“It’s always something,” I sigh as I sit on a chair in a little hallway at Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids. I intend to see a parishioner who is having surgery that morning, but when I ask the receptionist at the desk for his room number, she says, “I am sorry, but I cannot give you any information about Joe Smith.”
“I know Joe’s here because I talked with him 2 days ago, and he asked me to pray with him.”
“Listen carefully. I said that I’m sorry, but there is no information available about a man named Joe Smith.”
Is this a new policy? I’ve been coming here for 19 years, and I’ve never been told this before.”
“How can I find Joe Smith and pray with him? Can I talk with a hospital chaplain?”
“Why don’t you have a seat over there? I’ll call security.”
Wondering whether security would be my ally or a thorn in the flesh and fearful that Joe would go into surgery before I could see him, I finally let it go, acknowledging that my days hardly ever go as planned. Interruptions, unexpected pastoral needs, traffic jams, children needing counsel, overdue bills, flat tires, broken dishwashers, and buttons falling off as I’m heading out the door seem to be the norm.
For 25 minutes I sit in a busy hospital corridor quietly watching hundreds of people go by: doctors, nurses, technicians, executives, visitors, family members, and patients. Some are crying, some laughing, some talking on cellphones, some looking worried, and some preoccupied with their own thoughts. It’s always something with them, too. Life is difficult.
I remember a conversation I had with my father the previous day. He had been volunteering for a church relief organization for a few years but hurt his back lifting boxes of clothing headed for other countries. Sessions with a chiropractor did not relieve the pain, so my father’s physician gave him stronger pain meds and ordered him not to go to the gym, ride his bike, or play golf for the time being. We commiserate over the phone.
“It’s always something, isn’t it, Dad?”
“Yes, it is. But there’s no use getting upset about it. You just have to keep on.” That stoic yet faithful attitude enabled my father to care for my mother for many years before she died last November from Alzheimer’s.
Of course, the phrase, “It’s always something” brings up far different memories for me than for my father. I remember Roseanne Roseannadanna, an annoying, wild, black-haired woman played by Gilda Radner on Saturday Night Live in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Local network news icon Roseanne Roseannadanna often closed her monologues/tirades with, “It’s always something. If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”
Gilda Radner was one of the great comedians of her day, playing other characters as well, such as Baba Wawa (a spoof of Barbara Walters); hyper Girl Scout, Judy Miller; and Emily Litella, an older, hearing-impaired woman who gave misinformed editorials and when corrected would mutter, “Never mind!” For anyone in my generation, the first image that comes to mind when we hear, “It’s always something” or “Never mind” is Gilda Radner.
Gilda Radner, the person, understood Roseanne Roseannadanna very well because she, too, lived a life where it was always something. Radner’s autobiography, which she aptly titled It’s Always Something, contains this confession, “I coped with stress by having every possible eating disorder from the time I was nine years old. I have weighed as much as 160 pounds and as little as 93. When I was a kid, I overate constantly. My weight distressed my mother, and she took me to a doctor who put me on Dexedrine diet pills when I was ten years old.” Radner suffered from bulimia even as a star on Saturday Night Live and once told a reporter that she had thrown up in every toilet in Rockefeller Center.
In 1986, at the height of her career, Radner began experiencing physical problems which were misdiagnosed for 10 months until it was discovered that she had ovarian cancer. After a long and painful struggle, Gilda died in May of 1989 at age 42, a few months after It’s Always Something was published.
Gilda Radner called cancer “the most unfunny thing in the world,” yet her cancer support group inspired her to live with courage, hope, and humor. Even during her 3 years living with cancer, Radner left a legacy by creating another character, “The Invisible Cancer Woman,” in “The Adventures of the Independent Baldheaded Chemo Patient.”
After Radner’s death, her cancer therapist and her husband, Gene Wilder, remembered Gilda’s words, “Having cancer gave me membership in an elite club I’d rather not belong to.” They started Gilda’s Club, a free cancer support community for children, adults, families, and friends. The first Gilda’s Club opened in New York City in 1995. A Gilda’s Club opened in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2001 and has raised tens of thousands of dollars the last several years through LaughFest. In 2012, attendance at 323 LaughFest events was 56,294 people, with 1,468 volunteers and millions of laughs.
Have you ever noticed how “it’s always something” in the Bible? The consequence of God’s decision to create human beings with free will is that we are truly free to exercise that will in ways that simultaneously please, disappoint, delight, infuriate, and test the limits of God’s patience and steadfast mercy. It’s all right there in the Old Testament, as the Israelites alternate between valiant efforts to act like God’s people and deliberate attempts to go their own way.
When God finally sent God’s own son to earth to teach and model for us a life of faith, Jesus must have said every day, “It’s always something!” From the stubbornness of the scribes and Pharisees, to the bullheadedness of Peter, to the lack of comprehension of his own disciples, I can imagine Jesus continually throwing up his hands, lamenting with a chuckle, “If it’s not one thing, it’s another.”
In the midst of her battle with cancer, Gilda Radner wrote, “I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without having to know what’s going to happen next.”
How, then, do we live, never knowing from one moment to the next what’s going to happen, how we’re going to pay the bills, or how long our health is going to hold out? And how has the Christian Church persisted for almost 2,000 years in the midst of persecution, doctrinal battles, power struggles, internal conflict, and fighting injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves? Can the Church even do more than just survive when “It’s always something?”
Ten Ways to Live When It’s Always Something
1. Carpe Diem: Seize the day. Savor and enjoy the gift of each new morning, no matter what the day may bring.
2. Learn to say “no” to what is not important. With God’s help, set priorities in your life and stick with them.
3. Lighten up! Choose to be flexible, laugh, and “roll with the punches,” acknowledging that life can be incredibly interesting when it’s always something.
4. Claim your power to change the world, at the same time accepting that the things we cannot change will make us stronger and more tenacious.
5. Stay connected with family, friends, and those who offer support and unconditional love.
6. Do your part to create a church that offers community, grace, hope, service, and connection with a God who is much larger than we are.
7. When faced with challenges beyond your control, embrace the reality of your disillusionment, anger, whining, and despair and then allow God to teach you and transform your pain and negative energy into the joy of living freely and lightly.
8. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Say often, “Never mind. It wasn’t that important.”
9. Do not die while you are alive. “While we have the gift of life, it seems to me that the only tragedy is to allow part of us to die – whether it is our spirit, our creativity, or our glorious uniqueness.” (Gilda Radner)
10. “Walk with me and work with me – watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace.” (Matthew 11:29, Eugene Peterson, The Message)
A security man finally escorts me to see Joe Smith, and we have a wonderful visit. Despite his physical problems and some burdensome family issues, Joe says, “It’s always something. If it’s not one thing, it’s another. But I choose to be positive. I’ve had a good life, and I am not afraid to die. I’ve had wonderful parents, an amazing life, lots of great friends, and a very special church. God has blessed me richly.”
I gratefully thank the receptionist on my way out and wait to hear that Joe came through surgery just fine. Oh, and thank you, Gilda.