Holy Week and Kidney Stones (2007)
This is the text of a sermon I preached on Resurrection Sunday in 2007. It’s a very personal reflection on suffering. 2007 was a difficult year for me physically as I have never been to as many doctors, taken so many prescriptions, and told my health history so many times as I did last year. When it was all said and done, I still have no answers to what was going on inside of my body or why I felt the way I did. I will say that it totally wrecked whatever confidence I may have had in doctors. Chiropractic, cardiology, ENT, General Practice, Urologist–not one of them could figure out what was ailing me. Waste of time and money is what it was. Anyhow, this is the manuscript from Resurrection Sunday 2007.
Resurrection Sunday, April 8, 2007
Thoughts on the Resurrection Life
“If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.”—Romans 6:5, NIV
I spent the better part of Holy Week lying prostrate on a green, old, cushion-worn couch that sits on the hard, cold wooden floors of my 100 some year old house. For a few hours of the holy week I laid on a cold, plastic hospital gurney in an Emergency Room. For a few minutes I laid on the floor of my study at the Church building. I also spent several hours lying on the not too uninviting bathroom floor in front of the toilet in my house. For some reason, and I don’t know why, but when I am sick, lying on the bathroom floor brings me considerable comfort. I also spent some time in the back of an ambulance, in my bed, in a doctor’s office, hunched over behind a small pulpit, in an emergency room lobby, and in my pajamas.
I did not get a lot of work done this week. I felt rather worthless and guilty. Here it is the most important week on the church calendar, by far, and there I lay: on a couch, on the linoleum, on the carpet, on the bed, on the plastic. I felt ridiculous, absurd, and more than once, like a complete waste of time, a non-benefit to humanity. How can I just lay here? I have to get something done, there are people who are depending on me and the work I do every day.
When I was not writhing in godly pain, I was too tired to read or stay awake. Television lost its distracting benefit after about 5 minutes—and besides, who can sit through more than 2 minutes of Maury? When I did manage to fall asleep the dogs or the phone managed to cut it more than short. When none of this worked, I was twisted and wrenched in a pain that has been described to me in words that range somewhere between equal to and worse than giving birth to a fully gestated human being. I care not to experience either one either again or at all. They say a woman soon forgets childbirth; I wish I could forget what I experienced but for some reason the memories linger on even today. Residual pain from all the work the muscles did over a period of 5 days trying to expel a small stone only slightly larger than a mustard seed.
When the pain came upon me I had a few options at my disposal. First, I could take pain medication. Vicadin is what the ER Doctor prescribed. He may as well have given me M & M’s. Alternately, I could lay there, or stand, or walk, or roll around on the floor like a dog with fleas, or jerk, or shake my limbs as if I had been slain in the spirit. There was also the possibility that I could assuage my pain with a hot water bottle or with the nicely microwave heated bag of field corn that Mrs. S. loaned to me. I could drink water or cranberry juice. There was, surprisingly, the option of going upstairs to the bathroom and taking a long scalding hot shower. The doctor I saw Friday told me this relaxed the muscles and reduced their contractions. This worked well until I drained the hot water tank. It worked 3 or 4 times over the course of a couple of days. I could also spend as much time as I liked saying, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” Water, water everywhere…
Well, mine was no crucifixion, but it may as well have been because insofar as pain is concerned, I was being crucified. And I make no apologies for thinking such. Pain is pain and hurt is hurt. In my heart I believed, because the pain was so great, the stress so un-mitigating, and the fear so unnerving, that I was dying.
What a way to spend this most Holy week on the Christian calendar. Surely, I guess, I should have been ‘out there’ among the masses. I should have been conducting Holy Wednesday services, Maundy Thursday Services, Good Friday Services, Sabbath Services and finally Sunrise & Resurrection Services. And each of those services should have been something original, inventive, unique and entertaining—something causing us deep emotional stirrings. But there I lay, on my couch, barely able to lift my eyes let alone my bible or my pen.
I couldn’t even go to school where I believe I have a very serious, real-life, real-time ministry to the masses. But the one day I tried to go, Wednesday, I walked in, grimacing in pain, and walked out, hunched over like Quasimodo barely able to control the nausea rising up inside my esophagus, shamed because I was hurting so badly, embarrassed because I could not stay and discharge my responsibilities in the lunch room, humiliated because I had to make such a confession to a room full of older ladies. There I was: young, vigorous, strong, healthy young man, as weak as a baby, helpless as a cripple, weaker than an old woman.
What a way to spend the Holiest Week on the Christian calendar. Unable to do anything but lay on the couch, in pajamas, wrapped in a blanket, succored by a hot water bottle, crippled with an unquenchable pain that incapacitated me. I could do nothing. The medication didn’t work. I could barely smile. If I received five minutes of relief I suffered for 5 hours for it.
What a way to spend the Holiest Week on the Christian calendar. I couldn’t do anything. From Sunday until Wednesday evening I pretty much laid on the couch. My wife waited on me pretty much hand and foot: Food, drink, hot water bottle, heated field corn, blankets, pillows, medicine, water, water, water, juice, water, pills, cheetos—I had an unhealthy appetite for cheetos, and a close by remote control. What could I do? I was a complete waste of time. I couldn’t go to the office and accomplish anything. I could get up every now and again and send an email letting people know that I was still suffering. I couldn’t get out of the house to get my prescriptions—thankfully, someone else could. I could talk on the phone in between wheezes and groans and upheavals of nausea. Then there was my mother who showed a rather odd amount of concern for her sick little boy: “I can come up. Do you need anything? Just let me know. We’ll be there.”
I couldn’t take the boys to piano lessons, either. I was a complete waste of time. What a way to spend Holy Week. What a way to prepare for Resurrection Sunday! Who spends the week before Resurrection Sunday laid out, incapacitated, unable to get anything accomplished, and dependent upon everyone around him to help move life along? What a way to spend a week. Who spends the week before Resurrection Day not preparing for what will happen, not making the best plans, not getting all the ducks in a row? Couldn’t drop off my van, could barely pick it up, couldn’t buy paint for some workers, couldn’t be in the office. Who spends Holy Week in a completely disastrous manner where everything that can go wrong did?
What a way to spend the week preparing for Resurrection! Writhing in pain, in agony. Standing up for a minute, and laying back the next. It got me to thinking about Holy Week—the week most Christians spend ending lent, going back to their routine and indulgence, worshipping and thinking of how blessed we are to have received grace after grace from Him. And there I was, not spending Holy Week indulging, not spending Holy Week worshiping, not spending Holy Week serving—but being served—not spending Holy Week in a very Holy way. Worthless. Run down. Defeated.
“And so we are not hopeful that the world will be overcome; we know it has been. We are born into an overcome, a redeemed world. To be sure of that changes the whole complexion of life, religion, and action in a way to which to-day we are strange. It is much to be quite sure that the world will one day be righteous; it is more to know that a universal Christ is its perfect righteousness already. We see not yet all things put under righteousness, but we see Jesus already crowned with that glory and honour.” (Forsyth, 219)
There was I, the week before Resurrection—ashamed of myself. So ashamed that I didn’t want any of you to see me after I left. So ashamed that I walked to the ambulance instead of allowing them to come and get me. Ashamed that I was involved in something I could not control. Ashamed that I was suffering from a pain that pails in comparison to what most suffer on this planet and that I was weeping about it, on my knees. I was horrified at the thought of being seen by you, or my sons, in such torment. When we are suffering, when we hurt, all sense of dignity seems to evade us. I was ashamed that I had planned a nearly perfect ending to my sermon and was rendered completely unable to give it to you, share it with you, or even read it myself. Ashamed that I could not finish what I began.
Then I got to the ER. I was dehydrated. I was sweaty. Renee had taken my gum and my breath was ferocious and offensive. I covered my mouth to talk to anyone it was so offensive. There I lay, in the waiting area, watching the older people who were there barely walking, hunched over, crippled from years of life and not a few mere minutes—undergoing God only knows what sort of indignities. There I was, asking, begging, pleading for someone to give me a piece of gum, a mint, a shot of anything that would knock me senseless. No one came to my rescue: “We can’t give you anything by mouth until the Doctor says it’s OK.” It’s gum?!? I stammered in between breathes and heaves and waves. “Sorry.” Nothing was going well or right. Nothing. Smelly from sweat. Halitosis from dehydration. Uncontrollable pain in a room full of complete strangers, terrified that I might lose control of my bodily functions or pass out and wake up someplace else. I was shaking and anxious thinking I very well might be on my way. Was I ready? Was I prepared? Could this be?
I didn’t know what else to say. I kept apologizing: First to the EMT’s: “Sorry you had to come and get me.” Then to Renee, “Sorry I’m wasting your day.” Then to the nurse, “Sorry I’m acting like this. I’ve probably overreacted.” Then to my sons, “Sorry, I can’t play ball or anything today.” Before all that, to you, “Sorry I cannot finish this sermon. I have to go.” I really felt terrible. The doctor said this: “I’m sorry you had to wait so long for pain medication.” I sort of thought his one outweighed my 5 or 6, but who’s to say?
But then there was a thought in my mind. What burden did I carry? Not much. There was Jesus. Should I suffer for a week in order to appreciate more fully his suffering that day when he gave history a purpose? I’m still ashamed of myself: I couldn’t finish two lousy pages of notes while thinking that Jesus said, “It is Finished!” What did I endure? He suffered between heaven and earth, before the whole world carried a cross and was stapled naked to it and there, in shame, endured and finished the work he set out to do. I? Too ashamed to be carried out on a stretcher, fully clothed, in front of you. I know, I know. Not quite the same, but fully the same.
Fully the same in that: Jesus was able to do what I would never have been able to do. I would have been far too ashamed to suffer that way—I could barely handle the shame of a kidney stone, I cannot imagine crucifixion! Strange, though, that none of you appeared to be ashamed of me. From Bonnie P sitting with Renee in the waiting room, to Dave B sitting in the ER with us both for a long time, to Beth E. listening with Renee and me as the doctor discussed my anatomy in very anatomically correct terms. To those who came to the house while I lay in a state of disrepair and disaster and decrepitude. No. If I was ashamed of myself, you were not. And funny, Jesus was not either. “So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.” Funny, that.
“We may now see why, if life is a problem, it’s solution is a faith? We cannot solve life by moral thought or effort but by trust, which unites us with the invincible, eternal, moral act of God in Christ. Christianity is not the sacrifice we make, but the sacrifice we trust; not the victory we win, but the victory we inherit. That is the evangelical principle. We do not see the answer; we trust the Answerer, and measure by Him. We do not gain the victory; we are united with the Victor. Faith is not simply contact but communion. We do not simply refer our souls to Christ, we commit them. And to commit our souls to Christ is to confess the Godhead of Christ. It would be idolatry to commit our eternal soul to one who differed from us but in degree. Christ crucified and risen is the final, eternal answer to the riddle of life. One day, when we sit in heavenly places in Christ, we shall see the tangle of life unroll and fall into shape. We shall see death as the key of life. Our own dead could tell us so already. We shall we guilt destroyed; and, with that, death, wrong, darkness, and grief.” (Forsyth, 221)
You see, I learned this past week that the world can in fact go on without me. I knew that intellectually—I’m not so completely full of myself to think otherwise—but practically, in the real world, I think there are times when I am certain that if I don’t go to my office to work, or show up at the cafeteria to monitor, or travel here or travel there, or go to this meeting, or carry my guitar, or a song, or a Bible, or go to a Scout meeting, or a Soccer meeting, or do all the jobs for little league that no one else will do, that the world will simply fall to pieces. But wonder of wonders, I can lay on the couch for four days and the world did not stop, explode, or disintegrate. Life goes on in spite of my best efforts. I felt helpless, quite, and I was perhaps a bit disjointed that the world did not stop because I had to. But it did not. Last week, I had to learn to be helpless. It’s not a fun way to be or an easy lesson to learn. I don’t like being helpless and I like even less being a burden: But isn’t ‘burden’ the best description of us there is? But I had to learn this week to be helpless.
And isn’t that just the point of the cross? Well of course, tell us about the Resurrection, you bloomin idiot! Today is Resurrection Sunday, not Good Friday. Even, more, isn’t that quite the point of resurrection? Isn’t it there, in the twin and singular even of the greatest tragedy the world could perpetuate, that we most learn about helplessness? Isn’t it there we become children all over again? Isn’t it there that our legs are broken beneath us and we unlearn how to walk and forever crawl? But how can that ever mean anything if we do not, in fact, learn helplessness, learn that the world doesn’t need us, learn that it is in Christ and not us that the world holds together, learn that it is Christ who is the Author and Perfector of our Faith, learn that He is the Trailblazer, learn that He is the One who has promised to finish in us what He has started?
Helplessness! Pshaw! I’m not about being helpless. I’m about self-sufficiency. I’m the alpha male! I’m about working it all out without doctors, without pills, without my wife, without you, and sadly, too sometimes, without God. It’s a hopeless confession to make and, once again, I am ashamed that I have to admit it. But it’s true. It pains me to confess it but confess it I must. I’m about as anti-doctor as it gets and yet in this last week I have spent more of my money on doctors and pills for myself than I have in the last five, maybe 10 years of my life. Making up ground I suppose, catching up on lost time I suppose. I scoff at the notion that I need help, that I cannot get done what needs to be done, that I need anyone’s help at all. This past week disabused me of any such notion. No, on the contrary, I am helpless. And if I am that helpless when it comes to myself and work, then how helpless must I be when it comes to my salvation? If ‘God did not spare his own Son’ speaks of the foundation of my salvation, then how helpless must I truly be?
In this Kingdom of God it is necessary that we learn to be helpless. It’s a dirty word, to be sure. And I don’t like saying it. But when you are on the floor crying like a baby from a pain that you know you cannot control and you are calling out to God for mercy, when this happens, you begin to realize that there is more wrong than you alone, you at all, can handle. It is then that you raise your eyes to heaven, dew drenched as you are, like Nebuchadnezzar, and you ask for God to do for you what you know you cannot do yourself. Helplessness helps us to learn that holy fear that apart from God’s grace we are simply doomed. Helplessness is our pass to enter in and partake of the death of Christ. Become like little children he said. Become helpless.
“That God spared not His own Son is a greater shock to the natural conscience than the collapse of civilisation in blood would be. For civilization may deserve to collapse, if only because it crucified the Son of God, and crucifies Him afresh. But if God spared not His own Son, He will spare no historic convulsion needful for His Kingdom. And if the un-spared Son neither complained nor challenged, but praised and hallowed the Father’s Name, we may worship and bow the head.” (Forsyth, 194)
I don’t know what else to say. Maybe there was a reason why I didn’t finish my sermon last week. One of the EMT’s said, “Someone’s trying to tell you to quit preaching. That’s 666 calling, buddy!” I was not comforted and less amused and more terrified. Maybe there was a reason why I had to learn helplessness and humiliation. Maybe there was a reason why I had to let the world get along without my wisdom and brilliance for four who days! Maybe there was a reason why my preparation for Holy Week and Resurrection Sunday involved laying on alternately the couch and the bathroom floor. Maybe there is a reason why I had to let go of so much. Maybe there was a reason why I had to feel such unbearable, and unbelievable pain. Maybe there was a reason why I had to let so many people around me do so much for me, to me, and without me. Maybe there is a reason why my preparation for today involved pain, weeping, incapacity, exhaustion, helplessness, terror, sleeplessness, fear, anxiety, inability, near immobility, shame, humiliation, and thirst.
Let me ask. How did you prepare for today? Or, what did you expect? Did you expect that the cross and the resurrection were somehow mutually exclusive? Do you think you can worship today without all the requisite preparation? Do you think that Resurrection takes place apart from the crucifixion as if somehow today you can have life without first laying it down? As if you can find life by keeping life?
God the Father has funny ways of preparing us. He has ways we probably don’t want to think about and ways that we’d rather not understand or enjoy. But if we talk about Resurrection we must talk about Crucifixion. Because the route to Resurrection Sunday passed through Good Friday. I have to point this out to you because if it was true for Jesus Messiah, it is no less true for those who are his disciples and for those who wish to be his disciples. There is simply no getting around it: “If we have been united with him like this in his death, we will certainly also be united with him in his resurrection.”—Romans 6:5, NIV But one has to wonder: if we avoid crucifixion, can there even be talk of a resurrection. I think not.
So did you wake up today and put on your best clothes and smile and brush your teeth? Did you drink coffee and comb your hair? Did your preparations take a few minutes, an hour, all week, or a lifetime? Maybe, and this is just a guess, maybe the sort of preparations we make or that God sends us through, speak of what we really believe about the nature of this day and speak of what God really wants us to know about this day.
Perhaps you think that this day can be had without that day and so your preparations were scarce, few, or haphazard. Perhaps no special preparations had to be made today because today is like every other day to you. Perhaps it was not resurrection that you were planning for—that is, arising to meet Someone who has tasted death for us all, and yet Destroying the Grave that could not keep its hold on Him? Or, perhaps you’ve had a long, long journey to this day and your preparations have been complicated, disorienting, discomforting and perilous. Perhaps it has been a long difficult week or year or morning for you to get to Worship. Perhaps you fully appreciate the New Life that Jesus gives because you have been right there with Him in His death from the first and have no plans on leaving Him.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Preached: April 8, 2007, Resurrection Sunday
Written: April 6-7, 2007
North Madison Church of Christ