Monday, August 17, 2009

Oh, how this day did not turn out at all as I expected! So often, I kept thinking about Pastor D's sermon on Nicodemus and how God drives the conversation of our lives. He certainly drove the conversation of this day.

Falling asleep last night took until some time around 4:00 AM, so worried was I. I tried to calm my heart. I read and sang and prayed, but when I closed my eyes and sought the sanctuary of sleep, the memories of the last time I was put to sleep filled my mind.

I had planned to sleep right up until the moment it was time to leave, but I awoke early and could not fall back asleep. So, I got up and started in on my readings. The scripture readings for the last week have brought a slew of questions to my heart, but the writing today fit well with something else that has been on my mind.

Therefore, just as those who are now called "spiritual" that is priests, bishops, or popes, are neither different from other Christians nor superior to them, except that they are charged with the administration of the word of God and the sacraments, which is their work and office, so it is with the temporal authorities. They bear the sword and rod in their hand to punish the wicked and protect the good. A cobbler, a smith, a peasant--each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops. Further, everyone must benefit and serve every other by means of his own work or office so that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, just as all the members of the body serve one another (I Corinthians 12:14-26). ~ Martin Luther

...just as all members of the body serve one another...

The staff was far kinder than my last experience, three female nurses who truly sought to meet my every need, with only one raised eyebrow when I asked for a larger gown (the one they gave me would not have fallen much past my hips). The nurse who put in the IV was not able to do so until the third attempt. The second one hurt so much I would have cried out except for I was trying to be brave. The pain made me a bit dizzy and nauseous, but when skin around the vein started filling up with saline, she pulled that line and started the third. [Bruising and swelling at the first two sites have already set in.] The anesthesiologist was a male who felt as if there should be no boundaries between us, touching me over and over again until I managed to ask the nurse in charge of my care to please ask him to stop. As much as he upset me, he more than made up for it by abruptly changing his mind about waiting to put me to sleep until we were in the operating room. So, I lost consciousness listening to the person who had driven me to the appointment reading to me from Psalms and then trying to tell him what Pastor D said about how God creates clean hearts. Not a bad way to go, eh?

Waking was another battle. I could hear before anything else and heard the anesthesiologist questioning why I was not yet awake. Two of the nurses could tell I was semi-conscious and kept trying to talk with me. This time, I could speak before I could open my eyes and managed to mumble something about giving me more time. One of them, that head nurse, told everyone else to just let me sleep as long as I needed, that I would awake when it was time for me to do so. Now, this might sound judgmental of me, but I feel as if she said that more to placate me than truly understanding my wet-noodle status. Either way, I was truly thankful, given that I was as covered as I could have ever wished to be and could concentrated solely on regaining control of my body.

It turns out that I needed more time than the prep and procedure together just to do so.

Surgeon No. 5 came to talk with me once I was able to sit up in a wheelchair and told me that she was signing off on the surgery that Surgeon No. 4 would do (No. 4 wanted another consult). My last meeting with No. 5 was far from positive and resulted in great masses of tears being shed. So, I was quite overwhelmed at the news. That means one more obstacle to my being fixed had been removed. So, while I dreaded today and struggled some during the process, I came out the other side one step closer to my goal.

...just as all members of the body serve one another...

Remember how I wrote that the person who was my "responsible party" for today was not whom I would have chosen? His being there, I believe, was part of the conversation God was having with me. He had taken me to the previous appointment, though I had originally wanted his wife to do so. And had patiently sat in the parking lot afterward while I cried and vented my frustration. When I had a choice of doing today's procedure today or October 26th, I chose today, knowing I most likely would have to ask the same person help me once again. It is fortunate that he did so. He is kind, far kinder than I even knew from our nooner bible study.

After walking me inside once we arrived back at my house, he sat down in the green chair and tested the recline at my suggestion. Then, even though he has a business to run and a family to care for, he stayed and talked with me. He didn't know how long I cried in the shower last night as whole clumps of my hair fell out. He didn't know how very fragile I feel after struggling with nausea for months on end, with becoming inexplicably freezing cold over and over again, with still having pain in my back from the incision. He did not know that I was still nauseous from the one sip of water I had at the surgery center and still feeling quivery from the drugs and very much longed to not yet be alone. He did not know that I was still thinking about the touch of the anesthesiologist despite the kindnesses of the nurses. He did not know how overwhelmed I felt after being so fearful last night and getting through the day and receiving that good news at the end. He just sat and talked with me, listened to me, chastised me a bit, and gave me the time I needed to become more balanced before I was on my own again.

He didn't know, but God did.

...just as all members of the body serve one another...

On Friday, Bettina told me about how the MOPS coordinator at her church up and quit and announced that she was not even going to be coming any more. Her reasons were confusing, but what Bettina heard was that she had been struggling with migraines and a lot more. Bettina was wondering why the woman would be avoiding the very place where she could find help and support for her struggles. I countered with asking her how many people at church had she told about the mighty struggle she and her husband were facing. She didn't have to answer. I already knew. I also told her that if the woman was struggling as much as I suspected, she most likely no longer had the energy to pretend that things were fine. She no longer had the where with all to maintain the social contract that exists even in church, even between Christians. [Yes, I know that sounds jaded.]

The social contract agrees that when someone asks how you are when greeting you that you only answer fine. You maintain the social contract by not really answering the question. At my old churches and in previous bible studies, I learned the hard way that when people ask for prayer requests, the social contract holds that you only give surface ones, preferably about some relative or neighbor. No personal struggles allowed. Nothing that can bring a burden too close to the group.

Bearing one another's burdens might by our Christian duty, but I have found that being someone in need is the quickest way to find yourself judged, ostracized, and feeling a failure in faithfulness.

But I also told her about another blog entry from Pastor S, the one whose sermon graces yesterday's blog.

He tackles that very subject in a way that made me nod my head rather vigorously, furrow my brow in confusion, and then leave my waters troubled once again. At the end of the entry, I could not truly decide if he would agree with me or not in my jaded stance. I think he would. But I also think he would argue that the social contract has no real place in the Christian life and all attempts to maintain such ought to be eschewed with steadfast resistance... instead he would argue our efforts should be to simply love with the love of Christ.

...were that the case what a world that would be...

Laugh and the World Laughs with You, But if You Cry, What Then?

I remember an episode of the Simpsons, many years ago now, in which Lisa was feeling quite sad. When Marge dropped her off at school then, she gave Lisa the same advice that her mother had once given to her as child: Smile, and put on a happy face! So Lisa bravely got out of the car, and went to face her day with a forced smile threatening to crack her careworn countenance. As Marge sat there in the car, watching her daughter go, she recalled the times when she herself had faked such a smile at odds with her actual emotions, and how yucky that had made her feel. Then she hopped out of the vehicle and ran to give Lisa a different word of motherly advice: Be yourself, and smile when you're ready. Marge loved her either way.

Theologically speaking, "being yourself" is no real remedy or solution. We are sinful and unclean, and being our sinful selves is at the heart of the problem! But putting on a happy face, faking a smile, and pretending to be chipper are not the answer, either. It is the Father's love for us in Christ Jesus, and His forgiveness of our sins, that rescues us from the deadly despair of unbelief. That gracious forgiveness and steadfast love grant the true peace and joy of faith, with which we do rejoice, give thanks and sing. But let us not confuse that rejoicing of the heart with particular personality traits. It is a false gospel when we admonish a melancholy heart to fake a smile.

I resonated with that episode of the Simpsons, and with Lisa's mood in it, because I am also somewhat disposed toward melancholy. There are seasons of the year, especially from November through February, when it is hard for me to feel chipper. I've learned to cope with that, more or less, but coping is not the same as being cheerful. Even aside from that seasonal depression, which follows the waning of the sunlight, there are other times when my mood is on a low ebb. It's an aspect of my personality that I don't particularly care for, and I don't offer that as an excuse; I know that it is also linked to my sinfulness. Nevertheless, the remedy is not to be found in forcing myself to be happy, if that were even possible. I know that what I need is the preaching of repentance, the forgiveness of my sins in the name of Jesus, and the fellowship of my family and friends, my brothers and sisters in Christ. Those good gifts of God pull me out of myself and out of my hole, and set me before my Father in heaven, safe and secure in Christ Jesus, my Savior. That almost always makes me feel better, too, but not necessarily carefree and easygoing; it doesn't necessarily translate into grins and giggles galore.

It was roughly around the same time as that episode of the Simpsons, when a coworker of mine, a Pentecostal, made a comment that totally floored me. This young woman came to work one day, visibly anxious and weary, but with her usual toothy smile plastered across her face. She remarked that she was at her wit's end, but then she also went on to say that she had to keep smiling, because, as she put it, if she let her smile slip it would mean that she had lost her faith and forfeited her salvation. It's been almost two decades ago that she said that to me, but I've never forgotten it. Sadly, I don't remember what I said in response, because at the time I was so flabbergasted I didn't really know what to say. I hope that I would do better now, given the chance. What concerns me, though, is how often Christians seem to proceed with the same sort of mindset with respect to one another.

Laugh and the world laughs with you. We all know the saying, and who's to wonder? It's fun and easy to be around people who are happy and cheerful. But as members of the body of Christ, we are called to bear each other's burdens in love, with patience and forgiveness. In fact, it is all the more important that, when we cry, we not be left to cry alone. I don't mean to suggest that there's never a time for quiet solitude. As a man, I retreat to my "cave" from time to time, and I often find that helpful to prayer and meditation on the Word of God. But when the melancholy blues wash over me, I know that what I need is not time to myself, but the communion of my fellow Christians. I need to hear the Word of God, and to receive the love of God in Christ. At such times, especially, it is not good for the man to be alone. Yet, it is the most difficult at such times to reach out to others for conversation and companionship. Depression and despair tend to collapse the person inward. So it becomes all the more important for the neighbor to take the initiative and reach out to the brother or sister who is sullen and sad. Tragically, with few exceptions, that doesn't seem to be the case.

I understand and sympathize. It is hard work and exhausting to befriend the person who is down and seemingly bent on frowning. It is all the more difficult when that person resists the efforts of neighbors to draw close and engage in conversation. I've been on both sides of that equation too many times to count. For all of that, I have also come to know this: On the one hand, a melancholy disposition does not mean that a person is faithless or unbelieving; no more so than a cheerful disposition equates with faith and faithfulness. On the other hand, the person who is struggling with sadness, for whatever reason, needs the mercy and compassion, the patience and long-suffering, the love and forgiveness of our Lord Jesus Christ, as much or more than anyone else. And such a person may be less likely to seek out the Gospel or to avail himself of the means of grace than others might be. Therefore, rather than passing judgment on the person who is glum or down in the mouth, and rather than avoiding the melancholy soul, the Christian is moved by love to befriend and uplift such a person. Not to suppose that the goal is a smile, but simply to love with the love of Christ.

Sadness, or even a personality prone to melancholy, is not the same thing as depression; nor are any of these things coterminous with the despair of unbelief. The sourpuss may be every bit as pious and faithful as the interminably chipper and cheerful person. Sweet and sour alike live by the Gospel of forgiveness, or they do not live at all. For that very reason, we should resist the temptation to avoid the dour, but instead make a point of loving and caring for that person; even if it never results in a smile or a happy face. The laughing will never be lacking in company, and let us hope and pray their companions are Christians. But those who weep are too often left alone. It should not be so among those who belong to the Body of Christ. In fraility and weakness, let us love one another; for love is of God, whose power is made perfect in weakness.

For those who may suffer from the melancholy blues or clinical depression, I won't advise or admonish that you fake a smile or plaster on a happy face, but in my empathy for you I will recommend a new book by my dear friend and colleague, the Reverend Todd Peperkorn. It is entitled, I Trust When Dark My Road: A Lutheran View of Depression, and it is available free from LCMS World Relief and Human Care. Check it out.

...just as all members of the body serve one another...

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