Pain, Recovery, and Life on the Other Side
There was a time — back in high school when I had nothing better to do with my summer than to hit the local course for under $10 — when I was a respectable golfer. My biggest strength was driving, helped significantly by a special driver and golf balls designed to correct my disgusting slice. I remember many times on par-4 or -5 holes when my first shot would land further than my friends’ second. In contrast, even in my heyday (if you could even call it that) I was absolutely terrible with my irons. My cheap Walmart clubs weren’t customized for my height, meaning many of my swings would barely graze the top of the ball and send “worm burners” across the fairway. Other times I focused too heavily on bending my knees and getting under the ball, resulting in taking out a big ‘ol divot … right next to the ball I had been attempting to hit.
Even after all the practice over years, I never really figured out how to fix those divots.
If you haven’t been following my journey and don’t care for all of the details that I shared in a previous post, let me get you up to date with my abbreviated story.
Last month, I was diagnosed with melanoma, an aggressive skin cancer that can prove deadly if not caught and removed quickly. Though staging and long-term prognosis were quite positive, I needed a more intensive surgery than most required for melanoma due to its placement on my lower leg. I finally had my surgery last Monday, a procedure that excised a large chunk of muscle-deep skin from my lower left leg and placed a skin graft over it. I have since learned that the surgery successfully removed all of the remaining cancer cells (woo-hoo!), though I’ll be elevating foot for 2–4 weeks to ensure the skin graft taskin and have follow-up appointment to check the rest of my body (less of a woo-hoo).
During surgery, the surgeon who performed my skin graft drew an outline on my soft cast of the size and shape of the excision. As expected, the area is of decent size and partially covers my Achilles tendon. Since it’s fully enclosed by the skin graft, I was told by multiple people that I would be more bothered by the donor site on my thigh than by this spot.
Boy were they wrong.
From the first night after surgery I could tell that my experience was going to be different than most. As each dose of medication wore off, my leg was hit with shooting pain resonating from my heel all the way to the back of my knee. My first dressing change was too painful for me to look at the excision location, but finally on Friday at my next wound care visit I got a look at the damage. The spot is a little larger than I had expected, much deeper than I expected, and — as I had actually grown to expect due to the pain — overlapping my Achilles.
Upon seeing it, a strange thought crossed my mind. Jeremy, meet your divot.
The day after my surgery, as the heavy meds subsided and the real pain began to set in, I was exchanging texts with a friend who spent the last year battling breast cancer and its fallout. The overall experience, she said, is “one way to learn about yourself.” I have already learned a lot about myself, not the least of which is my response to emotional pain is quite different than physical pain. As I moved beyond the surgery and as the cancer left my body, the transition between the two was swift. I had for weeks wrestled and come to terms with the former but was only now realizing the extent of the latter.
Over and over again I have been reminded that this physical pain is all part of the journey. Remember you’re never going to be without pain, reminded Chelsey (my wife) as I considered stronger pain meds. Your pain is there until it’s gone, joked my long-time coach father-in-law. This is all part of the healing process, shared my physical therapist during my first wound care appointment. Their message was clear: physical pain and it’s results are to be expected and accepted.
But should it be expected and accepted? Must healing involve physical pain?
I am a pastor and an anabaptist to boot, so my default lens through which I filter my experiences and questions such as these is the life of Jesus as told four different times in the New Testament. To be clear, I do not suggest treating the Bible as an answer book that can quickly solve all of our problems or adequately answer every questions. This was never the intention of the biblical writers, and it shouldn’t be our expectation now. I am instead implying that the Bible’s stories can shape our understanding of God, ourselves, and our world, thus informing the ways in which we might respond to each.
So looking to Jesus, I asked this question: How did the one who perfectly represents God, the one in whom we place our faith, and the one whose life we are challenged to model handle physical pain and its lasting effects?
The most immediate answer is that Jesus often alleviated the pain experienced by others. He healed people left and right from all sorts of illnesses. He made lame people walk and blind people see. On a couple of occasions, he even raised people from the dead.
Of importance to this discussion, however, is a detail that is often overlooked: even those whom Jesus healed and raised from the dead eventually succumbed to death. The lepers, the children, even his good friend Lazarus over whom he wept and braved a putrid grave (Jn 11.1–44) — all of them felt the pain of death. Jesus didn’t completely remove the physical pain from them, nor remove them from the world that would impose that physical pain. This is interesting, perhaps even important.
What about his own physical pain and its after effects? How did Jesus handle those?
Surprisingly, the Gospel accounts rarely show Jesus getting himself out of a situation that would cause him physical pain. There is a story in which an angry crowd forces Jesus to the edge of a cliff with plans to throw him over it, when suddenly he simply walks through the crowd unscathed (Lk 4.29–30). This, however, appears to be an exception that proves the rule. Given a final chance to call out his friend who will betray him and hand his body over to the authorities, Jesus allows Judas to “do it quickly” (Jn 13.27). While awaiting a mob and praying that the Father would give him a way out of having to die, Jesus sets aside his own will in order to embrace what lay before him (Mk 14.36). Minutes later, afforded the opportunity to join his friend Peter in bearing arms and fighting back against those who are going to arrest and beat and kill him, Jesus charges his friend to put the weapon down and heals an injured enemy (Lk 22.49–53). And even as he hangs from a cross — a state-sanctioned torture device — and mocked by those licensed to kill him, Jesus did not call down reinforcements to pull him down (Mt 27.39–44). No, according to all of the four Gospel stories, Jesus was actually, physically in pain and actually, physically died.
Now, those who know these stories may be quick to jump to the days and chapters that follow. The story doesn’t end with his death on Friday but continues with his coming to life again on Easter Sunday. In effect, Jesus and his way of life were vindicated when he was raised from the dead.
This is certainly what I — and perhaps many of you — have been raised to believe and emphasize. But I wonder if familiarity with the stories is a liability, causing us to overlook or brush under the rug some important details.
From the earliest days, followers of Jesus have believed that Jesus and his post-resurrection body offer us a glimpse of something that we haven’t seen before but we will see again. Unlike his friend Lazarus who was resuscitated, Christians insist that Jesus has been resurrected. In first century Judaism, those who believed in resurrection theology associated it with eschatology (a fancy word for “end times”). At the eschaton, it was believed that God’s people would be awakened into some sort of new, eternal, physical existence. Jesus adopted and employed Jewish political language to address this existence, talking about the “kingdom of God”/“kingdom of heaven” that was dually at hand in him but yet to come in fullness. By insisting that Jesus has been resurrected, Christians have for two thousand years suggested that Jesus and his body are a “first fruit” or a “foretaste” of this kingdom — that is, a present sign of things to come. When we look at Jesus post-resurrection, we get a glimpse of what our world and specifically our own bodies will look like.
Without looking back to the closing chapters of each of the four Gospel accounts, I wonder how people would describe both Jesus’ body after resurrection and what we can expect from our bodies at the end of time. Ideally, they should be somewhat similar, right? It seems, however, that for many who grew up in traditions such as mine the emphasis tends to be on other-worldly if not entirely spiritual descriptions. Glowing light and wings and clouds and angels likely play a prominent role. But are these the ways in which the Bible characterize bodies?
Certainly there were things about Jesus post-Easter that might be categorized as other-worldly. Normal bodies can’t walk through walls (Jn 20.19) or disappear (Lk 24.31) or quickly go from one place to another (Mt 28.9; Lk 24.36) or disguise themselves in plain view (Lk 24.13–27).
But important to our understanding of resurrection — and to the point of this post — is the physicality of it all. Jesus didn’t burst out of the grave thousands of feet tall and all aglow. (Some of you may laugh, but this was an actual story that early Christians found themselves needing to reject.) Instead, the canonical Gospels go to great lengths to ensure we see the physicality of his resurrection body. Jesus was hungry and he ate to satisfy that hunger (Lk 24.41–42). But he also had scars (divots?) to show off as evidence (Jn 20.20, 24–29).
“Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. -Luke 24.39–40
So to summarize: Jesus alleviated physical pain from others but did not completely remove it, he personally endured physical pain, and his resurrection body embraced the signs of his physical pain. Perhaps this points us to something new and helpful. Perhaps it wasn’t simply Jesus’ way of life that was being vindicated, but also his way of death — pain and scars and all.
Before I (attempt to) land this plane, I want to be clear what I am not saying. I am not implying we should freely invite or embrace pain when it besets us or is inflicted upon us. That’s sadistic. At best.
What I am suggesting is that maybe physical pain is to be expected and accepted. Maybe phsysical pain and its products are a necessary part of being healed.
Maybe there is even something holy about our divots.
Divots give the hope of new things to come with the marks of what came before. Does that make them inferior since they are not without blemish? I am not so sure. According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus’ resurrection body — remember, a taste of what we can expect — was in some major ways different than it had been but in other ways also very much the same. It held the promise of the “new creation” world yet to come while bearing the scars of the “old creation” world as it is.
So it seems that the physical pain that has shaped us is not only part of the healing process but it is a part of us when we are healed.
Some may find this gruesome, but as someone whose suffering is helping me learn about myself and who is looking at the reality of a future with a divot, I find this quite beautiful.
Through this, I’m coming to a better understanding of what Paul may have meant in the oft-quoted (i.e., over-quoted) comfort passage from his letter to the church in Rome, chapter eight verse twenty-eight. The New International Version on which I was raised and from which I often preach reads:
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. -Romans 8.28
The common inference from this rendering of the verse suggests that God is clearly at work “in all things,” including orchestrating our pain for a not yet foreseeable good. In other words, “God causes divots for good.”
A translation that I believe to be a more faithful articulation of the original language, however, goes like this:
“And we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” -Romans 8.28
The NET, ESV, and NRSV, even the King James Version render it nearly identically. See how just a couple words can change everything? Instead of God causing divots, God is wanting to work to bring good out of divots that befall us.
“Fixing our divots” means neither causing them nor removing them, but rather authoring the story that gives our divots lasting meaning.
At my first wound care appointment following my surgery, I took a photograph of my divot. (Don’t worry I won’t post the photo here, though I’d be happy to show it to anyone who asks.) My wife, Chelsey, thought it was weird. Others reading this might think it is gruesome. But I don’t give a damn; I wanted a photo. I wanted a picture of my new reality — not over which I could obsess or lament but into which I could settle.
It has only been a month since my diagnosis and a little over a week since my surgery. My skin graft and its donor site are still healing. I just had my first full body exam to look for other suspicious spots (they found two). All that is to say, it’s far too early to know how I’m going to use that picture that I took — not mention how this whole thing is going to end. Right now my divot’s story is that of making people feel uncomfortable, primarily those who dare to ask me, “How did you break your ankle?” I’m sure in the years to come my scar will garner similar questions and similar reactions when I give them the unexpected answer. Wherever this road takes me, this divot is already shaping me and shaping a story to tell, perhaps for all eternity. I plan to make it compelling.
So what stories do your divots tell? You know you have them and there are no mulligans in life. Make the divots count.