It was 1986. I was the on-call chaplain and Wes was the on-call resident at the UC Medical Center in San Francisco. It had been a long day for both of us. I was tired and frustrated trying to break through the defenses of a 15 year-old with cystic fibrosis. Wes was a medical resident and by definition you are tired and frustrated. The good news was that we could share a call room. It was already after midnight but I had to do a little debriefing. So I told him about Jimmy, this kid with cystic fibrosis. Jimmy was there for what he called a “tune-up,” a course of antibiotics.
The nurses asked me to talk with him because he had just seen his friend Shaun die in the ICU and they had been buddies for years. But when I went to talk to Jimmy he was cheerful and laughing and cracking jokes about how yellow Shaun was before he died. Jimmy never changed his tune. So after a while I left.
As chaplain I carried just one pager. As a medical resident, Wes carried three: one was his own pager, one was the cardiology pager, one was the code blue pager. We lined our pagers up on the nightstand and even though there were bunk beds, because we were newly married, we crammed into one bed. And . . . immediately fell asleep.
About 2:30 a.m. a pager went off. We scrambled to untangle ourselves.
No, it’s mine!” “
No, wait—I think it is yours!”
It was mine. It was Jimmy the 15 year-old who had been in the system so long, he knew how to page me personally. It was in the olden days when you would actually hear a voice over your pager. I held it to my ear, “Are you awake? You wanna have some pizza?”
Bleary-eyed, Wes looked at me and said, “I’m gonna kill him.” I got up, got dressed and walked up to Pediatrics. I knew Jimmy was testing me—did I care I enough to come at 2:30 in the morning?
He was sitting up in bed with a liter bottle of Coke on his nightstand and an extra large pizza on his tray table. He gave me a big, greasy smile and said, “Pepperoni. Have a piece.” I think most of us have received Communion and know how powerful it is to break bread together—or in this case—pizza. So I took a slice. Before I had even swallowed my first mouthful he said, “Why did Shaun die before me? Where did he go?”
Night Questions. Where does the wind come from? Is God with you? Why did Shaun die before me? Where did he go? He could have asked me any time the day before, but he waited until the hospital was dark and quiet. These things are difficult to ponder in the harsh light of day, but perhaps in the gentle darkness of night they can be understood and felt. Perhaps the heart is more easily engaged at night.
I think it’s very interesting to note that most of the really big Christian scripture events happened at night: God spoke to Joseph, in a dream—at night. The shepherds watched their flocks and received the glad tidings—by night. The Three Wise Men visited the baby Jesus—at night. Jesus prayed in the garden and is arrested—at night.
Here’s an interesting exception: the Annunciation happened in the day. The Angel of the Lord appears to Mary and says, “Greetings, you who are highly favored!” In some translations the angel says, “Good morning!” Then he announces, “You’re gonna have a baby and God is the father.” Then Mary goes right down to the house of her cousin Elizabeth.
I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that perhaps unlike most men, most women are not as flummoxed by an Angel of the Lord and therefore women are usually interacting with the angelic day shift. But when it comes to God breaking weird news to men: it’s gotta be at night.
Remember the story of Nicodemus?* A powerful man, a ruler of the Jews. No one was going to mess with him. So why did he come to Jesus by night? For sure he didn’t want to be seen—kind of risky. He didn’t want anyone to see him talking to that radical, young, hippy teacher.
But I think that’s not the only reason he came to him at night. I think it was also because of the nature of his questions. “Is God with you? How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?”
I bet he felt safer in the darkness and perhaps was more open to hear Jesus answer, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”
Nicodemus asks, “How can these things be?” A modern day Nicodemus would say, “Where is the data? I’d like to see your Power Point.”
Jesus says to Nicodemus, “The Kingdom of God is not entered by that which feeds your ego, but by an inner transformation, born of Spirit.”
I once asked a yoga teacher how many times I should come to class. She answered, “Twice a week for maintenance. Three times a week for improvement. Four or more times per week for transformation.”
Transformation—now you’re talking. Our hope as followers of Jesus is not spiritual maintenance or even spiritual improvement. It’s spiritual transformation. And we can’t make that happen solely through our own efforts, any more than we can make the wind blow where we want.
How can we be transformed by Spirit? That’s a Night Question—something to ponder when we take off our masks and open our hearts; when the noise of day has died down and we can hear the whisper of God. At this time of year in Seattle we can ask Night Questions around 4:30 p.m.
We all have our own Night Questions. Does anybody really love me? Have I made a difference? How can I ever forgive? The past two years have brought us so much heartbreak: racial injustice, war, social unrest, floods, fires, mass shootings, a pandemic. These things make us ask the most heart-wrenching Night Question of all: Why?
This is why I love Psalm 30 because the Psalmist gets good and mad at God, which I think is essential to a dynamic spiritual life. But eventually the Psalmist recovers and is grateful to God—which I also think is essential. The Psalmist tells us that, “Weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” Sometimes the rejoicing is simply that we survived the night and all our questions.
I survived that night with Jimmy and the pizza and held him when he cried. We stayed connected for many years. He came to visit us here in Seattle and five years later I officiated at his wedding and five years after that, he died. His mother told me, “You know, Debra, he was a wonderful kid—always asking so many questions.”
“I know,” I said, “and that’s one of things I loved about him.”