Listen to Your Life

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In the midst of my own struggle with chronic pain, it requires of me a tiring, no, an exhausting work of maintaining some sense of sanity as I try to find a purpose for my suffering. I just cannot do what I once did and what it requires for me to survive is an act of constant examination and reexamination. So in the midst of this insanity, I read whatever I can find that will allow me the chance to understand my suffering.

“Listening to Your Life” by Frederick Buechner is a book of daily devotions whereby one reads the devotions according to the day for which they were compiled by Mr. Buechner for inspiration and guidance yet somehow I forget what day it is and thereby read the wrong day or fall behind or whatever. So today, I read the devotion for January 26 which is several weeks past. The background of this particular devotion comes from a sermon that Mr. Buechner had heard from a preacher by the name of George Buttrick.

Mr. Buechner quotes the Rev. Buttrick where he refers to the story of Jesus going to the wilderness after His baptism where he is tempted by Satan to become a kind of Messiah of great power for every segment of society. Each time Jesus declined the offer and finally delivers the news to Satan that He would become a Messiah of great humility and suffering and service and one where he would give his very life in order to take on the very sin due us in our stead. Rev. Buttrick goes on to say in his sermon that “Jesus Christ refused the crown that Satan had offered him in the wilderness but he is King nonetheless because he is crowned in the heart of the people who believe in him. And that coronation takes place among confession, and tears, and great laughter.”

I read this as I find myself in the midst of dueling neurosurgeons and the song they are playing is not in tune. From Neurosurgeon A; “Mr. Smith, your fusion is not as “robust” as should be in order to remove the rods and screws and hardware that was placed there two and one half years ago as a part of your fusion surgery.” (Seems that no one informed Mr. Smith that there was a better than average chance that the hardware that they would place in his back would have to be removed as a result of the pain it created. As well, no one informed Mr. Smith that about a third of all fusion surgeries result in a non-fusion union.) If Neuroguy A is correct, a twist or turn would potentially break my back creating big issues without the support of the hardware.
From Neurosurgeon B; “Mr. Smith, your fusion is just fine. We would like to go ahead with tests and if indeed the pain you are feeling in your back is from the hardware that was installed, it will require another surgery, a less invasive surgery than the initial surgery to remove the hardware. (And this surgery has its own set of risks and many who have this procedure still live in pain.)

No surgery, no procedure comes with a guarantee of reducing the pain that I live in. None of it.

In his book, Buechner focused on Buttrick’s description of “great laughter”, the kind in which our soul laughs out loud and sings especially when the planets are aligned and it all feels and seems right and good, a place where we usually say that we are “blessed”, and therein we crown Christ as King of all! But for me, for my own stuff of life that leads to this battle with pain, where at this time it is just real heavy, it all causes me to focus on the phrase from Buttrick’s words of that coronation of Christ that takes place among my own tears and not only mine, but the tears of so many that crown the living Christ King during their own struggles and tears and pain.

When I first read this line of thought, it took me a few days to wrap my head around the concept that was created by the few words Rev. Buttrick shared because that concept was just way larger than the words seem to echo.
It has all forced me to look at my pilgrimage with God, that place of the road where few travel and even fewer stay on as we journey with our own tears instead of the goodly feeling of “blessing” and it is here that I come to a crossroads as all journeys take at one time or another and that crossroads is this: at this junction of pain, and hopelessness, and sadness, at the crossroads of confession, tears, and great laughter, whom will I follow and thereby crown as King? Is it me and my own shallow understanding of the stuff of life and my own suffering that I will coronate as the King of my own existence? Or is it the one who suffered and died in my place, the one who has guaranteed a far greater future than even I could create with a pain free life?

If we walk this path, we experience a living God who holds us in our tears and laughs with us during the times of the rising tide of goodness that we interpret as blessing. And it is right here that I have figured something out. When we crown Jesus King through our tears, our confession, and our laughter, He is crowned thusly even in our great pain.

And it echoes, in this one statement, that I hope you too can hear: “Where can I go, that thou are not with me?” And would have I have ever known this unless I went to that place of pain and discomfort?

My Own Cross

Redtail Hawk on a Cross
Redtail Hawk on a Cross

I had seen Redtailed Hawks sitting on the steeple which is a cross on the top of the Second Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. It would sit up there and upon seeing a squirrel scurrying on the ground, would fly down and pounce upon it for its next meal. He would use the cross for his own purposes of need. There is a bronze hawk on a cross that I created years ago that sits in a Labyrinth at Second Baptist Church and it was created from the inspiration of the actions of the Redtailed Hawk that used the cross. When you start the walk of prayer, the hawk looks squarely at you, as if to say, this cross that I am perched on, I have used to fly from and gain my sustenance for living. What do you use the cross for?

So I celebrate Thanksgiving after driving and sleeping in a bed designed for minions, sitting in chairs designed for the flying monkeys and little people of the Wizard of Oz, and I come home and am hurting beyond anything that I have yet experienced. But I did it! I did not saddle my babies nor my wife with my pain. I will have MRI’s next week in order for us to develop a plan for more surgical fun. This time, due to the scar tissue in my back from the other surgeries, I get to have what is known as a contrast MRI where they insert a dye so they can see more clearly through the rods, screws, cages, scar tissue, mole tunnels, okay not mole tunnels, but other stuff that has made my spine whatever it is. And all of this has left me really digging deep in my soul on this day because I am hurting and asking questions.

There is an image that is just real clear in the New Testament if you care to look at it and it is the image of a cross and crucifixion and a cruel death. If you are walking down a dusty road during Jesus’ day, you would probably see people hanging on crosses, some dead, others dying, convicted of some sort of crime. No doubt that Jesus saw it on a regular basis and from this, he makes a statement: “whoever wishes to follow me, they must deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” He is saying that we should pick up a heavy piece of wood that will be nailed to the other part of the cross then stuck in the ground, and follow him. Gosh, does that whole image really get at you like it does me?

There is yet something that is deeper in this whole cross image. What Jesus describes is something reserved for criminals. Jesus is asking us to sacrifice ourselves and become a criminal for God’s sake. Me a criminal for God’s sake, walking around with that piece of wood tied to my arms and back, and following Jesus? There is something to this that travels yet deeper in our soul if we allow ourselves to struggle with it. It has reflections of Jesus in our society and travels the whole relationship between us and God and the world we live in. It has reflections of the scripture passage found in Micah 6:8, to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.

But what exactly is the crime that we should commit and be given the guilty verdict for and then nailed to a cross? Our crime is found in the way we live in the world which is different than anyone else outside of the views of Jesus. Our crime is found in the way we view justice compared to the world. Our crime is how we love versus how the world loves. Our crime is found in the way we forgive. Our crime is found in the way we treat others. The world will see us as guilty and worthy of the cross when we live according to Jesus as we bear a cross.

See Jesus had this concept in his mind because he knew where he was headed. He knew that he would eventually be classified as a criminal and placed on a cross, punished for his crime, and to die a cruel death. So he asks us to do the same. He asks us to be criminals for God’s sake where we have to be. He asks us to pick up the very thing that makes us human, to deny what we would really like to do with the self that we have, drag that piece of wood of our awful selves to the place where it is nailed to a beam and stuck in the ground. Earlier he had told people that to simply say Lord, Lord would not be sufficient for squat, indicating that words are hollow. Instead, he looks at us and says, deny yourself, pick up that cross that you have been given, and drag it to the place where it will be stuck in the ground and you yourself be crucified next to the son of God.

Lord have mercy because I keep trying to take that beam of wood off of my back and be something else!

So then, what is your cross? What is it that would lead you to be crucified? Karen read this and said it is real heavy. I agree. It is real heavy. What does it mean to deny myself, to pick up the cross that would lead to a crucifixion, and follow Jesus to that place? For me, the cross I bear leads me to a place where the pain I suffer and the pain others suffer needs to be seen and heard in our society that claims to have some allegiance to God in some sort of way. My cross is my pain. Pray tell, what is yours? What is it that you are dragging to the place that will lead to crucifixion?

A Gentle Resting Place

Release!
Release!

This is the day that the Lord has made. But isn’t every day? Our lives are not our own. We claim all kinds of stuff as ours including the actual breath that we breathe. It is not ours. It does not belong to us. We rent it. We rent the space between our ears, the space we walk on, the attitudes we express, the thoughts we think. We can rant and rave and yell and fuss but at the end of our days, we have a certain number of those days, preordained by the living God and none of it, not one little iota of it, belongs to us. But we sure do think so, don’t we? Enter the parable where Jesus talks about the wealthy farmer who was so satisfied with the status of his life that he built bigger barns to store his stuff in, only to die in the middle of the night. We may believe that we know and have a lot, but in an instant it can all be taken away.

Yesterday, in my desire to do something less difficult than stomping around in a swamp, since it is the opening of duck hunting season, I decided to do something less strenuous like bow hunting for deer, which I have little confidence in and little previous success. Oh don’t fear, Bambi would be safe and besides, I needed something to protect me from marauding bands of squirrels that may try to chew my leg into a nub.

Unable to climb into a tree and looking for a place to sit, while walking through the woods in the predawn darkness, already in pain and hoping that this precious time would help to alleviate some of the stress of my journey with pain, I fell. Yep, landing gear up and in slow motion, I landed; touchdown! Only the landing strip was right on my crossbow! Not sure what all the cracking was upon my graceful landing, but as sore as I am today, I think it was at least some of me. I think my crossbow got it too though I won’t know until later today. Believe me, the killing of something was not at the forefront of my noggin to start with; it was the fact that I could go outside and meld into the life of the natural world. Oh, I melded alright, right into the freshly made mud from our latest storm. It has left me sore. It has left me realizing something else; our life just is not our own!

An owl let out a string of hoots that sounded more like a deep, hysterical belly laugh. I think I was the object of his sickly joke. The crows found him right after daylight and made a mockery of his attempts to hide, telling everyone within miles of earshot of his potential murderous desires. The wood ducks flew and squealed in their excitement for finding a few acorns in the swamp that I inhabited. The mallards quacked and chuckled, circling and looking for a place to land for their early morning breakfast. The robins awoke, chirping with the acknowledgement that an invader was present. And in the world I now occupied, I realized, no matter how much I have gone through and am going through, I was small. I was a simple little piece of a bigger puzzle that was around me.

I would never think that what I go through as a curse by God. It has been a journey of questions with no answers, of denial and acceptance, of frustration and disappointment. For each of us, in our attempt to control everything that skeers us to death, suffering comes to us. But do you know what else it is? This damnable pain is a gift! It is a gift where the model of my existence has been pulled apart like a box of Legos and is being reassembled into something different.

What that is, I haven’t a clue but one thing I do know; I realize that the footprints of my existence on this rotating rock is small and is only made relevant by acknowledging the presence of a God that walks with us in the midst of our suffering and pain. I may have cracked my bow. I probably cracked my spine. I definitely am reminded that in our imperfections and suffering, God is as close as the laughing owl and barking squirrel.