Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Stone Chapel, Proctor Academy, Andover, NH
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Sermon for December 10, 2006

Given by George Peterson

Kearsarge Unitarian Universalist Fellowship

 

MY THEOLOGY OF PAIN  

Last month, as some of you know, I ďvacationedĒ for four or five days up at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Hospital.  I was experiencing some unrelenting abdominal pain on my right side, and my doctor here, Lou Kowalski, thought it best that I go to the emergency room.  12 hours later I was being pushed into my own private suite on the med-surg floor.

Upon my eventual return home, I received this very nice card from Liz and Mike Meller, assuring me that my doctor will be able to take good care of me because heís a specialist . . . and Iím the specialist person in the whole world!  They added the following note Iíd like to read you:  ďI hear you have a lot of pain.  I assume this happens frequently and I would love to hear how you confront it.  I hope that will be a sermon in the future.  So much is written on pain by those who havenít really experienced it often.Ē

Well, the docs never did find out what was exactly going on -- but thatís nothing new for us.  Itís a frustrating thing -- not knowing the cause of illness or pain -- but itís something that I live with almost every day.  Let me explain.

Back in 1984, I began to experience bouts of pancreatitis.  I didnít drink alcohol -- not because I had anything against it, necessarily, but because I just didnít have all that much of a taste for it.  I also wasnít a drug user, nor had I been exposed, as far as I knew, to any hazardous waste or scorpion bites, all possible causes for pancreatitis.

After repeated hospitalizations over the course of six months or so, the doctors finally determined that I had a blockage in my pancreas, most likely due to a malignancy.  They recommended immediate major surgery, removed my gallbladder, spleen and the tail of my pancreas, and determined that the blockage was due to severe fibrosis of unknown origin, rather than to a malignant tumor.

I began to improve a bit over time, but then slowly began to suffer from more bouts of pancreatitis over the next year.  This time, there was only one solution because my liver studies were beginning to come back highly abnormal -- go back in, finish the job and remove all of my pancreas, as well as my duodenum and refashion a new liver duct.  And so, a year later, I was having my second 14-hour surgery.

For those who ever wondered, the answer is ďYes, you can live without a pancreas.Ē  Not really well, but you can do it, and Iím living testimony to that.  I became an instant severe diabetic, I lost the ability to produce a number of key digestive hormones, and at age 35, I literally had my feet swept out from underneath me in terms of my general health from an extremely rare, auto-immune disease.  Those who have done some research in the matter report only a handful of similar cases worldwide.

To make matters worse, in addition to a string of unusual afflictions over the years due to the auto-immune disorder, I was diagnosed a year ago with a herniated thoracic disc.  A neurosurgeon worth his salt will perform hundreds of cervical and lumbar surgeries in a given year, while he may do only one or two thoracic surgeries.  So much for the lightening bolt of rare afflictions not hitting the same body twice!  I have been told by several different experts at several different centers, including both Hitchcock and the Lahey Clinic, that I am not a candidate for surgery.

Thereís not a single day that doesnít go by that I donít experience pain in some form or fashion.  Sometimes itís more like a general malaise, while at other times itís like a knife going into me.

I cope, because I have no choice, or because it beats the alternative.  I also take a significant amount of pain-killers in the form of methadone every day.  Itís the same stuff they give heroin addicts.  Itís greatest assets are two things:  it works, and it works without giving me a high, although Linda will swear that I have slowed down considerably in the past year.  I have tried to reduce my dose of methadone only to find that the pain becomes unbearable.

I also cope with the help -- and Iím not just speaking of the physical help, but the emotional support and presence -- of my wife, Linda.  And lastly, I cope with the help of my faith -- not in a pious or orthodox sense, but in the quiet belief that no matter what, God is there to comfort me.  Taken all together, these components all comprise my theology of illness.

I believe that the church and organized religion have done more to hurt, demoralize, diminish, belittle, confuse and confound those who are ill and their caretakers.  When we say we are praying for sick people, what exactly are we praying for?  When we ask God to cure our grandchild of cancer or our spouse of Lou Gehrigís Disease, are we really asking God to personally intervene and perform a miracle of physical healing?  In that context, what does it mean if the person gets well?  In that context, what does it mean if the person gets sicker or dies?

Is there something about my prayer which is deficient?  Is there something about me or the sick person which is deficient?  If God could intervene, but he or she didnít for whatever reason, what does that say about the nature of God?

Specifically, the Hebrews believed that illness was caused by three types of sin -- sin in the individual, which God had to punish; the sin of a personís parents and seduction by Satan.  The Bible gives us lots of examples and stories about people who are ill.  Most of the time, they are ill because they are being punished, and most of the time itís because they have inadequate or faulty or a total lack of . . . faith.  More often than not, even mentally ill people are described as filled with demons, so exorcise the demons and you heal the person.

In many of the New Testament stories involving illness, Jesus comes to the aid of a sick person and cures him or her.  More often than not, the moral of the story is that faith will heal illness.  Of course, those who donít get well or those who die do so because they are being punished.  There are exceptions to these truths, but the fact of the matter is that faith equals health.

Now, two thousand years ago, before we knew about viruses and bacteria, before we knew how these organisms and microbes propagated and spread, before medicine had made any real advance, this is how people tended to think about sickness.   There was a definite cause and effect relationship between sickness and faith, or a lack of it.

Today, we know vastly more about sickness and its causes, yet we still hold on to some of the same misguided myths about healing and health and wellness.  My God isnít up there giving people illness or pain.  My God punishes no one.  My God suffers with me, cries with me, feels my pain, shakes his fist and gets frustrated and angry, just like I do.  My God doesnít give people cancer so he can test them or somehow forge them.

Back twenty years ago, when I had my pancreatectomy, I had some unforeseen complications and was not expected to live.  At first, I was scared, and I tried to make all the deals with God that we all try to make in such times.

You know, things like, ďO God, make me well, and Iíll never miss a Sunday going to churchĒ or ďO God, take away the pain, and Iíll give up cigarette smoking and put more in the Sunday plate.Ē

This is perhaps the most universal human reaction or response to crisis or to great illness or pain, but itís also terribly naive and misguided.  I now know that My God does not dispense suffering.  At the same time, I also now believe that My God does not choose to heal some and not heal others.   If I honestly believed that God intervened in my life and directly healed me, then I would have to believe that God chooses not to heal other people, and I donít accept that.

Back 20 years ago, I didnít start to get better until I took the focus off of the ďmeĒ and began praying for other people.  I also began to ask God not for a miracle of healing, per se, but rather for a miracle of gentle comfort and presence.

The best way for me to explain this is to refer to one particular prayer out of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer which became my mantra.  Let me read it to you:

This is another day, O Lord.  I know not what it will bring forth, but make me ready, Lord, for whatever it may be.  If I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.  If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.  If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.  And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.  Make these words more than words, and give me the Spirit of Jesus.  Amen.

Now, notice what this prayer does, and doesnít, ask for.  It doesnít ask for God to heal my physical infirmity or pain.  Rather, it asks God to grant me courage and patience, a sense of quiet, and instill in me a gallant demeanor.  It asks for a general spirit.

I love that prayer:  ďIf I am to stand up, help me to stand bravely.  If I am to sit still, help me to sit quietly.  If I am to lie low, help me to do it patiently.  And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly.Ē  I also love the word, gallantly.

I looked the word ďgallantĒ up in the dictionary, and I found all the following adjectives:  brave, audacious, aweless, bold, bold hearted, brave hearted, chin-up, courageous, dauntless, fearless, game, greathearted, heroic, intrepid, lionhearted, plucky, spunky, stalwart, stout, stouthearted, unafraid, unblenched, unblenching, undauntable, courtly, gracious, stately, dignified and lofty.

A nice word, isnít it, the word gallant?  In any event, this one prayer sums up like no other my personal theology of illness and Godís presence in our lives.  I have made copies of it and invite you to help yourself to one or several if youíd like.

My wife, Linda, is someone who lives with constant pain caused by a spinal cord injury some eight years ago.  She has found that practicing yoga, as well as meditation and journaling all help to take her mind off the pain and bring some emotional balance to her life.

Now, this may sound trite, but another treatment for illness and pain is to engage in the art of friendship.  Taking the focus off of yourself and immersing yourself in the world of another human being is an excellent form of therapy.

In one respect, itís a way of saying, ďI know Iíve got problems, but these problems pale, even just a bit, when I think about the pain that someone else feels.Ē  There is also something sacred and blessed about friendship.  Another way to look at it is to say that friendship is a just another form of prayer without any piety or church stuff.

I donít profess to have all the answers about pain.  At the same time, however, I do speak from some measure of experience and authority about it.  I also know that life is so darn short, so precious, that itís a shame to let it needlessly slip by or pass without trying to place some form of meaning into it.

Iím not naive enough to say that we can simply will away our pain .  But we can mitigate or lessen it by a belief that there is something which transcends it and us.  Itís like asking, ďWhy do bad things happen to good people?Ē  The answer is, as Job found out, because they do.  Period!

Bad things happen, and all we can do is cope in whatever way helps us get by without hurting one another.  God gives what He has, not what He has not.  He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not.  To be God, to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response, to be miserable -- these are our only three alternatives, according to C.S. Lewis.  And, that ladies and gentlemen, is my theology of pain!

Let us pray:  Dear Creator, Sustainer, Life Force, Spirit of Love, we pray for those who today are in pain or are seriously ill.  We know that there are many who suffer from chronic disease and pain and who are depressed, lonely, afraid and angry.  Of course we desire a healing for them to take place.  But in wishing so, we acknowledge that we have a personal role and responsibility to help befriend, comfort, sustain and nurture them.  Simply praying for someoneís good health is not enough, and we fool ourselves if we think so.

And so today, as we prepare to leave these four walls and re-enter the world where bad things simply happen, we pray to become better friends and caretakers.  We pray for greater patience and understanding.  We pray, in the words of St. Francis, to be made instruments of peace and to sow hope where there is despair, light where there is darkness, joy where there is sadness.

Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love.  For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we ourselves are pardoned and it is in healing others that we ourselves are healed.  Amen.

 

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