The John Wesley Fellowship began in 1977, with Steve Harper and yours truly being two of the first John Wesley Fellows chosen. I have told the story of Ed Robb and AFTE this past Fall on the blog so I will not repeat it. Here are some of the senior fellows attending the meeting. […]
Pain is an odd thing. I once took a philosophy course at Carolina where we noted its oddity, and then discussed it to death until I was disgusted. The main point Professor E. Maynard Adams was making was that pain, like love, is not a tangible visible thing, but it sure is real. He pointed out that when a doctor opens you up looking for the source of your pain, what he finds is not pain, but some mangled body part, or crushed nerve ending, or the like.
And then there is this— why in the world do we talk about being in pain, when in fact the pain is in us, even though we can’t actually nail down what or where it is. Nerve endings aren’t pain, they are just pain sensors, so to speak.
Adams then went on to deal with the case of the Vietnam vet who had his leg blown off. The only thing was, he could still feel pain where the leg used to be. If you’d touch his upper leg, he’d tell you ‘that doesn’t hurt a bit’, but then he’d explain that down below there, it hurt like a son of a gun. Adams went on to wax eloquent about this oddity, saying that we should consider whether ‘his leg was in the pain’, rather than ‘his pain was in the leg’, especially since, he didn’t have that body part any more. Adams took this as an ensign of something profound, namely that there are epistemic structures in reality that are not empirically scrutinizable, to coin a word. Like pain, and like love.
C.S Lewis had quite a lot to say in his book The Problem of Pain, and it has a most memorable line, which he later somewhat recanted of, when he had his own pain (the death of his short-lived marriage and wife— Joy Davidman). The line was— ‘pain is God’s megaphone to get our attention’. In pain, God is shouting at us, whereas in our joyful moments he is merely whispering to us– a still small voice. I’ve thought about that fairly frequently since I read that book back at the dawn of time when the earth was still cooling, by which I mean the late 60s or early 70s. It leads me to ask— have you examined your pain lately?
I remember the day I chose to impress my female Jewish neighbor, Sheryl Robinson, by jumping off her backyard doll house. Now this doll house, was actually the size of a small club house, with a roof about 10 feet up off the ground. And it backed up to a metal fence on the other side of which was a sloped back yard, the Cornelius yard. I would jump off the roof, over the fence, down the slope and land some 15 feet below the fence line. The first try went great. There I was the conquering hero, the object of great Jewish admiration–like Gideon I was giddy after the first attempt. But then of course, I had to try it again. And this time I jumped over the fence, grabbed a pine tree limb, and dropped straight down on that precipitous slope. The slope propelled me forward at a 45 degree angle like a heat seeking missile. I completely shattered my right arm, in 32 little pieces. Compound fracture, and my problems were compounded by the fact that my Mother was going to kill me. I suppose a broken arm is not so bad compared to death, but it sure hurt like Hades.
Now my mother, God bless her socks, was teaching piano at the time of my swan dive. She was minding her own business tiptoeing through Chopin and Mozart and the like with her budding young students, when I burst in the kitchen with an arm dangling all over the place and falling to pieces. My memory is she gave me a Life Magazine to wrap it up in, and my father came and took me to the hospital. Now prior to this moment in life (I was but 8-9 years of age), I had never felt this much pain before. I mean when a bee stung me, or a cat scratched me, or a dog bit me (that happened not infrequently. I was a paperboy and I think I had more tetanus shots in a three year period than the whole rest of the state of North Carolina put together), well those pains went away in a short period time. This pain however was not letting go of me. It meant to teach me a lesson, or at least to knock some sense into me so I would give up trying to impress girls in stupid ways.
Anyhow, we went to High Point Memorial Hospital. Now in those days, there was hardly an emergency room, at least not for something as mundane as a broken arm. So I sat for what seemed like aeons in a lobby holding my arm and moaning, with my father sitting beside him. I like to imagine him consoling me, but frankly he had a right to be ticked off. I had dragged him out of work without advance notice. What would Tomlinson’s Furniture bosses say? Finally, a Brunhilde of a nurse (in my mind’s eye she was 6 feet 4 and 300 pounds) came to get me for X rays. She took me to this overhead machine with a slab beneath it. She told me to extend the mangled mess out under the lighted camera. Then she proceeded to turn my arm roughly to the right and the left and back again, until that is, she had to peel me off the ceiling. I thought I was hurting before she got hold of me, but I had no clue what pain was like until I was woman-handled by that nurse. After this there was more whimpering, moaning, and waiting.
Finally, a doctor showed up. And they wheeled me into surgery and gave me anesthesia and told me to count backwards from 100. When I got to five, I heard a murmuring about needing to do it again. They gave me another dose. By now I was beginning to feel sleepy. The second time I only got to 99 and a half and then I was dead to the world. I remember nothing about the rest of that day, and on into the next day. I was drugged up good.
My first inkling of returning to reality was feeling my mother slapping me in the face and saying— ‘Come on Ben, wake up!’. Seems I had been snoozing for about a good 18 hours, and they were getting worried. And when I woke up, I had this massive plaster cast on my right arm. What was the silver lining in this ordeal? Well, my elementary school teacher would no longer be able to force me to try and learn to write right-handed. In fact I told her I deliberately broke my arm so I could keep writing left handed. It wasn’t true, but it sounded stern and impressive.
So, about my first real encounter with pain. I realize there is one sense in which pain is a blessing, in that it prevents us from doing some stupid things. I mean, if I hadn’t had nerve endings in my fingers I would probably have burned them off touching our gas stove in the kitchen. One of the first sentences my mother taught me before I was five was—– ‘Hot!!!!! It’ll burn you now.’ It wasn’t a poetic line, but it had a ring and urgency to it. Pain of course is also a reminder that we are not bullet-proof, we are mere dust, merely mortal. Vulnerable more than venerable. There is a poem by C.S. Lewis that is my favorite of those he wrote. Phil Keaggy wrote a beautiful tune to go with these words. Here are Lewis’ words:
As the Ruin Falls by C. S. Lewis
All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.
Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love –a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek–
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.
Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.
For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.
It’s the last two lines that are most pertinent in this discussion. Does God give us pains? Some folk think not, but those are the folks who seem to have mistaken ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul’ for the content of the Bible. I do not fully understand the mystery of suffering, but this I know– Without pain, there would be a lot of things I would never have learned about myself, about life, about love, about loss.
And I take some comfort from the fact that the Bible repeatedly tells me that God suffers as well. I find this a paradox, until I remember God is a parent who loves his wayward children. But one of the things I have learned from my various experiences of pain, is that it is always a constant reminder I am merely mortal. I am not Superman, much less Jesus. And as a mortal who experiences pain, I have a constant reminder that I need God, I need his help, I need the Great Physician, I need his healing. I am not the master of the universe, not even of my own fate. Pain reminds me— don’t go there. Don’t over-estimate yourself. It teaches me to live within my limits. I am no sadist. I take no pleasure in pain, neither afflicting it nor experiencing it. In fact, I avoid it like the plague. But if I do not learn its lessons, I shall never be a wise man, a good man, a godly man.
Sometimes people mistake Christianity for Stoicism, as if we were a bunch of people grinning and bearing the pain and while gritting our teeth boldly proclaiming ‘It doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t hurt.’ Real Christianity never denies the reality of pain, or suffering, or evil or death. It claims that however real and profound these things are, there is something greater– ‘no pit is so deep, that God and his love are not deeper still’ said my friend Corrie Ten Boom. She ought to know— she was in Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in WWII and watched her sister be beaten to death. And yet she still could say what I just quoted. Amen to that word Corrie. Those in the blogosphere who are puzzled by this discussion would do well to read that memorable poem by a WWI chaplain named Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy entitled ‘The Sorrow of God’.
I guess it was the day I learned the deep reality of pain that I began to stop being a pain in the neck to those who loved me. And that was a great day indeed.