Prepare for Joy: Repairer and Restorer

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Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
    and your healing will quickly appear;
then your righteousness will go before you,
    and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.
Then you will call, and the Lord will answer;
    you will cry for help, and he will say: here am I.

11 The Lord will guide you always;
    he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land
    and will strengthen your frame.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like a spring whose waters never fail.
12 Your people will rebuild the ancient ruins
    and will raise up the age-old foundations;
you will be called Repairer of Broken Walls,
    Restorer of Streets with Dwellings.
Isaiah 58: 8-9, 11-12

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Medical science is realizing there is less benefit (and possible potential for harm) in healthy people requesting an “annual physical”  than previously believed.  Too many people hold off on very real problems, hoping they are insignificant, and expect the doctor might discover what’s wrong during a cursory physical exam.

As healers, we are tempted to look too hard for “something wrong” to fix, at the risk of creating illness where there is none, all at a hefty price tag.

Give us the sick and tired and we doctors feel right at home, with problems to solve and a job to do.

Jesus, as the Great Physician, understood there is “something wrong” with each of us needing His unique healing art.  He hangs out His shingle as the place to come, triaging the most troubled and distressed to move first in line.   When we cry out for help, He is on call full time, a certified, licensed and bonded Strengthener, Rebuilder, Restorer and Repairer.

No more waiting for the annual check up.  The time has come to cry out our brokenness, our desperate need of restoration.

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill.
Luke 5: 31

Prepare for Joy: The Depth of Our Wounds

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The first time I saw him it was just a flash of gray ringed tail
disappearing into autumn night mist as I opened the back door
to pour kibble into the empty cat dish on the porch: another
stray cat among many who visit the farm. A few stay.

So he did, keeping a distance in the shadows under the trees,
a gray tabby with white nose and bib, serious yet skittish,
watching me as I moved about feeding dogs, cats, birds, horses,
creeping to the cat dish only when the others drifted away.

There was something in the way he held his head,
an oddly forward ear; a stilted swivel of the neck.
I startled him one day as he ate his fill at the dish. He ran,
the back of his head flashing red, scalp completely gone.

Not oozing, nor something new, but recent. A nearly mortal scar
from an encounter with coyote, or eagle or bobcat.
This cat thrived despite trauma and pain, tissue still raw, trying to heal.
He had chosen to live; life chose him.

My first thought was to trap him, to put him humanely to sleep
to end his suffering, in truth to end my distress at seeing him every day,
envisioning florid flesh even as he hunkered invisible in the shadowlands of the yard.
Yet the scar did not keep him from eating well or licking clean his pristine fur.

As much as I want to look away, to avoid confronting his mutilation,
I greet him from a distance, a nod to his maimed courage,
through wintry icy blasts and four foot snow, through spring rains and summer heat with flies,
his wounds unhealed, reminder of his inevitable fate.

I never will stroke that silky fur, or feel his burly purr, assuming he still knows how,
but will feed his daily fill, as he feeds my need to know:
a life so broken, each breath taken is sacred air,
the depth of wounds proof of how he bleeds.

 

…by his wounds you have been healed.
1Peter 2:24b

Preparing for Joy: Rend Your Heart

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“Even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
    with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

13 Rend your heart
    and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love
Joel 2: 12-13

There is no motivation for works of love
without a sense of gratitude,
no gratitude without forgiveness,
no forgiveness without contrition,
no contrition without a sense of guilt,
no sense of guilt without a sense of sin.
~Edna Hong

 

We must start with a torn heart; there is no other way to finding and sharing joy.
It isn’t enough to “do good” because we are “good” as the secular world would suggest.
We aren’t good enough, not by any stretch, and never will be — just look at the headlines, at the video of slaughtered sons, husbands, fathers, beheaded by sons, husbands, fathers.

We can never love enough on our own until our own heart owns our own sin, and we bring those broken heart pieces back to its Creator for His fix and glue.

sin –> guilt –> contrition –> forgiveness –> gratitude –> love –> joy

The only true pathway to joy.  Everything else is a shortcut to nowhere and nothing.

Prepare for Joy: Word for the World

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O my people, what have I done to you?
Micah 6:3

 

The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.
~T.S. Eliot from “Ash Wednesday”

 

Who calls for sackcloth now? He leaps and spreads
A carnival of color, gladly spills
His blood: the resurrection—and the light.
~Louis Untermeyer from “Ash Wednesday”
The Word
Who was given
within and for the world
reaches out to us unstilled
dwelling in darkness–
O people,
His loved children
who turn away,
only our ashes remain.
His touch ignites
us to light again,
His blood has
spilled across the sky.
~E Gibson

A Crippled Heart

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All of us come to the study and practice of medicine through different pathways: some because of family members who were doctors or patients, some out of our own illness or wounded brokenness, some out of intense drive to achieve and serve.

I came to medicine because of my grade school classmate Michael.

My grade school represented a grand social experiment of the early 1960’s.  It was one of the first schools to mainstream special needs children into “regular” classrooms.   At that time, the usual approach was to warehouse kids with disabilities (i.e. “handicaps” in 60′s parlance)  in separate rooms, if not whole separate schools.

During those years, the average class size for a grade school teacher was 32-35 kids, with no teacher’s aides, rare parent volunteers (except for field trips and room mothers who threw the holiday parties) and no medications or special accommodations for ADHD or learning disabilities.  I’m not sure how teachers coped with a room full of too-often noisy unruly kids,  but somehow they managed to teach in spite of the obstacles.  Adding in children with mental and physical challenges without additional adult help must have added immeasurable challenges and lots of gray hair.

So the more capable kids got recruited to mentor the kids with disabilities.  It was a way to keep some kids busy who out of boredom might otherwise find themselves engaging in disruptive entertainment. It helped the teacher by creating a buddy system for the special needs kids who might need help with class work or who might have difficulty getting around.

In fifth grade I was assigned to be a buddy to Michael.  He was a spindly boy with cerebral palsy and hearing aids, thick glasses hooked with a wide band around the back of his head,  and spastic muscles that never seemed to go where he wanted them to go.  He walked independently with some difficulty, mostly on his tiptoes because of his shortened leg muscles, falling when he got going too quickly as his thick orthopedic shoes with braces would trip him up.   His hands were intermittently in a crab like grip of contracted muscles, and his face always contorting and grimacing.  He drooled continuously so perpetually carried a soppy Kleenex in his hand to catch the drips of spit that ran out of his mouth and dropped on his desk, threatening to spoil his coloring and writing papers. I would deliver him to the bathroom on a schedule, pushing the heavy door open for him to get inside, and waiting outside until he knocked on the door so I could open it back up for him.

His speech consisted of all vowels, as his tongue couldn’t quite connect with his teeth or palate to sound out the consonants, so it took some time and patience to understand what he said.  He could write with great effort, gripping the pencil awkwardly in his tight palm and found he could communicate better at times on paper than by talking. I made sure he had help to finish assignments if his muscles were too tight to write, and I learned his language so I could interpret for the teacher. I quickly discovered he was brave and bright, with a finer mind than most of the kids in our class.    He loved a good joke and his little body would shudder as he roared his appreciation.   I was impressed at how he expressed himself and how little bitterness he had about his limitations.

He was the most articulate inarticulate person I knew.  As a peer-opinion-driven preadolescent girl, I’m amazed I could even recognize that about Michael.  It was so tempting to stay oblivious to the person that Michael was inside his broken shell of a body.

Sometimes I wanted to hide as Michael appeared around the corner of the grade school building every morning. He would be walking too quickly in his tightly wound tip-toe cadence, arms flailing, shoes scuffing, raising up dust with each step. He would wave at me and call out my name in his indecipherable voice, a voice I knew too well.

There were many times when I resented being Michael’s buddy though I was determined not to let him know it.  I was myself stuck fast in my 5th-grade-need to be popular and acceptable to my peers.  I didn’t want to be constantly responsible for him and other kids teased me about him being my boyfriend.

And in many ways, he was.

As he would approach while I stood in my clump of friends on the playground, a group of boys playing tag would swoop past him, purposely a little too close, spinning him off his feet like a top and onto the ground. Glasses askew, he would lay momentarily still, and realizing I was needed, I would run to his side. Despite all he endured, I never saw Michael cry, not even once, not even when he fell down hard.  When he got angry or frustrated, he’d get very quiet, but his muscles would tense up so much he would go into even greater spasms.

I would help him up,  brush off the playground dirt from his sweatshirt and pants and look at his grimacing face. Although he would give me a huge toothy smile of thanks, his eyes, as usual, said what his mouth could not. He looked right past my hardened pretense, into my softening heart. Michael knew I needed him as much as he needed me. I was a lifesaver that had been thrown to him as he struggled to stay afloat in the sea of playground hostility.  And he was the first boy who loved me despite of who he saw inside my own inner broken shell.

After two years, when parents complained that the educational process was suffering for all the students, the social experiment was over and the school segregated the special needs kids back to therapeutic educational classrooms.  Though I never saw Michael again, I heard him on the radio six years later, reading an essay he’d written for the local Voice of Democracy contest on what it meant to be a free citizen.  His speech was one of the top three award winners that year.  I was so proud of how he’d done and how understandable his speaking voice had become.

I’ve thought of him frequently over the years as I went on to medical school, knowing that my initial training in compassionate caring came as I sat by his side for hours, even when I didn’t want to be there, learning to understand another person’s  voice and heart.  I didn’t appreciate it then as I do now, but he taught me far more than I ever taught him:  patience, perseverance and respect for the journey rather than the destination. He taught me life isn’t always fair: you make the best of what you are given and pay no attention to what others think and say.

Michael, wherever you are, you did that for me.  You helped me put someone else’s needs above my own.  You set me on the road to practice medicine. Your kindness reached deep into my own special needs heart, helping heal the crippled part of me that no one else could see, but you could feel.

Thank you, Michael, for being a buddy to someone whose pre-teen emotional handicaps ran far deeper than your life-time physical disabilities.

In my own imperfect way,  I loved you too.

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Bedewed With Tears

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“The Snow-drop, Winter’s timid child,
Awakes to life, bedew’d with tears.”
–  Mary Robinson

 

The past few weeks have been particularly dark and dank.  February often feels like this: the conviction winter will never be finished messing with us. Our doldrums are deep; brief respite of sun and warmth too rare.

I feel it in the barn as I go about my daily routine.   The Haflingers are impatient and yearn for freedom, over-eager when handled, sometimes banging on the stall doors in their frustration at being shut in,  not understanding that the alternative is  to stand outside all day in cold rain and wind.  To compensate for their confinement, I do some grooming of their thick winter coats, urging their hair to loosen and curry off in sheets over parts of their bodies, yet otherwise still clinging tight.  The horses are a motley crew right now, much like a worn ’60s shag carpet, uneven and in dire need of updating.  I prefer that no one see them like this and discourage visitors to the farm, begging people to wait a few more weeks until they (and I) are more presentable. Eventually I know the shag on my horses will come off, revealing the sheen of new short hair beneath, but when I look at myself, I’m unconvinced there is such transformation in store for me. Cranky, I  put one foot ahead of the other, get done what needs to be done, oblivious to the subtle renewal around me, refusing to believe even in the possibility.

It happened today.  Dawn broke bright and blinding.  I heard the fields calling, so I heeded, climbing the hill and turning my face to the pink painted eastern light, soaking up all I could.  It was almost too much to keep my eyes open, as they are so accustomed to gray darkness. And then I stumbled across something extraordinary.

A patch of snowdrops sat blooming in an open space on our acreage, visible now only because of the brush clearing that was done last fall. Many of these little white upside down flowers were planted long ago around our house and yard, but  I had no idea they were also such a distance away, hiding underground. Yet there they’ve been, year after year, harbingers of the long-awaited spring to come in a few short weeks, though covered by the overgrowth of decades of neglect and invisible to me in my self-absorbed blindness.  I was astonished that someone, many many years ago, had carried these bulbs this far out to a place not easy to find, and planted them, hoping they might bless another soul sometime somehow.  Perhaps the spot marks a grave of a beloved pet, or perhaps it was simply a retreat of sorts, but there the blossoms had sprung from their sleep beneath the covering of years of fallen leaves and blackberry vines. I wept to see them thriving there.

It was if I’d been physically hugged by this someone long dead,  now flesh and blood beside me, with work-rough hands, and dirty fingernails, and broad brimmed hat, and a satisfied smile.  I’m certain the secret gardener is no long living, and I reach back across those years in tearful gratitude, to show my deep appreciation for the time and effort it took to place a foretaste of spring in an unexpected and hidden place.

I am thus compelled to look for ways to leave such a gift for someone to find 50 years hence as they likewise stumble blindly through too many gray days full of human frailty and flaw. Though I will be long gone,  I can reach across the years to grab them, hug them in their doldrums, lift them up and give them hope for what is to come.

What an astonishing thought that it was done for me and in reaffirming that promise of renewal,  I can do it for another.

(repost from 2004 — published in Country Magazine in 2007)

 

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To Exult in Monotony

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Because children have abounding vitality,
because they are in spirit fierce and free,
therefore they want things repeated and unchanged.
They always say, “Do it again”;
and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead.
For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony.
But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony.
It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun;
and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.
It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike;
it may be that God makes every daisy separately,
but has never got tired of making them.
It may be that he has the eternal appetite of infancy;
for we have sinned and grown old,
and our Father is younger than we.
~G.K. Chesterton from Orthodoxy

 

The idea of sin making us older than our Maker catches me by surprise, but it makes sense.   Weary as we may become with routine, our continual search for the next new thing costs us in time and energy.   We age every time we sigh with boredom or turn away from the mundane, becoming less and less like our younger selves.
Who among us exults in monotony and celebrates predictability and enjoys repetition?

God does on our behalf.  He is consistent, persistent and insistent because we are no longer are.

Do it again, God.  Please, please do it again.

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