October 21, 2007
Her name was Eliza. She was a tall and willowy and beautiful African American woman in her early thirties when I met her. She had three children then—a boy 12, a girl 10 and another girl 8. I never met their father, but I didn’t have to—they all looked just like Eliza, from their coffee with cream colored skin, their deep set brown eyes, their tall and angular bodies and their perpetual smiles.
When I met Eliza she walked with an obviously painful limp and her fingers had lost much of their flexibility. By the time I left her—five short years later—she was confined to her bed and her body had started to curl back into itself. She had developed Progressive Relapsing Multiple Sclerosis—the most rare form of that debilitating disease, and the most difficult to treat.
The first year or so of my time as Vicar of St. James in Charleston, West Virginia, Eliza was able to drive and she and the children were in church every Sunday that she didn’t have extreme weakness or pain that made it impossible for her to drive. Gradually, she moved from a limp to a walker to a wheel chair and finally, took to her bed. Her hospital bed was in the kitchen of their small house so she could direct food preparation by her children.
Only once did I ask about her husband and what she told me was this, “he left after Tina was born and my MS was finally diagnosed. Tina was four or five by then, but Charles could see what the future held. He read up on my disease and then told me he had to leave. He just wasn’t ready to grow up the way his children have.”
Then she smiled from her bed and said, “who could blame him? I’m not bitter….”
And she wasn’t, not at all, not a bit, not even a tiny bit. Eliza wasn’t bitter.
And her children had ‘grown up’ faster than any child should have to mature. They weren’t bitter either, though they could see what the future held for them. Charles, Jr. and Maggie, the older two, were committed to do whatever was necessary to care for their mother and stick around until Tina was old enough to care for herself.
It sounds like a tragic, awful story, doesn’t it? A beautiful, young woman cut down in her prime; a marriage broken by pain and suffering; children having to grow up too soon?
And it wasn’t that at all, not at all.
In fact, when I was down and out, when I was depressed, when I was feeling sorry for myself—that’s when I’d visit Eliza and her children.
And they would cheer me up.
“How do you feel Eliza?” I’d ask.
She would smile that 200-watt smile of hers and say, “Oh, places hurt I didn’t know I had places…and everything is alright…. If I could just get these babies to behave….”
Then Charles, Jr. or Maggie or Tina would shake their heads and roll their eyes—which ever of them heard her say it—and reply, unleashing a smile as bright as Eliza’s, “oh, Mama, you’re the one who won’t behave….”
Oh, don’t let me paint too pretty a picture about that little family. Life was hard for the children and for Eliza. Money was tight and the duties those kids had to serve their mother were demanding, odious, often heart-breaking. But when I was with them—no matter how self-centered and distracted I was—they actually cheered me up and sent me away a better person than the one who had knocked on their door.
“I’m just like Jacob,” Eliza once told me, “but my Angel wasn’t satisfied with leaving me with just a limp….”
Eliza read the Bible a lot and what she was referring to that day was the lesson we heard from Genesis this morning.
Jacob is running away from his brother Esau, who Jacob had betrayed, when he encounters an Angel in the night and wrestles with that Angel until day-break. Jacob demands a blessing from the Angel—which he gets in the end, along with a new name—but the Angel also damaged Jacob’s hip so that he always, there after, walked with a limp.
Encountering God in the dark spots of our lives, in the midnights of our existence, CAN result in being blessed and given a new name…but encountering God can also give us a limp.
Someone—everyone argues about who really said it—someone once said, “that which does not kill us makes us stronger.”
Our wounds, our pains, our sufferings do not ‘automatically’ make us stronger, but, in God’s grace, they CAN.
That is the gift to us from Jacob and from Eliza—by ‘our wounds’ we can be healed. Our limps can make us walk with more determination, by God’s grace. Our brokenness can, through the love of God, make us “whole”.
Life is most often not consistently “kind”. Bad hips and limps and brokenness are more often the norm of living. And there is this: IF CHRIST’S WOUNDS HEAL US, SO CAN OUR OWN.
The choice God leaves us is between “bitterness” and “wholeness”.
Jacob and Eliza chose “wholeness” as they limped through life.
With God’s help, that is the choice we can make.
So, I invite you—I sincerely, profoundly invite you—to bring your wounds, your brokenness, your limps to this Table today. Whether those pains are physical or emotional or spiritual—bring them to this Table today.
There is a balm in Gilead…there truly is—that much, because I knew Eliza, I can promise you. Bring your pain and what may make you ‘bitter’ to the Table today.
And chose “wholeness” to go with your limp.