Last week I underwent an emergency appendectomy: who knew that such a little part of the body could cause such big problems?
Ironically, on the morning of my surgery, I wrote a reflection on clergy health drawn from the Old Testament story of General Naaman in II Kings: about how sicknesses of the body can sometimes heal the spirit by stripping away our illusions of command and control. I had no idea at the time that hours later I would be laying on an operating room table. Pastors, be careful what you preach on Sunday, because you just might be putting it to the test on Monday.
The subtraction of my naughty appendix resulted in a few complications that left me feeling pretty low and suffering from a good bit of pain. I spent the majority of a week in the hospital, completely at the mercy of a phalanx of nurses, nurse aids, doctors, and concerned visitors. I was in a place of radical dependence. I was like leprous-ridden Naaman, standing dejectedly beside the muddy Jordan, forced to depend on the advice and even commands of others who knew, better than I, what I needed.
All illusions of command and control vanish when your rear end hangs out of hospital gown and when you live each day in the shadow of an IV pole.
I have visited with literally hundreds of church members in the hospital, but before last week, I had never been hospitalized myself. I imagined that I was yet pretty sympathetic to the plight of my patient-parishioners. Now I know that I wasn’t. The hospital reminded me of how fragile, how tender, we are in such times of illness. I felt like I needed to wear a sign that read, “Be Gentle, I am Ill.” I realized anew how much the gift of prayers and (brief) presence can mean during such times.
My hospital stay also reminded me of how wonderfully unimportant I am: that the world goes on around me, without me, while I lay in the bed and watch baseball. And yet I was also reminded that I am loved, despite my unimportance: that I am important enough for people to think of me, to pray for me, to visit me.
Spiritually speaking, being in a place of such radical dependence, unimportance, and love is not a bad place to be: in fact, maybe it’s the place we always are, although we realize this only occasionally.
At one low moment in my recovery last week I read from the Psalms. Somewhat surprisingly, the Psalm that helped me the most was angry Psalm 35, where the Psalmist calls God’s justice down upon his enemies.
I’ve always been a little embarrassed by these angry Psalms – it just doesn’t seem Sermon-on-the-Mount-ish to want to see your enemies destroyed.
Last week though, I had enemies that I wanted destroyed. I wanted my pain destroyed. I wanted my lethargy destroyed. I wanted my excessive self-pity destroyed. I wanted the voices in my head whispering that I would never be the well annihilated.
And so, amidst my radical depencdence, unimportance, and belovedness, I could pray, and mean it:
“Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me;
Fight against those who fight against me!
Take hold of shield and buckler, and rise up to help me!
Draw the spear and javelin against my pursuers;
say to my soul, ‘I am your salvation.’ . . .
Wake up! Bestir yourself for my defense,
For my cause, my LORD and my God!
Vindicate me, O LORD, my God, according to your righteousness,
and do not let them rejoice over me.
Do not let say to themselves, ‘Aha, we have our heart’s desire.’
Do not let them say, “We have swallowed you up.’”
Sometimes angry prayers can have healing power.
It was the last few un-angry verses of Psalm 35, though, that were most meaningful to me:
“Let those who desire my vindication
shout for joy and be glad,and say evermore,
‘Great is the LORD, who delights in the welfare of his servant.”
Amid the dark whisperings in my mind that God didn’t care too much about what I was going through, about the pain from some little old appendectomy, this is what I repeated to myself:
“Great is the LORD, who delights in the welfare of his servant.”
Great is the Lord, who delights, rejoices, revels in my health and wholeness – not in my illness.
I am on the mend. I lost an appendix, and maybe a temporary illusion or two, but have gained a few other things – not least a Psalm verse I’ll hold onto.
"Great is the Lord, who delights in the welfare of his servants." -Psalm 35:27