Thursday, January 11, 2018

Building Chapels

          I do not usually pray about physical pain. God and I have plenty to discuss outside of the failings of my body. Honestly, it makes me sort of uncomfortable when people pray for my health. Over the past few years, many different church members have been burdened by the task of persuading me to permit the printing of my name on various prayer lists, and the braver of these poor souls have just thrown me on there without asking, figuring that a few closed eyes, mumbling lips, and clasped hands have never hurt anybody. Despite my discomfort, whenever I receive a note or a kind word from someone promising me that I am in their prayers, it feels like the sort of hug that cannot be tainted by costochondritis or tender shoulders or inflamed lungs, and my gratitude far surpasses my discomfort. I think a lot about how prayer fits into my experience of illness. I feel very at peace these days, yet I often pray for peace. Perhaps this is greedy of me. Perhaps I already have my fair share of it.

          Yesterday a caring friend in one of my classes, who was familiar with all of my health struggles last semester, gently asked how I was feeling. I was about to start my "okay, pretty good," speech when I unexpectedly found myself admitting that my musculoskeletal pain was "borderline unbearable." My friend timidly suggested that based on how I looked I might have had a fever. In order to cope with the significant increase in joint, tendon, and muscle pain that I was experiencing on only my first day of classes, I submitted to two separate naps, during which I iced my joints, curled up my limbs, and surrendered to my pillow. In the midst of all of this physical coping, I found myself praying the Hail Mary, not hoping for or feeling much as a result, but repeating it like the sort of habit that you cannot fully flesh out but seems to hold an innate sense of importance.

          Occasionally I am asked about specific Bible passages that have helped me in light of my illness. Usually when I bring up the book of Exodus I am met with stares of, Burning bushes... plagues of frogs... the parting of the Red Sea... how is she connecting this to her autoimmune illness? Perhaps with freedom from the captivity of disease? Where is this going?

          Sometimes I wonder the same thing. The first time I completely read through Exodus, I found all of these parts fascinating and bizarre. Yet despite the multitude of incidents that I could not relate to in the most direct or obvious of ways, I found myself constantly rereading chapters 35-40.

          For those of you who are not familiar with these chapters of Exodus, all you really need to know to understand this post is that in this passage God provides specific, orderly instructions to Moses about how to create the tabernacle which Moses then distributes to the community, and at the end of chapter 40 "the glory of the Lord [fills] the tabernacle," (New Revised Standard Version, Exod. 40.35). The book concludes by explaining, "[T]he cloud of the Lord was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, before the eyes of all the house of Israel at each stage of their journey," (Exod. 40.38). I try not to be too theologically irresponsible, so I did read a commentary on these last few chapters in my church's library to make sure I am not completely off-track with this post. Among many tidbits of information and interpretation, I learned that God entering the tabernacle was not as immediate as it sounds based off of chapter 40 alone, but it happened nevertheless.

          These last five chapters of Exodus are arguably the most boring part of the entire book. I adore them.

          So many times when we try to comfort people who are in pain from a religious angle, we attempt to provide either a reason for the pain or the prospect of healing. I understand why this is so tempting. In fact, explicit reasons and hope for healing were both things I very much desired during the first few years of my illness. We offer physically hurting people the stories of Job and of Paul's thorn and of Jesus healing people with leprosy. For some people, these stories are immensely helpful, and become invaluable sources of wisdom and comfort. But Job suffered way more than I ever have, and if you draw a Venn diagram of me and Paul you will find zero overlap, and the thought of praying for divine healing makes me squirmy and uncomfortable.

          Specific instructions regarding stone, yarn, wood, and flowers, though? Now I am interested. I like the idea of faithfully arranging everything and following careful directions in order to prepare the holiest of places. I like to think that God cares about all of the little details and is not too distant to maintain color, texture, and pattern preferences. Now that I am writing this, I wish I could go furniture shopping with God.

          When I read the final chapters of Exodus, I find myself moved by how much inhabiting the tabernacle, and therefore being present on earth with the Israelites, means to God. It is so important that exact specifications are provided, and everyone in the community comes together to create the materials needed to properly construct it. Out of all of the things in the universe that God could choose to be concerned about, God chooses precise measurements and precious metals, signifying how seriously being present on earth with people is taken. This is a principle and a promise that I always find myself clinging to during difficult times.

          Perhaps I like this story so much because I have always wanted God to be somewhere. I remember pointing to the sky one time when I was about five or six years old and asking an adult at my church to confirm that God was up there. "Rachel, God is everywhere," I recall being repeatedly told, yet paradoxically everywhere is a much more frustrating answer than somewhere, and so while this adult responded to my question with a glittering smile reflecting her belief that God is all around us, I just stared at her with a disappointed expression on my face and then squinted up at the clouds, wishing that each one represented a different room in the hallway of heaven rather than an infinitesimal part of everywhere. If something is everywhere it is impossible to find. I want things to be somewhere. When I lost an earring this past Sunday at church, I wanted to know that it was in my sanctuary pew, not that it could have been anywhere in the building. Everywhere is daunting and difficult. Somewhere feels achievable.

My sweet, sweet friends Georgia and Aria. I love these ladies so much.
This picture was taken 5 days post-op, on Christmas Eve. Just a few minutes
prior to the taking of this photograph, under the influence of pain medications and
pain itself, I told them that I wanted to have my puppy baptized. Good times.

          I am no Moses. I have no tabernacle. Yet over the past few years, I have learned to build little chapels everywhere I go, to create "somewheres" out of "everywheres." Sometimes I sit in my car in a parking lot and play hymns through the speakers, feeling the fullness of the music in the enclosed space like a blanket of voices draping itself around me. Sometimes I walk through parks to exhaust my soul into peace, imagining the entangled tree branches as the roof of an ancient sanctuary that holds secrets of grace much deeper than I am capable of understanding. Sometimes I stare at all of the brightly colored bell peppers in the grocery store, listening to the afternoon chatter with great care as each passerby unknowingly contributes towards a treasured sermon woven together from the wisdom of strangers. Every place I go, I find myself seeking ways to build a chapel, just in case I suddenly find myself too overwhelmed to accept "everywhere."

          Some of the most terrifying moments of my life have been the few seconds or minutes in between being wheeled into an operating room and being completely anesthetized. These moments are frightening in part because being in between consciousness and unconsciousness is just a scary place to be in general, but also because while my eyelids become heavier and heavier I become strikingly aware of the complete power the nurses and anesthesiologist hold over me in the hours in which I am asleep. They could push substance they want, and I would have no say in it whatsoever. I occasionally have nightmares about these moments. They haunt me even after I am completely physically recovered from operations.

          When I went in for a procedure in November, after my jaw surgery in October and before my ENT surgery in December, I had to be lying on my side as I was put under. I found this to be nothing short of horrifying. The medications coursing through the narrow tube of my IV made me feel unbalanced and I was overcome by the sensation of falling off of the operating table. Even just thinking back to these few seconds of complete horror, which were exacerbated by my difficulty in expressing my concerns due to the gradually paralyzing effect of the medication, leaves me with a sickening sense of panic.

          "I... I don't feel good," I said through slow, slurred speech. "I... I'm falling."

          "We've got you," said the tall pediatric anesthesiologist hovering over me. The untroubled quality of his smooth voice carried through his flimsy surgical mask. "We are all around you. You are not falling."

          I appreciated his reassurance, but my physiological sensation of imbalance took reign of my tongue. "I'm falling... falling off, falling..." I had to concentrate all of the energy in my body toward my mouth simply to mumble these words, with one side of my face pressed up against the white sheets stretched out over the table.

          I do not know if I was crying internally or externally, but I was one hundred percent convinced that I was about to tumble onto the floor, and I knew I would not be able to react quickly enough to prevent injury. I imagined my body lying limp on the tile, blinking up at a sea of blue scrubs and fluorescent lights, exposed by my paper gown, bruised and broken and unable to tell anyone the location or severity of the pain.

          My muscles were medically relaxed and I could barely speak, but my heart was overcome by fear. Despite knowing that I was not falling off, no less than four nurses firmly pressed their hands against all sides of me in unison, locking me into position, and a few seconds later the anesthesiologist pushed the plastic plunger of his thick syringe all the way down and I was asleep.

          I have thought a lot about the collective reaction of those nurses since that procedure. They prioritized my vulnerability over my accuracy. They sensed that my fear was not reflective of reality. I was wrong. I was not falling. They swarmed me with stability anyway.

          Now, I think of this incident as a smaller representation of how I feel about God. I know that God is omnipresent; the issue is not a lack of belief. I know that "everywhere" is true, just as in the moments preceding my procedure I cognitively knew that I was not falling. But I wanted to touch the evidence. I wanted the nurses to be somewhere, not everywhere. When they laid their hands on me, a practice that felt strangely ceremonial and religious even though it was purely medical, my fear was not eliminated but my panic was laid to rest. They were everywhere, and I could feel the sum of their hands all around me, and yet they were simultaneously somewhere, and if I thought about it in pieces I could feel each of their cold fingertips pressed against my ribs and spine. They promised me with their hands that I would not fall. They did not leave my most vulnerable moment up to my wavering faith. They created a chapel out of a surgical space, instantly becoming compassionate members of a congregation that I did not know I would need.

          Perhaps one day when my faith is strong enough I will be able to hear, "We are all around you. You are not falling," and believe it without any need for fingertips. Perhaps I will soak in those comforting sentences and relax into an enticing slumber, trusting completely, allowing my tongue and heart to be still.

          This possibility leads me toward another one of my favorite verses: "The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still," (Exod. 14.14). Sometimes I cannot be still, even when I know I should be. I thrash and scream and search for answers and build chapels and beg for proof of "somewhere." I throw out "everywhere" as insufficient. I do not laugh at the irony.

          I know that I can experience God without the tabernacle. I know that this is possible, that physical structures are unnecessary, that God is everywhere. But the stones and the yarn and the wood and the flowers give me hope that perhaps my practice of building chapels is not a waste of time in the eyes of God, even if it is ultimately unnecessary. Maybe trying to have faith and having it are of equal value. Maybe God has consistently and intentionally provided me with people, places, and things that I can weave into metaphors to construct chapels because there are some moments in which I am just not strong enough to trust in "everywhere." Maybe some people need "everywhere" and some people need "somewhere." Maybe God empathizes with both.

          Perhaps this is why I have so many friends willing to surround me, even when I can barely describe my sensation of falling, with love and hope and the promise that God is always with me. Sometimes when my eyes are swollen from crying and I am rotating through ice packs on various joints and I have three new voicemails from three different doctors I look up to see all of the people in my life swarming around me like that team of stabilizing surgical nurses. Each time a friend holds my hand or envelops me in a hug or offers affirming words, I move from "everywhere" to "somewhere." Each person offers their unique presence, which can be confirmed by the most basic of human senses, and the walls of the chapel rise up from the soil, called into existence by the congregation that forms around me. I feel God with me once again.

          I am thankful for all of the people and moments and practices that allow me to identify God as "somewhere." Sometimes I beat myself up for not consistently being able to recognize God everywhere. I worry that God will be disappointed in me, or that church people will be disappointed in me, or that I will disappoint myself. I worry that the fleeting quality of my complete faith will render me unfit for ministry, unprepared to comfort a hurting soul, or too weak to matter. But then I am reminded of the end of Exodus. If God cares about stones, yarn, wood, and flowers, surely God cares about these little chapels I build ever so carefully, with worried hesitance wedded to abounding hope. Surely God cares about the hymns that blast through my car speakers and the trees that sprawl into sanctuaries and the chatter that forms sermons. Surely God uses nurses and friends and loved ones to assure me of a divine presence that remains even when I feel like I have journeyed too far from the tabernacle, offering me drops of grace here and there that I usually do not recognize until they have accumulated into salty ocean waves, crashing down on me when I panic upon realizing that everything is a bit too still for my liking.

          Perhaps God is great enough to be everywhere and compassionate enough to be somewhere. Perhaps the paradoxes are the point.

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