Scars

I have a scar on my index finger from a car accident back in 1996. One minute, I was cruising down a road near Parkers Prairie and the next my car was skating across glare ice until I landed upside down in the ditch. In the sub-zero November temperatures I assessed my situation. My glasses were broken. I had been in the midst of moving to a different apartment and so I had a bunch of my stuff in the back seat that was now blowing across the snowy countryside. Papers, clothes, a random tube of eyeliner. My right index finger was bleeding and as I looked closer, I noticed a bone, snapped and sticking out of the skin. I observed it thinking, “Hmmm…I would think that would hurt more than it does.”

I grabbed a sweatshirt that had landed next to me among the wreckage and wrapped it around my hand. I remember it all in slow motion – the nice farmer stopping to help me and giving me a ride to the hospital, then laying in an operating room with just enough anesthesia that I couldn’t feel them putting my finger back together, but I could hear the doctors talking to each other, one said, “That was a bad accident – did you hear her vehicle was completely smashed in? Did you know she is a seminary student – I think someone is watching out for her.” And the other doctor said, “Oh yeah – well if someone is watching over her so closely, why did the accident even happen?” Touche, I thought.

The wound has healed. But sometimes when I write too much or do a lot of work with my hands, that old broken bone in my finger aches and calls my attention to it. Nearly twenty years later I didn’t think it would still bother me, but it remains…a tiny, dull ache.

Years ago, I ran across a little article meant to explain to children about scars and why they form and what to do about them. I saved it because I heard wisdom in it not only for our physical scars – but maybe for others as well.

Dr. Brian Flyer, the author of the article, says, “A scar isn’t always a sure thing. It’s not so much how deep or severe a wound is that determines whether a scar will form, but rather the location of the wound and that person’s tendency to form scars.”

What sorts of scars do you have? If I asked you this question, I wonder what you would say? Would you pull up your sleeve and show me the mark on your elbow from your first time out on rollerblades? Would you tell me about the blemishes that remain from your bout with chicken pox? The interesting thing is that each scar has a story – and people are usually more willing to talk about the visible scars that remain on their bodies than the invisible ones that have hurt their spirit or their heart. The thing is – we all have them. The question is – is there anything to be done about them?

Maybe you heard about the United Methodist minister who had been in a serious accident and had to spend several weeks in the hospital. He had a lot of pain, and was given shots to reduce it. The procedure was always the same. When the pain got bad enough, he would ring a buzzer, and a nurse would soon come to give him the shot. One day, he rang for the nurse and then rolled over on his side (with his back to the door), pulled his hospital gown up over his exposed backside, and waited for the nurse to come in. When he heard the door open, he pointed to his right bare buttock and said, “Why don’t you give me the shot right here this time?”

After a few moments of silence, he looked up. It was a woman from his church! Following a brief embarrassing conversation, the woman left, and the minister—thinking about what he had done–started laughing. He laughed so hard that tears were coming out of his eyes when the nurse arrived. When he tried to explain what had happened, he began laughing even harder.

When he was finally able to tell the nurse the whole story, the wonderful thing he noticed was that his pain was gone! He didn’t need the shot, and didn’t ask for one for another 90 minutes.

You and I both know people who have been through terrible tragedy in life – illness, loss, chronic pain…and there can be a huge difference in the ways people let those sorts of tragedy affect them. Some become broken. Some show amazing resilience. But what a blessing, no matter what our natural response might be, when God grants us the grace to laugh even when things seem most grim. It may not solve the problems of life – but it makes them easier to bear.

Peter Berger calls laughter a “signal of transcendence” – a sign built into us so that deep down, even if our heads are telling us that there is no God, our hearts tells us different. Laughter tells us that life, despite its seeming randomness and chaos, actually has meaning and purpose.

However, while finding laughter in the midst of hardship is certainly wonderful, one might ask, isn’t there a way to prevent wounds and scars altogether? Dr. Bryan Flyer states, “The best way to prevent scars is to prevent wounds! You can reduce your chances of getting hurt by wearing kneepads and helmets – but even with protective gear a person can get hurt once in a while.” If this happens, you can help your skin heal itself by treating it well during the healing process.”

Enid was a woman whose husband had died unexpectedly two years before she sought counseling with Dr. Rachel Remen. Withdrawn and distant, she no longer cooked or looked after her garden or her house. Most of the time she sat in her bathrobe in the living room, looking out the window. She had been brought to see Dr. Remen by one of her daughters who had told her, “I lost both my parents the day my father died.”

Enid was a lovely woman in her early seventies, but she seemed as lifeless as the chair she sat on. Dr. Remen opened the conversation by asking her why she had come. “My husband has died,” she replied, “My daughters would like me to talk about it, but I do not think that I care to.” “No one could possibly understand.”

Dr. Remen nodded in agreement. “Yes, of course,” she said. “Only your husband could understand what you have lost. Only he knew what your life together was like. If he were here Enid, what would you tell him?”

She considered this for a long moment. Then she closed her eyes and began to speak to her husband aloud, telling him what life was like without him. She told him about going to their special places alone, walking their dogs alone, sleeping in their bed alone. She told him about needing to learn to do the little things he had always taken care of, things she had never known about. She reminded him of times that only he would remember, old memories that no one else had shared. And then she began to cry.

When her tears stopped, Dr. Remen asked her if there was anything she had not said. Hesitantly she said how angry she was with him for abandoning her to grow old alone. She felt as if he had broken a promise to her. She missed him terribly.

“Enid,” Dr. Remen asked her, “If Herbert were here, what would he say to you about the way you have lived since his death?” She looked startled. “Why, he would say, ‘Enid, why have you built a monument of pain in memory of me? Our whole life together was about love.’” She paused. Then she said, “Perhaps there are other ways to remember him”.

Afterward she said that she had felt that if she let go of her pain, she would betray Herbert’s memory and diminish the value of his life. She had begun to realize that she actually betrayed him by holding on to her pain and closing her heart.

There is no way to prevent the wounds that occur in the course of our lives. The cost of love and life is that we will end up hurt sometimes. But we help ourselves heal when we realize that every great loss demands that we choose life again. We need to grieve in order to do this.

Even so, we might still ask ourselves if scars are things we have to bear forever. Aren’t there ways to rid ourselves of them completely and start fresh? Dr. Bryan Flyer states, “Some scars fade over time. If yours doesn’t and it bothers you, there are treatments that can make a scar less noticeable.”

My mother had major heart surgery in 1995. At first after the surgery she always wore blouses with necklines that were high enough to conceal the top of the long scar that began just at the bottom of her throat.

Over time, however, she didn’t mind if people caught a glimpse of her scar. It’s like she almost became a little proud of it because that scar spoke of something she had been through – a tale that she lived to tell.

Could it be that we are wisest when we learn to see all of our scars that way? Not just the scars of surgeries we have survived – but the battle scars that life has given us. The scars that remain inside us from love lost, from all the hard stuff of life, even the scars that we hardly dare speak of because if people knew about them we think those scars would say something about us that we don’t want everyone to know. Scars left by things like failures, like bad choices made, like shame at something we said or did that we know was beneath us?

Could it be that a part of our healing is to be able to show the scars we have acquired – to not hide them but to say “See – see what I have been through. These say something about me. These scars tell you who I really am.”

Jesus himself knew that it was only by showing his ruined hands and feet to the disciples when he appeared to them after the resurrection that he could prove to them it was really him. He said, “See my hands and my feet – that it is really me.”

Let me tell you something – your scars are exquisite. Have you ever noticed how when you come to know someone as a friend – you may initially admire them for their strength or their bravery or their success – but they become real and dear and more and more beautiful as you begin to know the things that have caused them pain, the parts of them that have been broken, and the stories of their suffering?

There are so many reasons that we only show those parts of ourselves to those closest to us. We worry about seeming weak. We worry about people thinking we are fragile or incapable.

But I love what Paul writes in our second reading for today – he talks about a thorn given to him in his flesh and how he prayed it would leave him. We don’t know what this thorn in the flesh was. It could have been some physical ailment or maybe even an emotional ailment. Whatever it was, it troubled him and even though he prayed for it to go away, it didn’t.

And yet, he came to understand that even still, God could work through him – writing, “So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.”

Trying to understand why the scar-causing things in life happen is futile, but we can find comfort in knowing that somehow, God’s strength, God’s provision, God’s grace can still shine through.

Joni Eareckson Tada is a woman who was injured in a diving accident in 1967 – the accident left her, then 17, a quad­riplegic in a wheelchair, without the use of her hands. Since then she has written over 50 books, and has become an advocate for all those with disabilities. She has been quoted as saying, “Deny your weakness, and you will never realize God’s strength in you.”

Tell me about your scars. Let’s be okay with being honest with each other about our flaws, our imperfections – because when we do, we’ll more readily begin to see all the beauty that God can still create even and especially in our brokenness.

Transformation is Real

A friend asked me to write a blog post for his blog (http://transformation-is-real.com/). I was happy to be asked because I love to write, but I found this assignment taking me on an emotional journey.  I’m glad to share it with you and even more glad to be telling this story from where I am at now than where I was at a few months ago.

You can read it here:

http://www.transformation-is-real.com/transformation-is-real/2015/9/2/ruths-change-finding-gratitude-in-brokenness

October Morning

It was a cool October morning when the doctor sat down with my infant son and me in the hospital waiting room. My mother was gravely ill in the Intensive Care Unit. He fumbled with his pen as he explained that she was “a very, very sick lady” and that she probably would not survive.

He left the room and I held the baby close. I could hear the sounds of people in the hallways, the sounds of the elevator doors opening and closing around the corner. How could people be going about life as usual when the entire world had obviously just shifted? My mother was dying.

My cell phone rang – my friend, Amy. I told her where I was and what was happening. Within two hours she was sitting next to me, which means she had packed up her baby daughter and started heading up the freeway immediately. She didn’t ask if she should come. She just came.

We didn’t talk much during the hours she was there. There wasn’t much to say. We just sat and held the babies, drank coffee, and fielded updates from the doctors and nurses. Yet her presence in that waiting room helped hold the sky in place when it seemed everything was about to come crashing down.

Philippians 1:3-11

“I thank my God for you…” (v. 3)

dark times…

It was a dark time. 

Not the season – the season was bright and the days were getting warmer, long and lazy.  The trees were green and lush, the world around her was burgeoning in flowers and there were babies and kittens and lambs – new life seemed to be bursting forth everye babies and kittens and lambs – new chasing after ers and ottom of a creek bed after the water has been rushing over where she looked.  However, this only made Annie more aware that all that she felt was still, cool, and worn, like she was a stone in the bottom of a creek bed after the water has been rushing over it for decades.

Annie pulled up to the grocery store and parked in front.  Same store, different day.  She wasn’t pleased to see Mrs. Anderson’s van in the lot as well as she walked toward the front door. She knew that if she ran into her this shopping trip would take three times as long as it normally would.  Mrs. Anderson liked to talk and talk and talk.  Annie wanted to just get in and out of the store as quickly as possible today.

She entered the grocery store and the cool air surrounded her, she got a cart and began wheeling it toward the baked goods.  “Some cupcakes would be nice” she thought as she glanced over the selection.  She sighed as she noted there were only mini white cupcakes and no chocolate cupcakes whatsoever.  The chocolate cupcakes were infinitely better and mini cupcakes were just so much work – you had to eat two or three of them to even feel like you ate something.  Not that she had felt like eating anything lately anyway.  She grabbed two packages of the disappointing mini white cupcakes and put them in her cart. 

She turned her cart toward the vegetable section and she spied Mrs. Anderson and her son Jimmy Joe by the avocados.  Annie decided she would come back to the vegetable section a little later.  She headed down a nearby aisle and hummed along to the music coming over the loudspeaker.  One of the back wheels of the cart wobbled.

“Same old carts, different day,” Annie thought.  Sometimes it seemed like nothing ever changed – but then she obviously had.  She remembered a time when she would walk down these same aisles with joy and anticipation – planning for a family gathering or a dinner with friends.  Picking up some ingredients for a birthday cake or a bottle of wine with supper.  It seemed like a lifetime ago – who was that person that used to laugh so easily and had energy enough for three people?  It had been her – such a short time ago, really.  Before everything fell apart.  Before.

Annie sometimes felt like a ghost now – moving slowly and silently through her days.  She imagined herself drifting through those grocery store aisles.  A filmy, pale hand grasping cans of soup and bags of noodles.  How strange to feel only partly here.  And to not be able to admit to anyone the truth – not that anyone cared to hear – that sometimes she wished she weren’t here at all. 

She stopped her cart and looked at the selection of coffee.  What would be best?  Organic?  Dark Roast?  Breakfast Blend?  Folgers?  She picked up one of the bags of coffee, squeezed it slightly and breathed in the aroma.  It smelled like that coffee shop where she always used to meet her friend Rita back in college.  Such good memories they had there.  She wondered how Rita was doing – they hadn’t been in touch for decades.  She wondered if the coffee shop was still there or if it had turned into something sad – like a fast food place or a furniture rental shop.  She hoped not.  She liked to think of friends still gathering there and sharing stories over cups of coffee and scones, dreaming of the future and thinking deep thoughts. 

She put the coffee in her cart and continued down the aisle.  She wondered where Mrs. Anderson was in the store by now.  Annie looked up and noticed that the clock at the front of the store still wasn’t working.  “Same broken clock, different day.”  Annie sighed and checked the time on her cell phone.  She had to get moving a little quicker. 

Some cheese, some ground beef, a tub of ice cream and frozen juice. She was almost done and only had to slip over to the vegetable section now without running into…

“Well, Hi Annie!” said Mrs. Anderson as she appeared from behind a display.

Annie’s heart sank.  “Hi there, Bonnie,” Annie said and plastered on a smile.  Now she was stuck. 

Within moments Mrs. Anderson was telling Annie about how she needed to get some garlic bread because her cousins were coming over and she wasn’t sure which brand would be best because she had tried a certain kind and it hadn’t been very good….

Although Annie kept her eyes fixed on Mrs. Anderson and smiled and nodded dutifully her mind slowly drifted.  How could anyone possibly talk this much, she thought.  Then she made a mental list of the things she still had to get on the other end of the store and calculated how long it would take her.  She needed to think of a way to escape Mrs. Anderson.

Mrs. Anderson paused ever so briefly to catch her breath and Annie quickly said, “Bonnie, I am so sorry but I really have to get going.  Hair appointment!  See you on Sunday at church!”  She smiled and waved as she pushed her cart away and Mrs. Anderson looked slightly put out as she said, “Oh, well, okay – see you then, dear.”

Annie hurried toward the vegetable section.  She just needed to get some tomatoes and some lettuce, maybe some peppers.  Why was she even bothering with all of this?  It wasn’t like it mattered.  It wasn’t like any of this was going to make a bit of difference now.  It was too late, she was too late, all of this was too little, too late.  She thought about everything that had happened in the last months and wondered how she was going to get through it.  So many worries, just a different day.  Every stupid day.

Her head hurt.  Her eyes were stinging.  She knew it was going to happen.  She was going to burst into tears right here – in front of the cherry tomatoes.  Right here – in the store where everyone knew her, had known her since she was a child.  She considered just leaving the full cart behind and dashing to her car but heaven knows that would be the talk of the town if she did.  There was nothing in this town that wasn’t everyone’s business.  Same small town, different day. 

As her tears began to fall she felt an arm come around her shoulders. “Honey, let’s go get some coffee, okay?”  It was Mrs. Anderson.  “No, Bonnie”, said Annie –
“I have so much to do and I have to cook this perfect supper and I’m already so late…” But Mrs. Anderson said, “there is always time for coffee”.  She waved at her son to take Annie’s cart – “Jimmy Joe will make sure those get to your house, okay – so we have plenty of time to go and just get a cup of coffee.”

Mrs. Anderson propelled Annie out the door and down the sidewalk and into the coffee shop next door.  Annie sputtered, “Bonnie, really, I am fine.  And I seriously don’t have time.”

“You have time,” said Mrs. Anderson.  “Sit down.”  She motioned to a booth in the corner.  Annie went obediently and sat down.    She wasn’t sure whether to be put out at Mrs. Anderson’s bossiness or touched at her concern. 

Mrs. Anderson sat down across from her and as the waitress came toward them she said, “Two cups of coffee, honey, and two of those heavenly chocolate cupcakes.”  Then she turned her attention toward Annie.  She said, “I hate it when they are out of the chocolate cupcakes at the grocery store.”  Then she winked, “But they always have them here.”  She smiled as the waitress brought over the coffee and two perfect cupcakes.

“Now,” said Mrs. Anderson.  You look like you need a good cry, and maybe a listening ear.  And you have been looking like this for a while, dear – today isn’t the first time I’ve seen you moping around that grocery store.  Whatever is going on with you is none of my business but I know what it is like to suffer, and I know that sometimes it just helps to talk.  So.  Maybe I am wrong, but I’m just going to sit here and eat my cupcake and drink my coffee and not say a word.  And you can do the same or…feel free to talk.  I’ll listen.”

Annie looked out the window.  She saw two small girls running through a sprinkler in the yard across the street.  They were laughing so loud she could hear them all that way – even over the hum of the traffic going by.  Annie was so tired of feeling so bad.  It felt like joy and laughter were just distant memories – things that happened to other people these days, not her. 

She eyed Mrs. Anderson sitting there, sipping her coffee and then taking a bite of the cupcake.  It was strange to be in her presence without the constant chatter of her talking – so maybe it was to fill the silence, or maybe it was because Mrs. Anderson was right and Annie needed this…but Annie started to talk.  She talked, and cried, and talked some more.  She ate the chocolate cupcake and then ordered another.  And Mrs. Anderson listened.  Same old Spirit of the living God at work, mysteriously and truly, different day.

I Peter 4 reads, “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.  Be steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.  And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace will restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.  To him be the power forever and ever.  Amen.”