Monday, April 20, 2009

April 20, 2009 - Known By Our Wounds

Sunday’s sermon afforded me an opportunity to mention cancer survivors’ issues. I was preaching on the post-resurrection appearance of Jesus in which his disciple, Thomas, needs to see and touch Jesus’ wounds in order to be convinced of the truth of the resurrection.

As I pondered anew the meaning of this familiar scripture text, it struck me how noteworthy it is that the disciples know Jesus by his wounds. It’s very true-to-life, psychologically speaking. Often, we do know one another by our wounds, by the adversaries we’ve bested (or are still struggling against).

From the sermon:

“Sometimes the scars are visible, peeking out from the surface of our skin. More commonly, our wounds are hidden: either beneath our clothing or concealed deep in the recesses of our soul - rarely talked about, seldom acknowledged. Those friends and family who know us well, know of their existence. They, too, know us by our wounds.

When neighbors of ours go through some grueling medical ordeal and survive it, we come to know them, too, by their wounds. See the neighbor across the street climbing into his car? You can't help but recall the triple coronary bypass he had a couple years ago. Greet your co-worker in the office one morning, the one whose speech is just a little fuzzy - the last reminder of the stroke that first took all her speech away, then slowly gave it back, word by word, through hard work with the therapists. Every time she opens her mouth, you marvel at how far she's come.

I suspect that, as many of you look at me, you can't help but recall the word, "lymphoma." Once you become a survivor of something like that, it becomes a part of who you are, for better or for worse. Our wounds, in life, have a way of molding and shaping us.”

As part of the sermon, I shared with the congregation a quote from surgeon and author Richard Selzer. I’ve long been an admirer of his writing. This is from an essay called, simply, “Skin.” It’s a doctor’s appreciation of this largest organ in our bodies, that covers and protects us, even as it serves as our interface with the outside world:

"I sing of skin, layered fine as baklava, whose colors shame the dawn, at once the scabbard upon which is writ our only signature, and the instrument by which we are thrilled, protected and kept constant in our natural place.... Gaze upon the skin as I have, through a microscope brightly, and tremble at the wisdom of God, for here is a magic tissue to suit all seasons. Two layers compose the skin - the superficial epidermis and, deeper, the dermis. Between is a plane of pure energy where the life-force is in full gallop. Identical cells spring full-grown here.... No sooner are these cells formed than they move toward the surface, whether drawn to the open air by some protoplasmic hunger or pushed outward by the birth of newer cells behind.... Here they lie, having lost all semblance of a living cellularity, until they are shed from the body in a continual dismal rain. Thus into the valley of death this number marches in well-stepped soldiery, gallant, summoned to a sacrifice beyond its ken. But let the skin be cut or burned, and the brigade breaks into a charge, fanning out laterally across the wound, racing to seal off the defect. The margins are shored up; healing earthworks are raised, and guerrilla squads of invading bacteria are isolated and mopped up." [Richard Selzer, Mortal Lessons (Simon & Schuster, 1976 ), pp. 105-106.]

We can look at scars, it seems to me, in two ways: as a reminder of something bad that’s happened to us, or as a reminder of a powerful process of healing that continues to be active in our bodies.

The nature of my cancer treatment has been such that I’ve never needed surgery. Consequently, the only cancer-related scar I carry on my body is the small one, near my collarbone, that marks the place where my chemo port was implanted (and where it remains to this day, in case it’s ever needed).

The scars, the wounds, I bear as a result of my treatment are of a less-visible nature. I’m more vulnerable now, and also more aware of my mortality. I operate less out of a sense of spiritual entitlement: no longer assuming the unconscious, childlike belief that if I just do the right thing, God will reward me. The universe doesn’t seem to be as safe a place as I once assumed it was: I’m all too aware that God has inserted a frightening degree of randomness into the creation.

Still and all, it’s not a bad place to be. Cancer may have beaten me up a little, but it hasn’t kept me down. I’m learning to move on from here, scars and all.


Anonymous said...

Another great post. I always look forward to when I see your blog pop up in google reader.

Carl said...

Thank you.

Wendy S. Harpham, MD said...

Wonderful post,Pastor. So much of Healthy Survivorship is a matter of perspective.
With hope, Wendy

Anonymous said...

Hello Carl,

My cancer has progressed to the point where I am on my last leg of this journey. I was wondering if you could direct me to what the Bible says about facing death. In essence, what are your thoughts on dealing with grief and sorrow? My journey has been four years and as I approach the end, surprisingly I find that my emotional and spiritual struggle have not diminished but intensified.


Stushie said...

Brilliant post, Carl. Absolutely brilliant!

Carl said...

Christine, I'm pondering your request, and will write a future blog entry in response to it. It's not something I want to just dash off. I want to think about it a little while, if that's OK with you.

Grace and peace.