children at Babi Yar, in Minsk, Ponàr. Their education provided them with no shield, no shelter from the temptation and seduction of cruelty that people may carry within. Why? This question still haunts me.

It is impossible to study the history of German medicine during the Nazi period in isolation from German education in general. Who or what is to blame for the creation of the assassins in white coats? Was the culprit the anti-Semitic heritage that German theologians and philosophers were dredging up? The harmful effects of propaganda? Perhaps higher education placed too much emphasis on abstract ideas and too little on humanity. I no longer remember which psychiatrist wrote a dissertation demonstrating that the assassins hadn’t lost their moral bearings: they knew how to discern Good and Evil; it was the sense of reality that was missing. In their eyes, the victims did not belong to humankind; they were abstractions. The Nazi doctors were able to manipulate their bodies, play with their brains, mutilate their future without remorse; they tortured them in a thousand ways before putting an end to their lives. (Elie Weisal in “Without Conscience” NEJM 353;15 p 1513)

So this is where the greatest of evil comes from: lack of a sense of reality. Another model, easier for me, is the one Paul uses in his next letter, the one to the Corinthians: “the wisdom of the present age” or “the wisdom of the world.”

This is what Paul meant when he said “understanding the present time.” Evil lurks about selling a certain reality with its own “wisdom.” Not only can we be the victims of such evil; we can be the perpetrators. For those who buy in to the “wisdom of the present age,” our education will provide no shield, nor our party affiliation provide any shelter, nor our church membership provide protection from the temptation and seduction to the cruelty that we are capable of carrying within.

You might think that the Nazi era was a long time ago, and no longer “the present time,” or that Paul’s “present time” was so different from today that the phrase loses meaning, but I will guarantee you this is not the case.

I was a few weeks into my surgical internship in New Haven, Connecticut, when the ambulance brought in a woman near death after a fall from a second-story apartment. She did not survive. The fall was not the only trauma. A large television set fell on her right after she landed. Furthermore, her live-in boyfriend had a prior girlfriend who suffered exactly the same kind of accident two years before. Details of the history were provided by ER nurses who have a deep cynicism and a long memory. The police treated both incidents as accidents.

A few weeks later, while on my first neurosurgery rotation, I was called to the pediatric ER for a severe head injury. The child was three-years-old, bruises new and old on his face, his torso, his arm broken, his leg broken. He did not survive.

Understand the present times. Women are murdered, children are beaten, a Black man is shotgunned to death in Brunswick, Georgia, for jogging in the wrong neighborhood.

You think you could never be the perpetrator of such evil, and I hope you never will. But Evil spins a seductive version of reality with its own wisdom. Remember what Elie Weisal taught us: the perpetrators of evil did not lose their sense of right and wrong; they lost their sense of reality. They acted according to “wisdom of the present age.”

To live in true reality, the Holy Spirit gives us a different wisdom, the wisdom of God. Then we do the “This” of Paul’s “Do This”: Pay our taxes and our debts, don’t steal or lie or murder or commit adultery. Love one another as ourselves.

We think that these things are boring, easy. But they are not. Maybe you file a conservative IRS return and have a great credit rating and have never cheated on your spouse. Good for you; I admire you. But the hard part is the next part, where you have to love (not humanity; we all love humanity) messy, dirty, disagreeable people one at a time and time after time.

Let’s take as an example the scene at an abortion clinic, a place where some of you have mounted protests. Ask yourself this question: from an eternal perspective, who is at greatest risk at the clinic?

The babies, you might immediately think, and certainly their little lives are at greatest jeopardy. But not their eternal lives. They have not had the opportunity to sin, they are the only innocents of humanity outside of Jesus himself. They will be gathered back into the arms of our heavenly Father.

The mothers, then, you would think. They are about to commit a great sin, presenting their child as a sacrifice, for various motivations all of which originate in a spirit of fear: fear of being unable to pursue a career, fear of inadequacy as a mother, fear of poverty, loneliness, or pain. They have made a rational decision based on the “wisdom of the current age,” and they stand to commit a sin with eternal circumstances. But great as the sin might be, God has mercy, especially on the victims of the world who are alone and afraid. Forgiveness remains so very possible. Jesus calls us to love these women in a way that allows them see themselves in another reality and act by another wisdom.

But there is one who is even more at risk. The abortionist. Because he or she does not act out of fear but out of altruism or greed. The abortionist, like a concentration camp worker, is providing a service to society based on “the wisdom of the present age.” Here is the person whose soul is at the greatest risk. Here is the person Jesus came to save. Here is the person we are called to love the most.

Because abortion doesn’t end, and the Kingdom doesn’t come, until the mothers and the abortionist live in the new reality of eternal life and govern their activities by the wisdom of God. And they don’t get the new reality because the state passed more restrictive abortion laws or because they were intimidated or because they finally saw the logic in the Pro-Life stance. They get the new reality when their heart changes, when they get loved into the Kingdom.

This is true not only for abortion but for any other evil that you can identify in today’s society. Crime, sex-trafficking, racism, poverty, you name it. It will end only when all the messy, unpleasant, jerks of the world are loved so sincerely that their hearts are changed and they live no longer by “the wisdom of the present age” but by the wisdom of God.

We need to do more than make self-righteous pronouncements and condemn behavior we see as sinful. Judgement is not ours to make nor will it bring the Kingdom. The primary goal of the church is to love the jerks into the Kingdom, not denounce them for being lost.

This is hard. We need to do something different than staying in our church buildings on Sunday mornings and writing pious notes to each other on social media. We need to “wake up from our current slumber.”

To Read Part I, go to: https://deanlohsewrites.com › and-do-this

To make reservations, go to: http://lenministries.org

And Do This…

A few years back I became alienated from my church and walked for several months in a spiritual desert, relying on only my meager practices: occasional Bible reading, prayers for intervention only in times of desperation. I never had the option of abandoning faith entirely…a different story. But I had the option, even the desire, to be isolated from Christian community.

When I look back on it I am reminded of Sue, a woman I met while we were pre-med students at the University of Minnesota. She got in the year ahead of me, eager to get a degree and serve humanity as a primary care specialist. As the daughter of a small town Lutheran minister, she was well versed in Christian altruism. I lost track of her for a couple of years, but ran into her at “match day,” the day all medical students find out where they will do their internships and residency. She was pleased to be matched to a pathology program in Chicago.

I asked her what happened to her dream of being a family practitioner.

“Oh my God,” she said, “how can you stand those patients?”

She then related to me her rotations at the general hospital and the VA where unwashed people with drug and alcohol and tobacco addictions showed up and only occasionally took their medicine and even more rarely took the doctors advice, and unsurprisingly showed up with the same medical issues two weeks later.

Sue loved humanity well enough; it was people that drove her nuts. So she found a specialty where she didn’t have contact with the living.

I think I am the same way about church. I’m pretty awed by God and like Jesus well enough. And some of the people in church are great. And I’m all for saving the world. It’s just all the messy people I have trouble with.

So in that general state of mind I did think that I could do one devotional thing that wouldn’t interfere with my busy days. I could say the Lord’s Prayer in the car on my way to work each morning. It’s about the only thing in the Bible that I’d committed to memory.

Every day I would pray for the Kingdom to come, on Earth as it is in heaven, the words I’d memorized as a child.

Then one day I started imagining what the world would look like if my prayer was answered at that moment. What would you imagine? Angels on clouds? Harps? Golden pavement and pearly gates?

Someday, we hope. But what would it look like today?

One morning, I imagined (received a vision?) a world where every single human being was a Christian. Not a Christian by church membership or graduation from theological colleges or by little gold cross pins on lapels or fish signs on the back of their cars. No…I mean Christian by having a personal relationship with the person of Jesus Christ, their every thought and action guided by the Holy Spirit.

Your initial reaction might be like mine: That would be boring.

But, after I thought about it, it would not be boring. Everyone would be just as unique, just as quirky, just as gifted, just as passionate as they are in this crazy world, but without the addictions, the pride, the greed, the anger. Imagine if everybody was kind to everybody else. Imagine a world where drunken drivers didn’t kill themselves and cripple others. Imagine a world where men and women didn’t live from one fix or one drunk to the next, where children where never molested, where abortions never occur because children were always received as the gift they are to parents who have sex because they are in love and stay in love.


Since I was on my way to work when I received this vision, I asked myself what would change. And the first thought I had was that I’d be a lot less busy. No drunk driver car accidents, fewer liability cases of low back pain from injuries at work or from slip and falls. No lung cancers from smoking. No psychosomatic illnesses, no drug-seeking behaviors. Maybe after a few decades, no congenital defects or conditions as person was attracted to only the person whom God had chosen for them.


Would people still work? Would somebody build my car or my house? Grow my food and put it convenient packages so I could pick it up at the grocery store on my way home? I imagine everybody born with skills and a passion for some kind of work. Some would love to build cars, some would love to build houses (and furniture), and some would love to farm vegetables, others would love to raise pigs (it still takes all kinds). And they would do what they do because they love it, and they wouldn’t need to get paid because as they provided for others, they could trust God to provide for them through other people doing for them simply by doing what they loved to do. A gift economy.

I know you’re thinking right now, “That would never happen.” That’s the first thing I thought. Another utopian daydream. Not on this planet, not ever.

Maybe in heaven. Never on Planet Earth short of The Second Coming.

But then I consider the source. Billy Graham didn’t make up this prayer. Neither did Martin Luther or St. Thomas or St. Augustine. No…Jesus taught us to pray, and the very first thing he taught us to pray for was for our Heavenly Father’s Kingdom to come. And a little later He told his disciples that their prayers would be answered. Not might be or could be. Our prayers will be answered.

Imagine a world full of Christians who loved all their neighbors, and all their enemies, with the same kind of love. The Kingdom is coming.

Paul understood this when he wrote his letter to the Romans. And do this, he said, meaning act like Christians. Pay your taxes and your debts, don’t steal or lie or murder or commit adultery. Love one another as yourself, because in this the commandments are fulfilled. And do this, he said, meaning the Kingdom is coming.

When the Kingdom comes, healing comes. My profession will be unneeded and extinct. But more than healed bodies, we will have healed souls. Self-hatred will be gone with shame; we will all love ourselves again. Conflict with our brothers and sisters will be gone as we learn to love them as Christ loves us. Wars will be unnecessary when we all experience true and universal justice.

I think when we do the “do this” that Paul talks about, the Kingdom does come to this earth, person by person, street corner by street corner, family by family, community by community, city by city, nation by nation. Do This and the Kingdom comes to you today.

But we live in “present times,” as Paul did, and we must understand them. More about this next week.


Emmanuel, God with us, is a word we use at Christmas to describe the Son of God visiting Earth in human form two thousand years ago. We mark a time in history that changed everything about the way we think, what we value, how we treat one another.

But what does God with us mean? Is He standing next to us, or living within us? Did He come just once two thousand years ago? Are we now alone in the universe? Do the wise teachings of the ancients and the brave devotion of this generation of followers give us only a shadow of the hope of Emmanuel?

Or is God still with us?

“Diener” (pronounced dee-ner) is the German word for servant. You would know this if you took three years of high school German, or worked in a morgue.

A morgue is not a mortuary. A mortuary is where a body is prepared for a funeral or a burial. A morgue is where a body is stored before it gets to the mortuary, located in a hospital or at the medical examiner’s office. A diener prepares the body for either an autopsy or transfer to a mortuary, and also assists the pathologist in the autopsy by doing such menial tasks as sewing up the torso afterward and sawing open the skull for the removal of the brain. It is a job for a servant, but not for the faint-hearted.

I spent most of the summer before I started college working as a counselor at a YMCA day camp for elementary-school-aged boys. Each weekday morning I boarded a yellow school bus with the campers and other counselors and traveled for about an hour into the country where we divided up and I took my ten kids for adventures in the woods, swimming in the leech-infested pond, and playing field games in the open area next to the large poison ivy patch. High in fun level, low in stress level, and even lower in pay level. At the end of the summer I needed a real job.

The university had a student job service. Potential employers called in with job needs that were posted on 3×5 cards on bulletin boards, and students could survey the cards and get contact information to apply for the jobs. My previous job experience–the above, plus paper-boy, dishwasher, janitor, and a short stint as fry cook before I got fired (another story)–didn’t qualify me for much, but I did find a promising lead to a job selling tires at a shop on Lake Street in south Minneapolis. Then I found one more at the University Hospital working in the morgue for nearly double the minimum wage, and therefore double anything I’d ever been paid before. The job duties were vague. I figured it was open because other students were scared of dead bodies (true) and it probably didn’t require anything more than sweeping and mopping the floor (untrue).

I grabbed both cards and headed out the door. The hospital was closer, so I called them first, and to my surprise a got an immediate interview with an administrator. I filled out a quick application form and sat next to his desk as he described a diener’s job. Blessed with German-Norwegian heritage that makes a poker face my natural expression, I listened patiently while planning my trip to the tire store on Lake Street.

Finally he said, “So would you be interested?”

I wanted to be an all-American male. Somehow this was important to me. John Wayne wouldn’t have flinched; neither should I. And already I was calculating that it was Friday and they would offer to train me the following week and by then I would be happily selling tires.

“Sure,” I said.

Then he said what every other job applicant wants to hear, and I did not: “Great! We’ll get you started right away.”

Surprise and near panic severely tested my poker face. If I backed out now, not only would I be a coward, I’d be a liar. Never has anyone been so desirous of selling tires and somehow unable to get out the words to make his new-found dream come true.

He picked up his desk phone and made a quick call to the morgue telling someone that he’d be bringing down the new diener. I followed him out from a maze of cubicles to a maze of hallways, then to a bank of elevators, then down to the lowest floor, through the windowed doors of a quiet hospital ward, and finally to windowless wooden doubled doors placed at a 45 degree angle in the corner of two long corridors.

I have since worked in many hospitals and I can confirm one unmitigated fact about hospital architecture: the morgue is always in the back on the lowest floor.

The administrator knocked twice on the door, told me to stay exactly where I was, and quickly walked fifty feet down the hall. I looked after him, my inner qualms temporarily giving way to astonishment.

He stopped, turned, and said, “I’ve got to go. This place gives me the creeps.” Then he turned, quickly disappearing through the doors to that quiet hospital ward and I never saw him again.

I stood in front of the wooden doors, the mouth on my poker face now slightly agape. One door then opened slowly to reveal an elderly and diminutive Black man wearing a surgical gown and cap, who, in a measured nasal voice, said (in great similarity to the celebrated horror-movie star of the ’40’s and ’50’s, Lon Chaney), “Come in. We’ve been expecting you.”

I stepped into an antechamber with benches and shelves filled with gowns and paper caps and shoe covers. The antechamber opened to two separate procedure rooms, each one on that particular day in the middle of an autopsy. My new supervisor introduced himself as “Howie,” and instructed me on how to don the surgical caps and gowns. Lastly, he showed me surgical gloves, fitted me for the correct size, and warned me not to waste them because they were expensive. Then we both looked up into the autopsy rooms.

The last time I had seen a dead body was ten years before when I attended the funeral of my great-uncle Ole. Ole, in his coffin, looked like he had in real life, except a bit more pale and much better dressed. My grandmother had died at our home when I was twelve but we weren’t allowed to see her. I don’t remember the funeral or what she looked like. Otherwise, I had no experience with death.

Running on momentum rather than courage, I followed Howie into one of the rooms. The autopsy was at midpoint, the torso open. Howie told me that the pathologist needed to dissect something high in the neck and I would have to place my hand into the upper opening and pull the tissue toward me so that he could see what he was doing. The flesh was shockingly cold but I did as I was told. I sensed at my elbow Howie’s approval by his eerie silence and immobility.

I apparently passed the final job interview. I few minutes later I could release my hold, and Howie proceeded to demonstrate the key duties of the diener which involved assisting in the removal and preservation of the brain and sewing up the body afterward.

After that, we had only to call the mortician, wash the body and the metal table, disposing of any discarded organ parts, and sweep and mop the floor, and call the mortician. Sometimes we would have to put the body back in the refrigerator that separated the two rooms, and sometimes we would have to get a body out from the refrigerator onto the dissecting table, an awkward task when working alone.

After two weeks of on-the-job training with Howie, I worked alone on nights and weekends. Getting “call” pay was nice when an autopsy wasn’t needed, and even when called in, I had plenty of down time between autopsies and waiting for morticians. I remember completing “War and Peace” while at the morgue office desk, and feeling quite sorry when my escape to nineteenth century Russia ended.

I learned a little about death through a word progression that starts with body. As in my body, your body, everybody, anybody, nobody. Dead body.

A body is brought to the morgue where it becomes something else: a corpse. A corpse isn’t a body, it isn’t anybody, it isn’t even nobody. It’s a corpse. It’s made up of tissue that used to be a body, even used to be a human body. But now it’s a corpse. It’s cold. Parts are washed down the drain. Bits and pieces can be placed in formaldehyde and sliced up and examined under a microscope, things you couldn’t do, wouldn’t do to a body, a human body. But you can do it to a corpse.

The mortician takes the corpse and sometimes transforms it into something that looks like a body. The transformation surprises us. We say, “Doesn’t she look natural?” because we don’t expect it; we know she’s a corpse.

Sometimes a generous person bequeathes their body to science and the progression from body to corpse takes one more step, the step to cadaver. Four years after Howie introduced me to the morgue, I met my first cadaver in the anatomy labs of medical school, only a few hundred yards away. Unlike the morgue, the anatomy lab was in a well-lit room with big windows on the top floor in the front of the building. Unlike the other students on their first day, I was not shocked.

I lasted three months as a diener. After a particularly busy weekend on call, including participating in the autopsies of a young woman and an infant, I had a nightmare. In the dream I realized that one of my close friends was dead (he was not in real life), and was greatly saddened by the loss. I ran into mutual friend after mutual friend, and at each encounter I would say, “Have you heard that Richard died?”

And each mutual friend would reply, “Why, no. Huh. That’s too bad.” Then they would go about doing whatever it was they had been doing before, and I would go to the next mutual friend and the same encounter would repeat itself.

As nightmares go, it doesn’t sound too frightening, and perhaps frightening is the wrong word. Mostly I was left with an overwhelming sense of sadness that the life of such a bright, funny, and capable guy, someone who I had swum alongside on the high school swim team, and laughed with during those German classes, and survived alongside through fraternity hazing, could be dead and nobody mourned.

Early on the following Monday morning, Richard picked me up in his VW to give me a ride to the university. I kept stealing sideways glances at him, assuring myself that he was really alive, that this was reality, that the dream was only a dream. I thought about telling him about it, but somehow any conversation starting or ending with “I dreamed you were dead” didn’t seem likely to go well. But I mourned him in an odd and secret way. I mourned his mortality. I mourned that someday–hopefully in a far distant future–he would indeed be dead. So would I.

I had to step back from death. I had to quit being a diener. I had to learn to love and celebrate life before I could again deal with death. It would be a long time before I considered medicine as a career, and it would be a sober decision when I did.

I learned a little about death–that it is inevitable, can claim the very young and the very old and everyone in between, after either a long illness or a sudden accident. Mostly I learned that an unfathomable gulf exists between a dead body and a living human being.

As a scientist, I understand death. I understand each cell needs oxygen and nutrition, warmth and acid-base balance, protection from mechanical disruption and toxins. I understand that a complex organism like a human being requires, at every moment in every organ system, a critical mass of cells to escape death. It’s a delicate balance of environment and coordinated survival of individual cells. Of course the balance is doomed to fail. Systems tend toward entropy. Death is inevitable.

I don’t understand life. Two cells fuse, mix up their genetic codes, give instructions that allow their descendent cells to multiply and change and function as a self-supporting interconnected organism for many decades to follow. The statistical likelihood of this succeeding seems so low. System failure and death seem always to be the more likely outcome. But, somehow, organisms survive, the species survives. We re-produce; while one dies, another is born. Order comes out of chaos. Entropy is defied again. Quite rightly we speak of the “miracle of life.” Biological life is a miracle, but even more unfathomable is that biological life creates human consciousness. Sometimes we refer to this as “the divine spark.”

Divine seems like the right word. Emmanuel. God with us. God within us. God as literally flesh and blood.

I have had my hands on, even within, a human being when that body transforms into a corpse. Consciousness becomes unconscious. Motion stops. Tissue cools. A life ends. God leaves.

Somewhere “Life” goes on. Somewhere a child is born, somewhere someone falls in love, somewhere someone is rescued. But when it’s my hands on the body, or it’s a person I love, those things are hard to remember, even harder to believe, and I feel the tug of of despair and sorrow.

Unless I remember Emmanuel.

God did not make this universe as His video game which He watches from on high, and toys with the controllers when He’s not busy. He wrote, and continues to write, Himself into the script. He is willingly part of each and every one of us, each and every day. He gets down and dirty with us, gets tortured and even killed. The life of Jesus Christ was a historic event, but in some cosmic or mystical sense, that life is lived out in every moment in every day for eternity.

When a kid gets hit by a truck, Jesus gets hit by a truck. When Uncle Ole gets cancer, Jesus gets cancer. When Mom has her heart attack, Jesus has his heart attack. When my brother gets Parkinson’s Disease, Jesus gets Parkinson’s Disease. When he gets COVID pneumonia, Jesus gets COVID pneumonia.

God suffers with us and He dies with us. He weeps with us. He wept with Mary and Martha over Lazarus. When I weep over my brother, Jesus weeps.

But cold flesh does not get the last word. A body may become a corpse, and a corpse may become a cadaver, but when life leaves the body behind it can’t just evaporate. It is too miraculous, too divine. 

God promises to wipe away every tear. Every one.

Then He promises something more. When Jesus rises from the dead, so does that kid who got hit by the truck. So does Uncle Ole, and Mom, and my brother. This is Emmanuel. This is God with us. To this Emmanuel, I am a willing servant.

So, Merry Christmas. Celebrate hope, celebrate Emmanuel. God be with you and within you, fellow servant.