A Sermon by Rev. John E. Gibbons
delivered on Sunday, January 6, 2013
at The First Parish in Bedford, Massachusetts
A Thought to Ponder at the Beginning:
“On the girl’s brown legs there were many small white scars. I was thinking, Do those scars cover the whole of you, like the stars and the moons on your dress? I thought that would be pretty too, and I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.”
—CHRIS CLEAVE, Little Bee
It’s like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes.
So you take your car to the new mechanic.
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.
The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers–
all show up at their intended destinations.
The theft that could have happened doesn’t.
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place.
And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.
from Waking Before Dawn, Red Dragonfly Press, copyright 2006, Thomas R. Smith
Richard Selzer was a surgeon and writer who used to write a regular column in the Journal of the American Medical Association. This is from his book “Mortal Lessons, Notes on the Art of Surgery.”
I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth has been severed. She will be thus from now on. The surgeon had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh; I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, I had to cut the little nerve.
Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed, and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private. Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry-mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously, greedily? The young woman speaks.
“Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks. “Yes,” I say, “it will. It is because the nerve was cut.” She nods, and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it,” he says. “It is kind of cute.”
All at once I know who he is. I understand, and I lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I so close, I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works. I remember that the gods appeared in ancient Greece as mortals, and I hold my breath and let the wonder in.
This is a sermon I’ve preached before, more or less. As my professor said, “If I repeat myself, I repeat myself.” Actually, I once knew a minister who preached the same sermon every Thanksgiving and some people caught on to him and thought he was just being lazy, until some time later they realized that, of all his sermons, it was the only one they could remember! There was reason to his repetition!
In part I pulled this out of the barrel because, well, that’s the kind of week it’s been but there’s also something both timely and timeless about our scars. We really don’t enter any New Year and perhaps this new year, in particular, unblemished – none of us resemble that New Year baby who wears nothing but a diaper, a top hat and a sash proclaiming 2013! One little tuft of hair on a shiny head. No, we enter the new year a bit scarred, and a bit more scarred this year than we were last year. I don’t promise to repeat this sermon on scars annually but scars are something we all have in common, and increasingly.
“Where do sermons come from?” Thank you for asking. Sometimes they come when I look in the mirror. There is my daily ritual of shaving that lends to existential ponderings. My first morning look in the bathroom mirror is not a pretty sight. It takes a shower, a shave, some cosmetology, a jolt of coffee and some time before life seems possibly worth living and so my most typical first thought of the day is that life would not be so bad if it were not for the dailiness of it.
Rarely do I flash myself a smile or a wink; never do I blow myself a kiss; but razor in hand I note my receding hairline, my jowls and pesky nose hairs and a certain wrinkled crookedness.
Looking in the mirror, however, could be good for one’s marriage. The author Mary Pipher recalled the aging man who credited the longevity of his marriage to his daily habit of gazing upon his reflection and thinking to himself, “You’re no prize either!”
There are stories writ upon our faces in our scars. Faint in my eyebrow is a scar from when I, a toddler, stood in a rocking chair until it and I fell hard to the floor and the wound was stitched. Under my chin is a scar from the gash I received when as a young boy, inexplicably, I belly-flopped onto the trunk of a neighbor’s fin-tailed 1960’s Cadillac and whacked the stylish center ridge quite bloodily. Once there was a mole here and a skin cancer here whose removal so widened my right eye that the left eye was surgically altered to match. Bet you didn’t know I’d had an eye job! I am reminded that there was a basal tumor here and a squamous tumor there and little blotches my dermatologist gaily calls “skin cancer lottery tickets!”
And here (showing the palm of his hand) I learned how to close a pocketknife and here’s (pointing to his shoulder) a zippered memorial to a melanoma that could have killed me, and in my nether regions there’s a reminder not to fall on an ice skate…I still wince at the childhood memory of lying on my stomach while the doctor stitched my rear end.
Since the last time I preached this sermon, I burned myself with sulphuric acid and can show you the scar. I bought the acid to unclog a drain and splashed it on my forearm. It could have been my face or my eyes! That smartened me right up! Don’t be so stupid, John! Now there’s a useful sermon! I say unto you: Be more careful, people!
– – – –
We do not enter the New Year flawless but scarred. A colleague once received a seminary degree with a typo on the certificate, not a “Doctor of Sacred Theology” but a “Doctor of Scared Theology.” Most of us are scared and scarred…and sacred, too.
I’ve discovered there are websites devoted to scars, their stories (“a scar is born.com”), and photos (“show us your scars.com”)
There are collections of scar quotes:
From Leonard Cohen “Children show scars like medals. Lovers use them as secrets to reveal. A scar is what happens when the word is made flesh.”
Cormac McCarthy says, “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”
Jarod Kintz writes, “Scars exist to show that I existed. I myself don’t have any scars, but every single one of my friends has a healed up knife wound deep in their back.”
You can have the song “Bigger Scars Make Better Stories” as a ringtone on your cell phone.
In the film “Jaws,” the three main characters are out in their little boat looking for the shark. They’re all a little wary of one another at first, but, as night falls upon the ocean and they share a few beers, the barriers between them begin to break down. They begin to find a common ground between each other by comparing scars, the one thing they all share.
On our email discussion list, I asked about your scars and for the last few days in living rooms and grocery store aisles, I’ve been hearing about and seeing all sorts of scars. In my office one of you showed me where 70 years ago, a kidney was removed.
Once again I’ve snookered you into writing my sermon. I’ll repeat some of the stories you told me several years ago; I’ve deleted a few; and, in the last week, you’ve given me some more. Who knows what fresh material there will be for this sermon next year!
This is your wisdom, new and old. You wrote to me:
“Most of my scars I am almost fond of. I feel a weird sense of pride at the burn scars on my arms and hands from years of working in kitchens…. The scar on my pinky from having my finger slammed in a screen door…the deep gash on my foot from that rock in the pond. Who was there, who helped me, how old I was…and the big scars. The ones that meant never wearing a bikini. I remember years of illness, tests and treatments…But the kidney and the bladder are (now) repaired. I’m not sick all the time. I’m not going to die (just yet). Maybe I’ll get tattoos. Just something…beautiful. Hell, maybe I’ll get a bikini.”
– – – –
When I started to read your post I rubbed my thumb against the tip of my ring finger on my left hand. Back in the early nineties I had an accident with a high speed drill. (Folks, I’m going to spare you some details here.) But the physical scar is nothing compared to the loss of feeling in that digit. Every time I touch my thumb to the tip of my ring finger I am reminded of what a stupid mistake it was to allow it to happen.
Once again, one takeaway from this sermon: In 2013, smarten up, you people! Be more careful!
– – – –
“8-inch football-seam-like scars on each side of my left arm…couple of 5” and 3” cruciform scars where (my leg was broken…a giant one on my right leg that had a skin graft…” (If I’m not mistaken, I think you can study the X-ray of that one right here!)
– – – –
“My big 8 inch long scar where my breast was…. To my oncologist, it means I am most likely cured, since we got such a good clean margin.”
– – – –
My son has a long scar on the front of his body because his appendix threatened to burst while we were camping in the boondocks in Maine. He was angry for a long time that we didn’t get him to a surgeon sooner, because the scar is obvious whenever he is in a swimsuit. People were always curious about the scar, and he explained his story frequently during the many summers he was a lifeguard. He forgave us only after having his own children. Parents aren’t perfect. Doing the right thing over 80% of the time is quite an accomplishment!
– – – –
(My) grandchild’s double palatal cleft. He could not nurse or be bottle-fed. His mother had to spray slightly thickened milk into his mouth, timed to his swallows…His childhood was punctuated by repair operations. There is a picture of him at ten months, before his first operation: he sits next to his brother, laughing like crazy. His upper lip is split in two places. He doesn’t yet know it should be a smooth surface. Last year, when he turned nineteen, he visited his plastic surgeon after another operation. ‘Now I’m finished,’ he said, ‘now I can whistle – and he showed me — ‘and I will finally be able to kiss a girl.’”
– – – –
“I have a scar from the top of my navel to the bottom of my rib cage… A bad car accident…the surgeon said it was a ruptured spleen, liver damage, massive internal bleeding…he took my appendix out ‘for the hell of it.’ I’m crying as I write this. Every day I look at this scar: It wasn’t my time to go. Ever since I got this very visible outward scar I have never been able to hide scars inside or out. Scars are the visible proof that you can and have healed. I’m here now to somehow be proud of my scars and help others be proud too. This nasty scar has never prevented me from achieving what I set out to accomplish. Nobody has rejected me because of this scar. I have never missed the parts that were removed or ‘customized.’”
– – – –
In 1998 I had a 2-1/2 lb tumor on my left kidney. The removal of that left me with a 14-inch scar. Three years later the kidney cancer spread to the adrenal gland. The surgeon was able to remove that by going into the first scar. Ten years later the kidney cancer returned, this time to the right kidney and the pancreas. That resulted in the Whipple procedure, removing the head of the pancreas, part of my only remaining kidney, part of the stomach, the gall bladder (and who knows what else!) and rearrangement of several healthy organs. Impressive scar around my left abdomen and back. Scars where the drains were.
About 9 months later, after the holidays, I noticed a rapidly growing lump right in the middle of my abdomen. I didn’t know what it was, thought it was too many Christmas cookies and had my doctor take a look..
My surgeon laughed and said “That would be one heckuva gingerbread man.” It was an incisional hernia. Another cut, another scar.
This Christmas I was given a necklace with a silver kidney bean on the chain. I don’t look at the scars much, but I wear the necklace and it reminds me how lucky I am.
– – – –
“Lots of razor blades and a bit of acid. I think that, as I have grown past this, these should rightfully disappear…I am grateful to my community for not judging me by my scars…You know?”
– – – –
“I have a single solitary hot glue gun scar on my finger that I created long ago for the purpose of somehow stating that hidden pain is real too. I made it (at age 16) the day I decided that I would never again allow myself to contemplate suicide as a viable option. I had struggled for a couple years with the deepest sadness, a pain that was relentless, desperate, and desolate. I think I would have done anything to be happy again. It was truly horrible to live as a teenager that way. For me, taking death off the table permanently-forever, and deciding to “always live for as long as I could” was my first step in winning the battle against depression. Once I had made that decision a lot of other healing could take place.
I think I would not have had to make my scar if even one person had held my hand and said, “tell me everything.” My tiny scar helps me remember that almost all of us need someone to do that for us sometimes.”
– – – –
Not too long ago I was in a waiting room somewhere and picked up a magazine featuring an article on “six word biographies” written by both famous people and ordinary subscribers. It came to me almost instantly that if I were writing such a biography for myself, it would say “hit by bottle early, still recovering.” I was, in a way, shocked by this. My mother was an alcoholic and I have all the expected bad memories associated with that…what shocked me was my using the words “still recovering”. So many years later – far more years now than I ever spent at home – and that experience still informs so many of my perceptions and behaviors. That might be a good thing; for example, I am a person who does not abuse alcohol and is careful about driving and drinking. But those memories – or scars – also keep me gridlocked and rigid, judgmental and fretful about other people’s use of alcohol, especially within my family. I’d like to get past that; I’d like to be able to acknowledge that scar and tell the story about it the same way I tell my grandkids about the scar on my knee from a fall on the playground when I was in second grade: it happened, it hurt, it left a scar, but most of the time I forget it’s even there.
– – – –
When I was young I had what is called a lantern jaw that stuck out too far. It’s the sort of jaw line that even I recognized in caricatures of Halloween witches. A doctor in my acquaintance told me that in my 60’s I would begin having trouble eating because of damage to my jaw hinge. I needed to have it surgically altered at about 19 or 20 when my bones were grown but still able to heal well.
I was miserable having the surgery and then having my mouth wired shut for 6 weeks. Yes, you actually can get tired of milkshakes. The two scars it left are under my chin so they are hard to see even if I deliberately tilt back my head and point to them.
As soon as the swelling went down and the braces came off, I was declared pretty. Not gorgeous: pretty. And let me assure you, everyone treats pretty people better. Teachers, classmates, waitresses, total strangers: everyone.
What makes my story unique is that it is backwards. My life changing event made me prettier as well as wiser. My scars remind me to seek out the person that lingers in corners or gets passed over in conversations.
Another of my own memories:
When I was a child in 1962 a Quaker family we were close to took in a foreign high school student for a year. She was Ako Yamamoto, one of the “Hiroshima maidens.” In the springtime, I recall the difficulty of finding a prom dress that would cover Ako’s atomic burn scars. Years later, when we held a memorial gathering for my father in our family living room, I recalled all the people who had been part of our lives and spent time in that room. At my father’s memorial, it was only when I remembered Ako that I choked up and cried.
– – – –
Scars invite us to wonder about their meaning:
“I have a very faded scar on my cheek, from a preschool accident. “…A Catholic preschool full of the usual variety of 1960’s teaching nuns, full of dour expressions and strict rules. Crayons were kept in a high freestanding cabinet, coloring was only allowed at three stations at a time…. We were cautioned not to step on the bottom shelf to reach the crayons up high. I couldn’t quite get the reasoning for that…and the cabinet came down on me. The crayons were stored in coffee containers with jagged edges from the can opener.…quite a scar.
My response has evolved. Originally, it was an example of a disobedient child; as the decades wore on, I had serious questions about the rules the nuns made about coloring, now morphing into a philosophical discussion: observing the rules of life vs. trying to get what we want when we want it – the life-long question of judgment, perspective and balance.”
– – – –
“My scar is from a hysterectomy I had due to cervical cancer. I thought I was very low risk for that. I was shocked of course. It looks like a smile across my pubic bone. It reminds me to be happy that I am alive.”
– – – –
“I’m told that the best dancers have the worst feet and banged up knees, the best carpenters have whacked their own thumbs so many times that their cuts heal faster than most people’s do. The human body is an amazing thing, isn’t it?”
– – – –
“Scars…I have a few, especially the one on my neck from a melanoma removed in my 20’s. …(My partner) says she never sees my scars but only me. And then a part of who I am has been shaped by those scars. They are there and so am I a part of the tapestry that I have become.”
– – – –
“My first was in the third grade, Sheila Reinsdorf pushed me out of line at recess and scratched the back of my hand. I could see it until 10 years ago but now I’m too wrinkly.
Another is hard to describe. Um, when my daughter was born, the doctor waited just a scooch too long to perform the episiotomy…so she has an inch-long cut on her head, still visible after 46 years!”
– – – –
“Scars, perhaps, were the primal tattoos, marks of distinction that showed you had been tried and had survived the test….
There’s also something talismanic about them. I rub my scars the way other people fret a rabbit’s foot or burnish a lucky penny. Scars feel smooth and dry, the same way the scales of a snake feel smooth and dry.
The scars remind me, too, that in this vain culture our vanity sometimes needs to be punctured and deflated — and that’s not such a bad thing. To paraphrase Ecclesiastes, better to be a scarred and living dog than to be a dead lion.”
– – – –
Speaking of dogs, you recall the classified ad:
REWARD: LOST DOG
Has 3 legs
Blind in left eye
Missing right ear
Answers to the name…. “Lucky”.
And so…all of us are doctors of scared, scarred and sacred theology. And we are all lucky. Scars are not wounds, they are where wounds once were. All of us are bruised and hurting, flawed and vulnerable: this our world, this our own First Parish community, each and every one of us, me and thee. Our wounds heal, leave scars and we move forward, nevertheless.
One of my teachers used to preach whole sermons on that one word, “nevertheless.” It’s a beautiful word, for despite all that could demean or diminish us, we may live whole lives, nevertheless.
In this New Year we will yet again be wounded and, probably we will wound. We will be bruised and hurt and, likely, we will bruise and hurt. We’re likely to be scared and sometimes we will be scary. And, with a little luck, we will scar and live whole lives, nevertheless.
I’ll end with Adam Zagajewski’s poem, “Try to Praise The Mutilated World”:
Try to praise the mutilated world.
Remember June’s long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles.
You must praise the mutilated world.
You watched the stylish yachts and ships;
one of them had a long trip ahead of it,
while salty oblivion awaited others.
You’ve seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you’ve heard the executioners sing joyfully.
You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared.
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth’s scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle light that strays and vanishes
The gentle light that has strayed and vanished now returns. Here’s to the dailiness of living!
Happy New Year!
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust….
Wind finally gets where it was going
Through the snowy trees, and the river, even
When frozen, arrives at the right place.
And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
Is delivered, even though you can’t read the address.