Conscious Sedation

"For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God."

Three weeks ago this morning, at about this hour, I lay on a hospital bed at the Pennsylvania Hospital on my way into surgery to have my broken ankle repaired with a metal plate and seven screws, six of which will remain in there long after I have tossed my crutches away.

As I lay in the pre-operative area, an anesthesiologist told me that they would not have to use a general anesthetic, rather she would administer drugs that would cause me to be in a state of "conscious sedation." Then I'd be given a regional anesthetic, from the waist down, which would actually block the pain of the operation. The point of conscious sedation, it seemed, was to relax me and keep me unaware of what was going on as the hardware was attached to my bones.

It was the second time in several hours I had been put in a state of conscious sedation: the first was in the Emergency Room when a Resident set my broken fibula back into its proper configuration. Apparently, conscious sedation is an induced state in which you are technically awake, but quite relaxed… very relaxed… extremely relaxed… so relaxed that you are basically unaware of what's going on around you. And you are assured that you won't remember anything that happens while you are consciously sedated.

I can tell you that I don't recall one moment of what happened when an ER Resident managed to get the two pieces of my broken bone back into alignment. And I certainly have no recollection of the screws being drilled in during surgery. As a result I am a big fan of conscious sedation - a big fan!

It was an early critique of Christian faith that maybe Jesus wasn't really dead: hadn't actually died on the Cross. The stories of his resurrection could be explained away this way. Without having the terminology for it, perhaps these early critics suspected that Jesus had been in a state of conscious sedation after his ordeal on the Cross. He wasn't dead, just sleeping. There were stories about women coming to the tomb, and strange men already there. Perhaps his followers revived him, dressed his wounds, and spirited him away to some secret place to nurse him back to health and plot his "miraculous" appearances.

The story we heard this morning does not provide definitive proof one way or the other. The women, bearing burial spices, surely thought they were burying a dead man. But what about those strange men in dazzling clothes? They seem to know something the women don't know, something we don't know. They know what's happened to Jesus, they know. And yet at the end of our story this morning we have still not yet seen Jesus.

Most of us would not be satisfied if the story ended here. And we are here this morning, because, in fact, it does go on: the risen Jesus appears, he spends time with his disciples, eats with them, teaches them, prays with them and gives them instructions. And most of us, I expect, have come here convinced that Jesus' resurrection was something more than an awakening from a conscious sedation. And so James Cameron's "discovery" of the tomb, even the very bones of some man named Jesus has not kept us away. We do not believe we have been duped, lied to or deceived.

But when I look around at the world we live in, and I reflect on my experience in the hospital, I wonder if perhaps the real deception we encounter is a self-deception. How do we survive in this world without a measure of conscious sedation - collectively induced?

Here we are smiling and singing as war rages in Iraq, as the Taliban regroups its dangerous forces in Afghanistan. We breathe sighs of relief because 15 British sailors were released from Tehran, but 15 more will die before long. It sometimes feels as thought it takes a deliberate act of conscious sedation to walk the streets of this city - even in this neighborhood where the homeless live side-by-side with the wealthy, but even more so if you were to go south or west or north of here. Just thinking about dreadful statistics of poverty, violence, abuse and death across the river in Camden is enough to make me wish for a dose of conscious sedation! Following the presidential campaign seems to be a program designed to induce conscious sedation. The City of New Orleans remains at least a partial ruins, but it does not keep us up at night because we remain consciously sedate to its woes. Add to these things our own worries: our bills, our ailing parents or sick children, the neuroses that give us worry about our friends, our desire for more money, or more house, or more land, or more time, or more freedom.

How do we survive in this world without adopting - at least from time to time - an air of conscious sedation, in which we know we are awake, but we sincerely hope (and expect) that we will not remember anything?

Wouldn't it be nice to just relax, really relax, really really relax and just be basically unaware of what's happening around us sometimes? And maybe it would even be nice not to remember. Not to remember New Orleans, or Baghdad, or the credit card bills, or the diagnosis you have told no one about yet, or the way your mother will not know you when you go to see her next?

It would be easy to become a big fan of conscious sedation - ask the people who come here to AA meetings: they know. They know how seductive it is to try to live in a state of conscious sedation - where nothing can harm you, nothing overwhelm you, with no pain, no tears, nothing.

When I awoke from my surgery, I didn't remember anything. I hadn't even laid eyes on the surgeon - didn't know what he looked like and couldn't remember his name. And they told me it would take a while for the feeling to return to my feet and legs, and then I would feel some pain. But of course, I was back in one piece.

Don't we come to his tomb year after year, somewhat numb from the pains and debts and indignities and injustices, from the wars and the wounds, from the lies and the addictions, from betrayals and lost love and dashed hopes? And are we hoping that God will wake us up, give us the feeling back in our toes, even send us some pain - anything to remind us that we can feel, that we can hope, that we can love?

And here we find two men, dressed in dazzling apparel. And they are surprised that we, like the women who came there that first Easter, expect so little. All we want is to be awakened from our conscious sedation, to get the feeling back, perhaps to learn the name of our surgeon, have a look at him, maybe meet him for a few minutes.

But the reason for our singing this morning, the reason for our joy is that we have been wrong all along, and now we know it. We were not consciously sedate - in need only of a gradual awakening, waiting for the feeling to return to our toes - no more than Jesus was only consciously sedate. In truth we have been dead - brought right down into the grave by all those things that we thought only made us numb. And so Jesus met us where we are - all the way dead, not just consciously sedate.

And today, when we had hoped for nothing more than the feeling back in our toes, had expected little more, perhaps, than some hardware to get us back on our feet, when would have settled for an awakening. Today we stand at an empty tomb that is every bit as much ours as it was Jesus'. And like the women, we are perplexed, maybe even afraid. Were we sleeping? Can we remember? Is it over? Am I whole again?

And we hear the truth:

We were not just sleeping; we had died. But if Christ is risen to new life, then it is the assurance that we are, too. And when the truth of this great blessing dawns on us, then it brings a tingling to our toes, so to speak, that is more than the feeling coming back; it is the strength to rise with the one who first rose from death, and to walk with him, and finally, to live!

Thanks be to God!

Preached by the Reverend Sean E. Mullen
Easter Day, 2007
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia
Posted on April 8, 2007 and filed under Rev. Sean Mullen.