Monday, April 20, 2009

Knowing the Wounds

The Gospel for the 2nd Sunday of Easter is John 20:19-31

Just before Holy Week, I came across a remarkable obituary. Let me read from it.

“By the time the theologian and sociologist Nancy Eiesland was 13 years old, she had had 11 operations for the congenital bone defect in her hips and realized pain was her lot in life. So why did she say she hoped that when she went to heaven she would still be disabled?

“The reason, which seems clears enough to many disabled people, was that her identity and character were formed by the mental, physical and societal challenges of her disability. She felt that without her disability, she would ‘be absolutely unknown to myself and perhaps to God.’”

“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe,” said the apostle Thomas.

Is there a relationship between Nancy Eiesland’s hope to bring her disability right through the pearly gates and Thomas’s resistance to hope without the proof of the wounds?

Eiesland’s faith is built of the truth to which St. Paul testifies in his Letter to the Romans: “Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Romans 5:1-5)

Nancy Eiesland died on March 10th at the age of 44. I’ve put her obituary in the display cabinet today. It’s worth stopping there to see the power of the smile on her face and the “Here I am, world” set of her hands on those damaged hips to dispel any gloom or fatalism that the world may attach to Paul’s insistence that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character.

I’m picturing a similar released courage and confident joy on the faces of the other disciples as Thomas struggles with what to believe about Jesus. As he takes his place among those beaming faces, I give Thomas credit for his honesty. I think of something Martin Smith once said, “Sometimes… we discover that certain doubts are like angels, agents of the Spirit of truth who is struggling to strip away from us superstitious and immature beliefs… The divine Christ of many people’s conventional faith is a fiction, a demigod, not the man who is the Word made flesh.”

And I imagine that in his struggle Thomas is fighting the good fight, staying true to the incarnation, the full humanity of Jesus, insisting that his hope be true to the character of Jesus, not just the character he knew up through that last meal together on Maundy Thursday, but true also to the character of Jesus as he completed the great gift of his life on Good Friday, and pentetrated the realm of the dead. He must see for himself how his risen master can be recognized in his wounds, how all that has happened to Jesus actually fits the character of the Word made flesh, how all that is mortal has been swallowed up by life, opening eternal life to all who will trust him. Thomas must see the Christ through his wounds.

In one of her four books, “The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability”, Nancy Eiesland points to the moment our Gospel presents today. She notices about the wounds that they are not cured or made whole. Our Lord’s injury is part of him, neither a divine punishment nor an opportunity for fixing. She argues that God remains a God the disabled can identify with.

How important is that? In a world populated mostly by able-bodied people who see the disabled as a minority, Eiesland’s insights may not drive the bus we’re on. But in truth, aren’t we all temporarily able-bodied? Doesn’t each of us need a world-view, a self-understanding, and especially a trust in God that will carry us when we aren’t so much the carriers anymore? That will open us to being carried? That will give us access to deeper dimensions of grace as we learn how to carry ourselves after the body-blow of a major illness, how to care for the spouse or child or parent who is no longer able-bodied?

Speaking of world-view, Wednesday will be Earth Day. In countless ways, we are carried by the earth. No wonder we call her Mother. The umbilical cord may be cut at our birth, but every day that we live we are inspired by air, purified by water, guided by light, rebuilt by nutrients, renewed by rhythms not of our own making. We are carried by this good Earth with all its ecological wounds.

And we are called now—as we have been always, but now we know we are called—to know the Earth through its wounds. As Eiesland says about the wounds of Christ, we can say about the injuries of Earth that they aren’t going to go away. These impairments require us now to honor them by letting them teach us, guide us to the truth that even the earth itself is only temporarily able-bodied, and not to be taken for granted. The moment now is for being mindful of all that takes care of us, noticing when and how our choices do and don’t take care of all that carries us, choosing to learn how to live simply and reverently. And, in an impaired state, discover and tap the deep grace that renewed the confident joy and akimbo readiness of Nancy Eiesland, a power to be drawn not from a remotely almighty God, but from the One whose wounds are known.

(Nancy Eiesland’s obituary appeared in the March 22, 2009 issue of The New York Times. Martin Smith’s comments come from his book “A Season for the Spirit”, Cowley Publications, 1991, chapter 31, page 124.)