This year my parish is participating in NPR's "This I Believe" essay project. I was inspired to do this by Grace-thing. She published her essay on her blog awhile back which lead me into a conversation with her about the project. Several other Revgals have participated in this project with their churches or dioceses.
Some of you may remember Edward R. Morrow’s series from the 1950’s, “This I Believe.” These essays offered an intimate glimpse into what the average American believed. The essays were not intended to be sermons or editorials or even specifically religious beliefs. Rather the series requested the real beliefs of real people. No reiteration of church dogma or doctrine. But the essays could be about faith, God, and what one believes in one’s life.
In 2005 National Public Radio resurrected “This I Believe” by inviting people to write essays following the original guidelines from Morrow’s series. You can hear these essays read by their authors on NPR on Monday’s “Morning Edition,” and “All Things Considered.” They are also available on line at www.npr.org.
Our theme in "small church" this year is, “Deepening Our Faith.” One way we will explore this is through participating in this series. Each month we will feature an essay written by a parishioner. We have done a variety of exercises from the workbook available on the NPR website for writing essays with houses of worship. Here is my essay....
On All Saints’ Day 2006 I developed the first symptoms of what was to become a life threatening illness. An infection formed from a fractured tooth and traveled into my jaw bone and up the side of my face. The normal mouth flora grew where it did not belong and caused havoc. For eight days I lived with increasingly excruciating pain which finally sent me to the hospital. After another 48 hours, when I failed to respond to IV antibiotics, the team of doctors decided to drain the site. In this surgery a three inch incision would be made just below my jaw line to drain the infection. Then drains would be placed into the incision and up the side of my face, between the bone and the muscle, to further facilitate drainage. Because my jaw muscles were swollen with infection I could only open my mouth wide enough to squeeze in a small pea. Providing oxygen for me during surgery would be complicated, they had to intibate through my nose. Then, as a precaution, they gave me a tracheotomy. Surgery took place in the early evening. While I waited for surgery, in my pained and disoriented state, I remember praying. In essence I put my life in God’s hands, live or die, I cared not. I just wanted the pain to end.
Now, aside from lingering numbness in my chin and mouth, I have healed from the infection. In its place, scars remain. To a certain degree these scars define me. From this illness and healing I have a metaphor for my life. I live my life with the belief that God created us and therefore has a vested interest in who we are and how we live our lives. It’s not as concrete as God has a “plan” for us and all we have to do is figure it out. It’s more like a desire. God desires each of us to be a vibrant and vital part of creation. This is similar to what a parent hopes for in a child. Becoming who God desires me to be is a life long process of formation; it requires that I work on my relationship with God. Over the course of a life time my formation has included many seasons, good and difficult, healthy or sick, rich and poor, fertile and dry. There have been times in my life when everything feels harmonious, life cruises along like a boat sailing in a gentle breeze. But, like everyone else, there are other times when I encounter tremendous challenges.
The year preceding my illness, like the year that has followed, has been arid. Not only has it been dry and barren, but also dark. Like a moonless night in the desert. Except this desert place of my soul does not cool off at night, there is no reprieve. In the dark I was directionless. I had no idea where I was or which direction to travel. The hot dry desert heat, like an unbearable summer, has left me parched. Like someone craving water and food, I yearn for a new season of life, a season that includes healing of mind, body, and spirit. Now, eleven months later the incision wounds have healed, only scars remain. Like our body, spiritual, psychic, and emotional wounds leave scars as well.
Scar tissue is tough and inflexible. Because it is stiff, adhesion's form which can cause more problems than the original ailment. Moving about can be uncomfortable. The scar pulls and tugs and itches as it intertwines with the surrounding tissues of skin, muscle, and connective tissue. At the very least it is annoying; on other occasions it is downright painful.
As a metaphor for physical or spiritual wounds a scar becomes that which continues to remind us of our fragility. Some scars are small and on the surface. They never bother me. However, those things in life which cause deep wounds, physically, emotionally, or spiritually, leave profound scars. The scars that remain will continue to remind us of the pain we felt. The pain of struggle, tragedy, loss, and sorrow all leave their mark on us. We are all wounded.
These last few years have been a time of intense challenge in all aspects of my life, physical, emotional, spiritual, personal and vocational. There has been no place to turn for reprieve, the challenges were everywhere. My prayer life was reduced to a simple silent gasp in the darkness. Slowly the season is changing. The air is cooler, and the wounds are closing. Soon scars will form over the wounds of these last few years. I believe that our scars can be the place of ongoing bitterness in our lives, the place we hold resentment, anger, fear. Or the scars can become a place that reminds us that even (or especially) our woundedness is the place where we can find hope. Many times a day I apply cocoa butter and vitamin E to the scar on my neck. This keeps it soft and pliable and reduces the amount of adhesion that forms. In a similar way I will need to add salve to help soften and heal the spiritual scars. The healing balm for this scar is prayer. I believe that prayer is a fundamental source of healing in our lives.
I believe that Jesus knows the agony I felt on that gurney before surgery. I believe that Jesus knows the intense emotion of dark, silent, gasping. Jesus understands human despair, and therefore so does God. In the midst of his pain Jesus turned himself over to God. In response God did not take away the pain nor stop the suffering. God’s response? God brought Jesus back to life again. Jesus came, neither as someone healed, nor as one unmarked. No. Jesus came as one still carrying fresh wounds. In the resurrection Jesus shows us his wounds and reminds us that regardless of how dark our lives get or how much pain we encounter, He is here with us. In the pain. In the suffering. And in the healing.
I believe in the resurrection, and that somehow, over time, in God’s time, God transforms our pain into something new.