Getting Through What You’re Going Through: When Our Bodies Fail Us
Bible Text: Genesis 1:1-3, Psalm 90:3-6, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 | Preacher: Rev. Russell Brown | Series: Getting Through What You’re Going Through
I can tell you when it happened for me.
I can’t tell you EXACTLY, but I can come pretty close. It was sometime near the middle of the year in 1996.
It was right around the time when word of my problems began to circulate around the Methodist Church I was attending at the time.
It was the time when the people I sang in the choir with… the people who attended the Adult Sunday School class I taught… the people who served on the Missions Committee that I chaired began finding out about my pending divorce after 23 years of marriage. And just a couple of months prior to that they had heard about my youngest son’s run-in with the law for marijuana possession.
And of course, once the people I served with found out, it was not long after that the rest of the congregation began finding out, too.
And once the rest of the congregation found out about my problems, I began to notice people slowly but surely beginning to back away from me. It started with little things; averted eyes… greetings that were a little less cheerful than before… quick glances down at their watches (as if to say, “WOW! Look at the time! Better get going!”).
You know… small things.
But then it became phone calls not returned, people suddenly “busy” and “unavailable” when asked to join me on a project or for a social outing. People who excused themselves saying, “Hey… it’s nothing personal.”
Very soon the message was completely clear: I had become an outcast… a persona non grata in the church I had been an active member of for 18 years.
And I will be honest with you: it really hurt.
That was the time when I learned firsthand the lesson that so many others have learned over the years: that the church is NOT a safe place to be if you are a person with problems. Or maybe a better way to say it is: the church is not safe place to let your problems be KNOWN. Because – can I be REAL with you here for a second? – we’ve ALL got problems. AMEN? It’s just that some of us do a much better job of keeping them hidden and out of sight than others.
That realization is the reason we are doing this particular sermon series; we are doing this because it is TRAGIC to come to the conclusion that the church is not a safe place for people with problems.
In fact, I believe that conclusion is exactly OPPOSITE of what Jesus intended his church to BE! Jesus… the one who touched lepers… the one who ate with prostitutes… the one who made a tax collector one of his disciples… never intended his church to be a HIDEAWAY for PERFECT PEOPLE!
In fact, we have it on good, solid scriptural authority that Jesus intended his church to be more of a HOSPITAL for sinners!
Think of it this way: what would you think of the receptionist at an emergency room who looked up from her desk and said to the distraught person standing in front of them, “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to come back another time when you’re not bleeding quite so badly.”
It is not ONLY Jesus’ own personal example we have to draw this conclusion from; we also have these words from the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians:“Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2, NRSV).
“Bearing a burden,” first of all means understanding that other people HAVE burdens! It also seems to tell us we should do something more active than standing off to the side mournfully and saying, “Look at that poor soul with that heavy burden. Isn’t it sad?”
“Bearing” means bearing. Or carrying, if you prefer. It doesn’t mean clucking our tongues and feeling sorry for the people with burdens.
So we are going to start this series today by talking about the burden of ILLNESS… or those times in life when our bodies fail us. Later we will also talk about things like broken relationships, financial struggles, grief, and mental illness. I am sure there are more we could address, but that is probably enough for right now.
So let’s talk about illness. Personally, I hate it. And I don’t handle it well. Just ask Joan. Even the smallest cold or headache can send me whining to her like a little baby looking for his mother. And let’s just not even get started on the subject of surgery, shall we?
When it happens to me, any kind of breakdown of the optimum functioning of my body seems somehow UNJUST… like something that is not supposed to happen. A cough. A fever. A sore shoulder. An upset stomach. A sprained ankle… it doesn’t matter.
I don’t want to make this too universal and imply that the same thing is true about YOU, but I think somewhere deep down inside I have the belief that I am supposed to be INVINCIBLE… that NOTHING is ever supposed to go wrong with any of the organs or systems that make up my body. That might be why it is such a shock when something DOES go wrong.
But when you really stop and think about it, that is such a silly and unrealistic notion, isn’t it? I mean, LOOK at us! As a species we are soft and vulnerable. We don’t have shells or spikes to protect us. You and I walk around every day surrounded by things that can hurt us… whether it is in these dangerous cars we drive or the weather or the billions of germs and dust particles that fly through the air… it is maybe even MORE of a miracle that we don’t get injured or sick more often!
So why is this? Who decided that we should be so MORTAL and VULNERABLE and PRONE TO ILLNESS AND INJURY?
For the answer, let’s go back to the very beginning… to the very first book of the Bible, to the story of our creation by a good and loving God. Let me draw your attention is to the second chapter of the book of Genesis.
As you might recall, the big trouble that Adam and Eve got themselves into came from eating the fruit from the forbidden tree. Does anyone remember what the name of that tree was? It was “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.” You may not remember that there was a SECOND TREE right beside it that Adam and Eve did NOT eat. Let’s go back and read that passage as a refresher: “Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:9, NRSV).
The second tree was the tree of life. So then, after the event of the Original Sin, God became concerned that humans – with their newfound Knowledge of Good and Evil – might reach out and eat from the Tree of Life and live FOREVER! So God decided to fix that. And here is what God did: “Then the Lord God said, ’See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever’— therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken.” (Genesis 3:22-23, NRSV).
After that incident, a little further on in Genesis we see people like Methuselah living for 969 years and his son Lamech living for 777 and his son Noah not even having children until he was 500 years old, so God said, “That’s it! 120 years! That’s the limit for human life. No exceptions!”
And so there are limits. Our bodies – by Divine Design – fail us. They break down, become ill and diseased and then finally stop functioning altogether. Why? Because that’s the way God said it would be!
Some of those breakdowns of our bodies are just plain annoying. Some are downright unpleasant. Others are deadly and have the power to scare the beejeebers out of us. And even though there have been great advances recently in understanding it and treating it, one of the most frightening words we can ever hear come out of a doctor’s mouth today is the word CANCER. The word itself comes from the Latin word for crab and originally meant “a creeping ulcer.”
Many of you here in this room today have had personal experiences with cancer… either yourself or a loved one. And so because of your experience, you know the basics: you know that the word CANCER describes a wide range of abnormal growths of cells in the body. You know there are two major types, there is: CARCINOMA which refers to a new growth or malignant tumor occurring on the skin or mucous membranes such as lungs, stomach lining and intestines.
The second major type is: SARCOMA which arises in connective tissue like muscle or bones, but which also may occur in organs such as bladder, kidney, liver, lungs, pancreas, and spleen.
Cancer is an invasive disease and can travel from one point of the body to another by a process called metastasis. Here is one VERY over-simplified picture of the difference between normal cells and cancer cells. You might not be able to read what it says, but it says that with normal cells, the cell growth eventually STOPS. The cells with damaged DNA (which we call “cancer”) do not stop growing and multiplying.
We are still very much in the dark about the causes of cancer. We know sometimes it is a genetic cause… something that is just out of kilter in one of the gene sequences in our DNA. We know there is sometimes an environmental cause… certain toxins or chemicals in the air or water that cause cells to start mutating. And we know that cancer is occasionally related to lifestyle choices we make… such as poor eating habits or smoking or substance use.
But for all the things we DON’T know about cancer, here is one thing we DO know with 100% certainty: We know IT IS NOT CONTAGIOUS! That is to say you cannot CATCH cancer from someone who has it.
And yet, despite this knowledge, many of us still act as if CANCER is the most contagious possible disease in the world.
Over the years I have counseled with people who have received a cancer diagnosis. In the course of our conversations I have heard them say the same thing over and over again. They tell me that all of a sudden – when they hear the news of that person’s cancer diagnosis – people start backing away from them. Friends… family… fellow church members… it doesn’t matter… all begin acting as if being close to that person might infect them with the cancer germ.
Stop and consider for a moment how this might feel if it happened to you; you have just received some of the most devastating news of your whole life. You are CRUSHED. You are nervous… frightened… angry… confused. More than anything else you want someone to wrap their arms around you and stroke your hair and say, “I know. It really stinks. But it’s going to be OK.” But instead of that, you look around and see people backing away and even running in the opposite direction… afraid to even be in the same room with you.
The first time I heard someone tell me this, I dismissed it. I thought, “No. That can’t be right. Why would anyone react THAT way?” But then I heard it over and over and realized it was REAL.
Here is MY theory on why we tend to avoid people when their bodies are failing them: it’s because they remind us that one day OUR bodies will fail US, too! Hanging around with someone who has cancer, or who has had a stroke, or some other serious illness brings us face-to-face with our own mortality. And we HATE that!
To do a little research, I spent some time earlier this week talking to Judy Tillisch on the phone about her cancer experience. She is taking her daughter to the airport this morning, otherwise she would be here with us. As you might imagine, she had some thoughtful reflections on what the experience was like.
First, she said that NO ONE is ever ready to hear this diagnosis. So it ALWAYS hits like a ton of bricks. She said she realized that when she heard her diagnosis, it was the first time she had ever thought about her mortality in a serious way. And so, she said, there is a GRIEVING that goes along with it. You are grieving for the death of “life as you knew it.” Because you know life will be forever different from this moment on.
When I asked her what role faith played in her illness and treatment, she had a LOT to say. She told me this caused her to re-examine the faith she thought she had. Certain ideas about God had to go away and other, new ones had to come in. She said she found it VERY helpful one day during a very low period when Pastor Dallas told her that God is perfectly OK with her being angry with God.
Judy found out that there were AMAZING resources available at the time when she needed them most. There is the Sharing Bucket here in Mound City that came through with gas, rides to Kansas City, food, and other timely and necessary helps. I am sure I am the only one who had not heard of it before, but it sounds like a WONDERFUL community resource.
Most of all, though, she said she does not know how she could have coped without the support and prayers from all of you… but especially from the ladies of the Upper Room Bible Study. They did NOT run away from her. They were a source of comfort and strength and support at every step of the journey and she thanks you from the bottom of her heart.
Friends, the hard truth about life is that we ARE mortal. Our bodies are amazing miracles of design, but they wear out and break down. That’s not somebody’s idea of a cruel hoax: that is the way God DESIGNED it to be.
But instead of using our mortality as a reason to become angry and feel alone and isolated, God encourages us to remember and repeat the words of Paul when he said, “So I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9, NRSV).
May the power of Christ dwell richly in each of us today!
Would you pray with me?