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Strength for the Broken Places
By James A. Harnish
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2009 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneScar Lover: The Signs of What We've Been Through
The wound must not be bandaged over as fast as possible; it is there to be a listening post, a chance to exit the small confines of a self-defined world and enter the spaciousness of a God-defined world. —Eugene H. Peterson, Subversive Spirituality
I've never read the book. After reading the New York Times review, I quickly concluded that the perverse violence of Harry Crews's novel Scar Lover (Touchstone, 1993) was not exactly my idea of a good time. But I've never been able to forget the title, nor the way the reviewer described a scar as a sign of healing. The reviewer acknowledged that scars are often ugly. They sometimes remain tender to the touch. But scars are also evidence that the injury is in the past. They are the reminder of what we have been through. They remind us of where we've been. They mark us ever after for who we are.
I see a lot of scars in my business. Having logged my full share of post-surgery pastoral visits, I never cease to be amazed by the number of patients who insist on showing me their scars, sometimes in the most unexpected places! In fact, I've sometimes been tempted to show them mine! My scar is still there, tucked away where no one can see, the ugly reminder of abdominal surgery three decades ago. Long after the wound was healed, the scar remains.
Although I always try to be impressed when patients lift their hospital gowns to display their scars, I haven't seen a pretty one yet. I suspect the reason they want me to see the scars has something to do with the way a scar traces what they've been through. Even when tender to the touch, it can be a sign of healing. It reminds them of where they've been and who they are.
"Scar Lover." That odd name linked in my imagination with a peculiar detail in the post-Resurrection stories. Luke tells us that when the Risen Christ appeared to his disciples, "he showed them his hands and his feet" (Luke 24:40). John records that Christ "showed them his hands and his side" (John 20:20). Both Gospels agree that the Risen Christ showed the disciples his scars, the marks of crucifixion, the evidence of his suffering, the sign of what he had been through.
Does that seem odd to you? It seems odd to me. I'm continually surprised that the power of God that raised Jesus from the dead did not erase his scars. The joy of Easter morning did not blot out the marks of Jesus' journey through "the valley of the shadow of death." By the power of the Resurrection, the wounds had been healed, but the scars remained.
While I was working on this book, our journey through the liturgical year brought us to Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the worship calendar, the day upon which the church celebrates the reign of Christ over the whole creation. In worship that day, we sang "Crown Him with Many Crowns." It's a familiar enough hymn; the words were imbedded in my memory from my childhood. But something happened within my soul when the congregation began to sing:
Crown him the Lord of love; behold his hands and side, those wounds, yet visible above, in beauty glorified. All hail, Redeemer, hail! For thou hast died for me; thy praise and glory shall not fail throughout eternity. (The United Methodist Hymnal, United Methodist Publishing House, 1989, no. 327)
Unexpectedly, I was moved to tears. It was as if I could see the scars of those brutal, ugly, deadly wounds, still visible on the body of the Risen Christ, somehow, by the miraculous alchemy of grace, "in beauty glorified." And in some deep place in my own soul, I realized anew that those wounds were for me. The fresh awareness of it blew me away.
I love the simplicity of John's description of Jesus' appearance on that first Easter evening. (See John 20.) No thunder rolled and no lightning flashed. There were no blaring trumpets or beating drums; no mass choirs singing Handel's "Hallelujah" chorus; no white-robed Jesus being magically elevated from the tomb. In short, there was none of the theatrical pyrotechnics that have become the stock-in-trade of B-grade movies or megachurch Easter dramas. The Risen Christ comes quietly and simply stands among his close group of followers. It's like the unobtrusive way he joined those despairing disciples on the road to Emmaus, quietly walking along with them so that they did not realize who he was (see Luke 24:13-35). You have to love the gentle patience of a resurrected Lord who shows up like that!
In the upper room that night, Jesus spoke the words those fear-stricken disciples most deeply needed to hear, "Peace be with you" (John 20:19). Then he showed them the marks of the nails in his hands and feet, and the scar from the spear that had ripped open his side. Because of the scars, the disciples knew who he was.
We might as well tell the truth. It's one thing to believe in the Resurrection in worship on Easter Sunday morning, with the music and the crowds and the scent of lilies in the air. But it's something else to believe in the Resurrection in a post-Easter world. As hours turn into days and days turn into weeks, the Easter story can become little more than a pleasant memory of a fantastic dream. The extraordinary announcement that Jesus was raised from the dead can feel utterly unrelated to the messy, everyday stuff of our very messy, everyday lives. There are days when the gospel story seems just a little too good to be true; times when the Risen Christ seems too divine to have any connection with our mundane human experience.
I'm encouraged when I remember that faithful people have wrestled with the tension between the humanity and the divinity of Jesus since the earliest days of the Christian tradition. Some believed so strongly in the divinity of Jesus that they gave up on his humanity. They just couldn't handle a nail-scarred Christ.
The Gnostics (from the Greek word gnosis, meaning "knowledge") have gotten a lot of press in recent years because of the hype surrounding Dan Brown's fictional murder mystery The Da Vinci Code, and the more scholarly publication of an ancient manuscript of The Gospel of Judas. The Gnostics believed in an absolute separation between the spiritual world, which was good, and the material world, which was evil. They believed that the goal of salvation is for the good spirit to escape the evil body in order to enter into a purely spiritual realm. In The Gospel of Judas's, for example, Jesus gives Judas the secret knowledge that Judas's action will liberate Jesus' spiritual self from his human body.
The Gnostics had no problem with the divinity of Jesus; it was his humanity they couldn't handle. They said that if Jesus was fully divine, he could not have been fully human. He must have been pretending. He must have been a divine spirit masquerading in human flesh. They could not believe in a Christ with scars.
The early Church declared Gnosticism to be heresy not because of what it affirmed about Jesus' divinity, but because of what it denied about his humanity. Gnosticism contradicted the shocking declaration that "the Word became flesh" (John 1:14)—real flesh and real blood—and that the Risen Christ had real scars to prove it.
Enter Thomas, forever identified as "Doubting Thomas" because it was so difficult for him to believe that the really human Jesus, who had really died, was now really alive.
Thomas wasn't there on that first Easter evening. He didn't experience the presence of the Risen Christ. He didn't see Jesus' hands and feet. He didn't hear the disciples returning from Emmaus describe the way their hearts burned within them when Jesus broke the bread and talked with them along the way. When Thomas finally showed up, the rest of the disciples expected him to believe in the Resurrection on the basis of their experience. But Thomas was the spiritual ancestor of the founders of Missouri, the Show-Me State. He had to see the evidence for himself. He said, "Unless I see the mark of the nails on his hands, unless I put my finger into the place where the nails were, and my hand into his side, I will not believe" (John 20:25 NEB).
Days passed. The Gospel doesn't tell us what happened, but given the dubious track record of those first disciples, my guess is that as they moved farther away from that first Resurrection experience, some of the rest of them began questioning the Resurrection, too. Did they really see Jesus? Or was it just a projection of their inner desires? Did he really show them his scars? Or was that just a dream? And if it actually had happened, how would they explain it to anyone else? Why would anyone believe them? When they gathered together a week later, Thomas may not have been the only person in the room who had doubts about the reality of the Resurrection.
Again, it happened. Again, Jesus came and stood among them. Again, he said, "Peace be with you." Then he went directly to Thomas. He stretched out his hands and told Thomas, "Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe" (John 20:26-27).
Jesus showed Thomas his scars, the marks of his humanity, the symbol of the broken place in his life, and it was on the basis of those scars that Thomas realized who Jesus was.
As if the gospel story isn't strange enough, there's an even more peculiar twist in the text. Both Luke and John tell us that when the disciples saw Jesus' scars, they were filled with joy, although Luke does acknowledge that their joy was laced with disbelief. (See John 20:20 and Luke 24:41.)
That's odd to me. I doubt that my response to Jesus' scars would have been joy. If I had been there at the Crucifixion, if I had watched the blood flow from Jesus' hands, feet, and side, if I had seen his bloody, battered body being yanked down from the cross, if I had watched Joseph of Arimathea lay the corpse in his tomb, I think I would have wanted the Resurrection to erase all of the scars. I might have hoped for a superhuman Jesus who had been raised above human suffering and pain, in the hope that I might escape it, too. I might have preferred a Risen Christ who would wipe away any memory of the dark places in my life. I might have opted for a Gnostic, spiritualized Jesus who was totally separate from the ugly brokenness of the world so that I could be lifted above the messy, broken places in my life.
But John and Luke say that the disciples' response to Jesus' scars was joy. The scars let them know who Jesus was. His identity as the Risen Christ was defined by his identity as their crucified Lord. The signs of the world's victory over the way of Jesus became the sign of Jesus' victory over the ways of the world. If the cross was the ultimate sign of the world's power to break us, the Resurrection offers the hope that we can be made strong at the broken places, too.
After three decades of pastoral ministry, I've become convinced that Hemingway got it right when he said, "The world breaks everyone ... the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially" (A Farewell to Arms, page 222). The Christian faith does not promise immunity from pain, suffering, defeat, or the sin of a broken world. I simply cannot find biblical or experiential evidence to support the claims of the "prosperity" preachers who promise that if we live by faith we will automatically become happy, rich, successful, pain-free, and good-looking.
But my experience also convinces me that Hemingway got it right when he said that "afterward many are strong at the broken places." It is precisely at the place where we are the most broken that we discover our most profound experience of the grace of God. It's only when we are willing to enter into our darkness that we discover the light.
I've seen a lot of people's scars, and not just the ones that are skin deep. I've seen the marks of what they've been through. They have taught me that joy can arise out of sorrow, that hope can be born out of pain, and that people who really know how to laugh are people who really know how to cry. They've taught me that the only way to find healing is to acknowledge our pain. The only way to experience grace is to confront our sin. The only place to find the light of new life is along the path that leads through the dark valley of the shadow of death. The only way to be made strong is to acknowledge where we are weak and to allow the God of grace to make us strong at those broken places.
I was scheduled to preach at Manning Road Methodist Church in Durban, South Africa, on the second Sunday after Easter. When the pastor asked for a text and sermon title, I told him I would preach on the story of the disciples on the Emmaus Road, because that would be the sermon I was going to preach to my own congregation before leaving the States.
I arrived in Durban less than an hour before the service was to begin. As I began to go over the Emmaus Road sermon, I began to have a deep sense that it simply did not fit the courageous people of that congregation who are attempting to become the healing presence of Christ in the brokenness of post-Apartheid South Africa. I kept thinking about a sermon I had preached sometime earlier on the risen and nail-scarred Christ, but try as I might, I could not bring it back into my mind.
When the pastor came to lead me to the sanctuary for the start of the service, I told him about the way I was struggling over the sermon. He remembered that my sermons are archived on our church's website. Within five minutes, we had gone to the site, printed off a copy of the earlier sermon, and were off to the service.
In worship that day, the young adults of Manning Road shared their witness of what the Spirit of God had done in their lives at their recent retreat. One by one, they talked about the way they had experienced the Risen Christ as they acknowledged some of the broken places in their lives and relationships. As I listened to their witness, I realized that they were bearing witness to the message I had just downloaded from the website. They had experienced the same peace that Jesus brought to those first disciples when he showed them his scars. By the time I got up to preach, I felt that the Risen Christ was already walking among us, showing us his scars, just the way he had been present to Thomas in the upper room.
One of my favorite pieces of classical music is the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. Beethoven began thinking about it when he was twenty-five years old but kept laying it aside until the end of his life. That fact alone may suggest that we will never really understand joy until we experience some of the pain that life can throw at us. By the time he returned to the work, he was in poor health, burdened by the responsibility for a suicidal nephew, and completely deaf. At one point he wrote, "You can scarcely imagine how lonely and desperate my life has become."
But in that broken place of suffering silence he experienced a resurrection and wrote, "Despair will not overcome me. I will instead know joy, for how beautiful life is!" That's when he went to work on the "Ode to Joy."
Beethoven's now-familiar musical theme is first introduced by the low, somber strings, as if it is born in some deep, dark well of suffering in his soul. In response, the melody is picked up by the brighter, higher strings. Then it moves to the brass and begins to reverberate through the rest of the orchestra. A roaring tenor announces it as only a German tenor can. Finally, the chorus bursts into explosive, joyful sound. Beethoven reworks the theme over and over again as if to say that there are not enough ways to describe the kind of joy that emerges out of the deepest places of pain.
Beethoven's music became the familiar vehicle for Henry Van Dyke's words:
Joyful, joyful we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love; hearts unfold like flowers before thee, opening to the sun above. Melt the clouds of sin and sadness; drive the dark of doubt away. Giver of immortal gladness, fill us with the light of day. (The United Methodist Hymnal, no. 89)
Jesus, the fully divine and fully human Scar Lover, comes to stand among us. He shows us the scars in his hands and side. In those scars, we can find the grace that has the power to strengthen us in our broken places. In his risen presence we discover the power that can transform our dirge of sorrow into an ode to joy.
Excerpted from Strength for the Broken Places by James A. Harnish Copyright © 2009 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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