Some of you may have noticed a certain amount of hoarseness in my voice in the past two weeks. Well, at the beginning of this fateful fortnight I apparently got a cold, maybe it was Cherie, maybe it was Katherine in the office, maybe it was one of the charming, lovely little pathogen vectors we call preschool students who gifted me with this particular virus, this plague, this source of terrible suffering and unease.
It started innocently enough. Sniffles is how it usually starts, sniffles and fatigue, I feel a bit off my feed, that was Monday, but sniffles are right up there with rain sleet and dead of night in that they will not deter this trusty pastor from his appointed rounds. Tuesday was, unfortunately, lost to another crisis in the Carnahan household so we won’t count that against the evil, malignant Nazi virus, but the real fun began on Wednesday.
That’s when the fever began. Nothing more than that, a fever, the achiness that goes with a fever and fatigue but it was still pretty bad. I don’t take a lot of sick days, probably fewer than I ought. To some extent I’ve always thought that since I have a door on my office, I can just close it and hibernate in there, I even have a blanket in case I get the chills, I can do a little bit of work and still be an asset to the church.
Well I’ve decided that is a stupid perspective. And a stupid way to just perpetuate a system that values the work a person does over the value of that person’s health, their individual well-being. I decided, and then immediately lost the courage of my convictions, to just let the disease run its course while it laid me low, consigning me to the couch in the living room, watching the first seven minutes of innumerable sit-com re-runs. I only watched the first seven minutes because then I would fall asleep and only wake up later with the television showing me the “do you want to delete this DVR item?” screen. Since it was a re-run it was no great loss, I deleted it and moved onto the first seven minutes of the next re-run.
I lost my resolve because on Thursday, still having a fever, I decided that of course nobody else could possibly lead the Compline service we are having on Thursdays after soup supper, heck I barely know it; how on earth could anyone else do it? I even had the loving support from a couple of you seated here this morning and I didn’t avail myself of the opportunity and I apologize.
Because by Thursday evening the fever had been joined by the inevitable, for me at least, sore throat. I tend toward snoring and so just throwing the slightest monkey-wrench into my upper respiratory system means that the sore throat is coming, which means that the bronchitis is coming, with its hacking cough and compounding effects on the aforementioned sore throat. Even worse with each cough there comes the inevitable running of the nose, the concussive effect of the coughing causing some kind of insidious chain reaction that makes me reach for the tissues.
All that being said, the croaking sounds I made at the service that Thursday will have to be looked at generously in order to be considered music, or singing or whatever it is I was pretending to do that evening, fueled mostly by pride and denial.
But we are just beginning. After the fever leaves, the cleaning up after the party it had in my cells is the lingering cough, the lingering throat issues, the lingering fatigue as I fail to get sufficient, restful sleep and spend the night sitting up on the couch, my loving wife wrapping me in a blanket while informing me that I’d better stay where I am for the night.
Now I don’t know if it was the years I spent smoking, or my tendency towards smoking or my weight or all three and something else besides, but bronchitis hangs on, the cough hangs on, the throat issues hang on for a long time and I struggle to shake them. I even took the extraordinary step of calling the ELCA Nurse Hotline for some advice, I know, it’s like admitting I asked for directions, but this has to stop.
To be fair, the irritation of my vocal cords makes me remember what it was like when I smoked and they were constantly being bathed in toxic fumes, how deep and resonant my voice was and I kind of miss that.
After the actual cold had left me, this would be about Saturday, having essentially lost the week to circumstance and illness; the less-appreciated side-effects began to appear.
Have you ever coughed so hard that your stomach muscles hurt for days, or coughed so violently that your shoulders hurt because you are putting so much into each cough? Well, I have and the wincing becomes quite pronounced at each cough as a ripple of pain runs through your torso is about as much fun as it sounds like it is.
Even this morning there is a little leftover soreness in the throat, a little thickening of the vocal cords.
Fever, cough, sore throat, runny nose, muscle aches, soreness in diaphragm and other muscles, those are not the underlying problem; they are not the cause of anything. They are symptoms instead of causes, they are the effects of something, of the virus running rampant in the flesh and yet they are not the virus itself.
The trouble is, we don’t know how to fight the virus. Literally, the nurse on the ELCA insurance line said the same thing we have all heard a thousand times before, “Just ride it out, drink lots of liquids, stay warm and sleep as much as you can.”
That’s not medicine, that’s therapy. I have had the discussion with people in the past about how we just mask the symptoms when we take our Theraflu and our Alka-Seltzer, how we are not actually making ourselves healthier we are just allowing ourselves to pretend that we are healthier so we can function and we ought to focus on getting better.
This is usually followed by either a complaint about corruption in the pharmaceutical industry or an appeal toward naturopathic “remedies” which never seem to be as awesome as they are advertised.
Plus they don’t make you feel better!
I understand, believe me I understand how important it is to want to feel better, to be distracted from the achiness and the sleepiness and the coughing and the runny nose. I have decided that the perfect ending to that discussion of symptom versus disease treatment is to just declare that I don’t care how it is missing the point of curing the disease (to which, by the way, there is no cure) I JUST WANT TO FEEL BETTER! Returning to health will take care of itself after a bit.
I know, we all know what it is to seek after the quick fix, the Band-Aid that covers the wound while healing takes place without too much help from us. Even today they, the clever ones out there, are trying to cover up the fact that the job market in America stinks right now and that the “recovery” has mostly recovered for the investor class and not the working class, they are trying to distract us by inventing the, frankly idiotic, “gig economy” or the “sharing economy” with things like Uber and AirBNB.
“You can make money on your own terms!” they say. “You can assume all the risk while sending me a percentage of every dime that results!” they do not say.
You have to admire the cleverness it takes to get a couple hundred thousand people to work for you without paying them yourself, without providing insurance or disability coverage or any protection whatsoever and to have them think of you as their benefactor; that is brilliant. It is also a distraction, a reaction to the lousy recovery, a Band-Aid while we hope the actual healing goes on behind the scenes.
Nyquil for the body politic.
Even worse though are the things that do not just fix themselves, the things that do not heal even with a Band-Aid over them. Anti-nausea medication will not make the chemo any better or more effective, not help the cancer recede but you take it anyway because it is all you have, all you can do and you want to do, you need to be doing something.
You need to cry out to God if nothing else and have God tell Moses to make a serpent of Bronze and put it on a stick so that the snakes, the symptoms of your disease will abate and you can go on.
Were the snakes the problem for the Israelites? Well, they were a problem but not the root problem, they were a penalty, they were a result; they were a symptom of the actual problem. Two entire books ahead of this morning’s readings God had a good grasp of the situation. Exodus 32:9, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are.’”
The disobedience, the lack of faith, the inconstancy of the Israelites was the disease, the snakes, the opening of the earth, the wandering in the wilderness, the fire that consumed; these were the results of the Israelite disease, their inability to trust in God to love them, to care for them, to be their God.
And each time a symptom appeared they did what we all do, they looked to Moses to make their appeal heard by God so that they might be delivered of their affliction.
No, wait. They never asked that their affliction be lifted from them, each and every time they simply asked that the symptom be lifted from their shoulders; or their ankles in this case.
The disease remained since just removing the snakes didn’t suddenly make the people righteous.
We all have the same affliction. You, me, the Israelites. The actual disease is sin, is not trusting that God will be there for us, that God will provide for us what we actually need and not believing that what we need might just possibly not be the things we desire.
We try and paper over it, try and find distractions from the truth but it remains nonetheless, in great and small measure, in swiping a pen from work as much as in murder and mayhem it remains true that we stray from the path time and time again and no banishing of snakes, no Band-Aid will heal us.
But into this darkness comes the light. Jesus made his way through the pains and triumphs of this life, through the struggle and disappointment and betrayal and hunger and sorrow and all the rest of it so that he might know what it was to feel as we feel when the snake bites our ankle, the recompense for our missteps and so that He might take that burden upon Himself so that we might rise from under its weight.
Such was the love of God for you, such was the love of Christ for you that instead of a Band-Aid Jesus brought a solution, not just the lifting of the burden until such a time as we go off the rails and sin again, not just the banishing of the snakes but immunity to their venom, the venom of sin and its repercussions.
Jesus accomplishes what modern medicine cannot. Actually, He reverses the situation we have with respect to the plague I suffered from. Instead of covering up the symptoms so that we can pretend to be healthy, Jesus leaves us the symptoms as a reminder of how great a gift God’s grace is; while in being lifted up, Jesus cures us of the disease.
No more is the result our death, our consignment to punishment. We are freed from that to live in a different way, a way where we can see ourselves as a part of something larger, as a part of the plan for the creation wherein all might share in the bounty of God’s grace and forgiveness of sin.
We have the chance to live free from the fear that our failings might bring to us and instead, live boldly, making mistakes, sure, but knowing that they will not bring about our end, that this eventuality has been taken on by Christ and in our trust in Him, is found our eternity.