Monday, March 2, 2015

The Flying Wounded


If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
-       The Gospel of Thomas

This past week I had the privilege of attending a three-day preaching symposium led by our bishop, Marc Andrus, along with Bishop Michael Curry of North Carolina and Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of Washington, D.C.  All three bishops are among the very best preachers in the Episcopal Church, and it was a rich experience.  But Bishop Marc shared one story that was especially powerful for me and, I think, relevant to today’s Gospel reading.

Several years ago, Bishop Marc led a mission trip to the Diocese of Haiti as part of the Episcopal Church’s deep and ongoing commitment to help rebuild that country following the devastating earthquake there in 2010.  As an aside, note that the Episcopal Church consists of 16 countries; not just the United States.  The Diocese of Haiti is our largest diocese in terms of membership, as well as being among the poorest and most vibrant. 

The delegation from our diocese was received with great hospitality, and was taken to see many of the projects supported by the Church.  While all of them are wonderful, St. Stephen’s School particularly captured Bishop Marc’s attention.  St. Stephen’s is a school for children and youth with disabilities.  It welcomes children on the autism spectrum, the blind, the deaf, and the lame.  Unlike developed countries with greater resources, where each of these disabilities would be treated in isolation at a specialized center, St. Stephen’s has created a diverse community of special needs children of all kinds.

As Bishop Marc moved through the center he noticed how the children worked together to meet each other’s needs.  They even learn each other’s languages so that they can communicate.  Everyone at St. Stephen’s learns sign language and braille.  Children at St. Stephen’s learn many things, but the most important thing they learn is how to be a Christian community.

The delegation eventually was brought to a room that was electric with energy, where students and teachers were gathered together.  At the center of this gathering was a man in his mid-thirties sitting on a stool.  He had no arms below his elbows, and no legs below his knees.  His name is Jojo. 

Jojo was the source of the dynamic energy that filled the room.  It emanated from his being.  After being introduced to Bishop Marc and the others in the delegation, he told them his story.  “I was born without arms and legs.  My family brought me to St. Stephen’s when I was seven years old.   Here, I discovered that I could paint by holding a brush in my mouth.  Eventually, I became proficient enough that the school raised money to send me to Switzerland for formal training, and I returned here to teach.”

Bishop Marc observed several examples of Jojo’s art on display in the room.  They were stunning.  He thought to himself, “This guy is a prodigy, he could be painting anywhere.  What is he doing here?”  As if reading his mind, Jojo said, “I am here because so many children lost limbs during the earthquake, and they are very sad.  I want to show them that there is more in them than just their sadness.  St. Stephen’s is a temple where God makes all things well.”

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

With the help of St. Stephen’s, Jojo was able to bring forth both his suffering and his creativity, integrating them in such a way that his wounds became a source of tremendous healing power for other children with disabilities.  And not only that:  as Haiti’s Bishop Ogé Beauvoir said later to Bishop Marc, “St. Stephen’s is transforming Haiti.” 

Before it became an instrument of torture and death, the cross was a symbol of wholeness in the ancient world.  When Jesus invites us to deny ourselves, and take up our cross and follow him, he is not asking us to pick up a heavy piece of wood.  He is asking us to let go of the false self, the partial self, the limiting self-image we’ve internalized, and follow him on the path of integration that leads to wholeness.  Jojo could have remained a victim, a cripple, and nothing more.  But with the support of a community of disciples following Jesus on the path of integration, he could bring forth all that is in him, and discover that he is not a cripple:  he is an artist.  His very wound could become a source of power.

Jojo may seem like an extreme example, but his particular wound is different only in degree, not in kind, from the wounds that we all experience.  We are all the walking wounded.  But we can become the running wounded and even, like Jojo, the flying wounded.   If we are willing to bring forth what is within us, we can soar together and join with Jesus in the healing of the world.

We need the help of others to break free from our limiting self-images and bring forth what is within us.  Do you remember the movie The King’s Speech?  It tells the story of Albert, later known as King George VI, who after the abdication of his older brother, Edward, assumed the throne of England on the eve of the Second World War. 

Albert is defined by his wounds, the second son ignored by his father, bullied by his older brother, continually reminded just how stupid he is by nearly everyone.  His insecurity and self-doubt manifests as a terrible stutter.  And so he faces the prospect of becoming King with dread, as the shame of his stutter will become public.

At the urging of his wife, Elizabeth, he is finally convinced to seek the help of an unorthodox speech therapist named Lionel Logue, who not only lacks medical credentials, but is an Australian to boot!  During their first meeting Albert lights up a cigarette.  Lionel berates the Prince of Wales, “Put out that thing, don’t you know it is bad for you!”  Albert replies, “All of my doctors tell me it is healthy.”  “Your doctors are idiots,” says Lionel. “But they are all knighted!”  “Well, that makes it official.”

Lionel uses many novel techniques to help Albert, whom he presumptuously refers to as “Bertie,” overcome his stammer.  But what he really seeks to do is to expose the wound to Albert’s soul that is inhibiting his power of speech.  In the film’s climactic scene, the two are alone in Westminster Abbey rehearsing for the coronation ceremony.  Bertie is despairing, afraid, and accuses Lionel of being a fraud.  Lionel refuses the bait, and simply sits down on the historic throne of Edward the First and lazily dangles one leg over the armrest.

Now Albert is furious, and haltingly demands that Lionel vacate this sacred chair to which he has no right.  Lionel nonchalantly replies, “Why should I listen to you.”  Then, with utter clarity and confidence Albert cries out, “Because I have a voice!”  In that moment, Bertie became King George VI, the symbol of unity and voice of resistance that sustained England through the dark days of World War II.  He was no longer defined by his wounds.

It is tempting to cling to our wounds – and to the wounds of others.  They can become our shield against taking responsibility for our lives.  In a telling scene early in the film, Albert is in tears, telling his wife, “I am no king, I am no king.”  Elizabeth says to him, “Bertie I refused your proposal to marry the first two times, not because I didn’t love you, but because I couldn’t bear the public demands of royalty and feared the loss of privacy.  But then I realized that your perfect stutter would protect us from all that.” 

Following Jesus on the path of integration sometimes means refusing to protect our wounds (or hide behind their protection); choosing instead to accept them, learn from them, and move beyond them to find our voice and embrace our power.  Now, some wounds are just too fresh for us to work with them.  They simply have to be borne, but we do not have to bear them alone bring.   We can bring them to Jesus and to the Church, asking to be held until we can see beyond the wound to a larger wholeness. 

Some wounds have so defined us for so long that we resist embracing a larger identity.  Simply noticing our resistance may be the first step toward a deeper integration and healing.   We are all wounded, but we are not our wounds.  There is so much more to us. 

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.

The source of this saving power is Christ in us, our Christ nature, if you will, that deep place within us, deeper than our wounds, where the soul touches the divine.  We take up our cross and follow Jesus so that we can obtain the fullness of Christ.  The self-denial of which Jesus speaks is the denial of any identity that obscures our Christ nature. In the words of the Celtic inspired prayer:

Christ be in my mind that I may see what is true.
Christ be in my mouth that I may speak with power.
Christ be in my heart that I may learn to love and be loved.
Christ be in my hands that I may work with tenderness.
Christ be in my soul that I may know my desire.
Christ be in my arms that I may reach out without fear.
Christ be in my face that I may shine with the divine.

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.  

We can become the flying wounded.  St. James can be a temple where God makes all things well.  Amen.