BACK ON YOUR HORSE
II Corinthians 4:1-12
"We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed."
One of the Stellenbosch theological students who was at Volmoed last week told me that she used to ride horses here when there was a riding school some ten years ago. I wish I had learnt to ride, but never did. So why did the abbot comment to me the other day: "I see you are back on your horse!?" It is a gory story which some of you already know, but others keep asking me about.
In brief, two weeks ago I badly cut three of my fingers while using the jointer in my workshop. Its 12 inch cutter spins around at speed planing wood as you push it over the revolving blade. It was late in the afternoon when I decided to plane a large piece of wood, and to do so without the help of a push-stick. All of a sudden as the wood passed over the cutter it was wrenched from my hands and my fingers were dragged onto the blades. Blood spurted out of the cuts, spilling onto the machine and the floor. I tried to stop the bleeding, then rushed into the house leaving a trail of blood on the path, the front door and kitchen floor. Isobel helped staunch the bleeding, and then rushed me to the Medi-clinic. I was soon in the emergency ward under the care of the sister in charge. Then Dr. du Toit arrived and two hours later my fingers were stitched. I was on pain-killers and antibiotics, and Bernhard arrived to take me home. It was bad, but it could have been a lot worse.
In retrospect, I got off lightly. I could visualise what might have happened to my hands, and what if there was no clinic, no medics, no medicines, and no drugs to ease the pain. I had been stupid, breaking the basic rules of workshop safety, and paying the penalty, even though I had got lightly. Within a few days I was back in my workshop even though my fingers were heavily bandaged. "I see you got back on your horse!" said the abbot. Yes, I had learnt from my youth that if you fall off your bicycle, get back on straightaway otherwise you will never ride again. Important counsel for the journey of life.
Sometimes people are so severely crushed by life's afflictions that such counsel sounds trite. I cannot begin to imagine how people in Syria today cope without being crushed. No food, no medical supplies or emergency clinics. Only destruction and death on every side. It would be the height of insensitivity to tell people in such circumstances to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and get back on their bicycles! We all know people whose troubles and woes seem insurmountable, people for whom life has thrown a nasty curved ball. Tomorrow we will be holding the funeral of Robin Douglas in our chapel. After a full life, his last months since his wife died in September were tragically sad. No matter how much he tried to get back onto his feet again and regain his trust in God and zest for life, it all became too much for him. His is not an unusual story. It is sometimes very difficult, even well-nigh impossible to get back on your horse. After all, while we are on the ground our horse might have bolted or been stolen by the tax man. So much does depend on circumstances and the severity of our afflictions. Yet too often we simply give in rather than get up.
Over the past few weeks I have got to know an Anglican priest in the United States who wrote to me after she had heard me lecture in Baltimore and then read my book Led into Mystery. We have not met in person, but we have shared experiences in dealing with grief. A professor of psychiatry before becoming a priest, she had to nurse her husband for many years through deteriorating health until he died from complications associated with Alzheimer's disease. She remarried a few years later and then, soon after, her second husband died of cancer. Her afflictions have been considerable; but she has not been crushed. We all know people like that too, some amongst us, who inspire us when we are knocked down by life's traumas and find it so difficult to get up again and continue our journey.
Of course, getting back on our bicycles when we are young or in the prime of life is one thing; having to do so when we are older, when our level of energy is far less than it once was, when the healing of our bones and tissue takes longer, when we tire sooner than before, when we too easily and too frequently lose our balance and fall, and when we suffer loss and experience loneliness. We may tell others that we still feel in the prime of life, but our bodies tell us otherwise. We are not immortal.
So what did I learn from my mishap in the workshop? For one thing, it could have been much worse! Not everyone can say that about their afflictions because for many people it seems it can't get any worse. But most of the time we can count our blessings, and give thanks for the care of partners and friends, the skill of doctors and nurses, for the prayers of this community and the healing power of the body. I also learnt that even when you are supposed to be full of wisdom, a sage on the hill say some, you can act stupidly. Nobody needs to tell me about safety in the workshop. I know the rules. But that did not prevent me from disregarding them. As we grow older we have an abundance of experience to draw on. But experience also teaches us that the lessons of life have to be learnt again and again if we are not to be crushed by our afflictions. If we stop getting up when we fall, we soon won't be able to get up at all, long before that becomes inevitable.
St. Paul tells us that he was afflicted in every way, but nor crushed. Ever since he had been struck off his horse on the Damascus Road he had to pick himself up and get his life back on his new track. His afflictions were chiefly those of persecution. Yet his words speak to all of us. In the same passage where he tells us he is afflicted but not crushed, he also speaks of being perplexed but not in despair, struck down but not destroyed, and attributes this to the "extraordinary power" which does not come from us but from God. Yes, that is the good news. God is able to keep us from falling, but if we do and are open to the possibility, then God's grace keeps us from being crushed, and usually does so through the agency of all those whose love, care and pray for us as channels of that grace. And it is this mystery of restoring grace, the grace that puts us back on our feet, that we celebrate as we share in the Eucharist. For here we experience the Spirit who nourishes and sustains us in the sharing of peace, the breaking of bread, and the communion we have together in Christ.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 30 January 2014