May 16 — Health and God


Then Job said to the Unnamable:

I know you can do all things
and nothing you wish is impossible.
Who is this whose ignorant words
cover my design with darkness?
I have spoken of the unspeakable
and tried to grasp the infinite.
Listen and I will speak;
I will question you: please instruct me.

I had heard you with my ears,
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I will be quiet,
comforted that I am dust. – Job 42:1-6 (Trans. Stephen Mitchell)

In German a doctor will begin by asking ‘Na, wo fehlt’s denn?’ or ‘what’s the matter with you then?’, literally, ‘what are you lacking?’ This is a question which we as patients can address to a doctor who is about to examine us or give us advice. Is it not an extraordinary thing that the lack of something, although we do not know precisely what it that is lacking, can reveal the miraculous existence of health? . . . It is only now, in its absence, that I notice what was previously there, or, more precisely, not what was previously there but that it was there. This is what one calls well being. We also say, ‘I am fine.’ Here we encounter wakefulness and being-in-the-world as authentic presence.
– Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Enigma of Health

I tend to subscribe to the old adage about preaching — “There is no I in it.” That preaching can easily become lost in the power of the ego unless careful attention is paid to the real point of it.

That said I feel I owe it to you, this first Sunday back preaching since February 28 to speak a bit about what has happened to me and what seems to be the thought about my recovery and prognosis.

I’d like to conclude by briefly reflecting on the point of it, as hinted at in our two readings today.

I will not bore you with all the details. This is the sketch  It all began at our Lenten Lunch, held here in our dining room on March 3.  Lunch didn’t go so well for me.  Little did I know that at that point, things were starting to go haywire in my body. By the next morning, I was bleeding from my adrenal gland into my abdomen and the pain kept me in bed on Advil.  Two trips to the ER later and I was admitted to the hospital on Friday.  The following day they took me over to the ICU were I continued, as they say, “to go downhill,” though it didn’t feel anything like coasting downhill to me.  It felt more like pedaling up a mountain.

The rest for me, and now luckily for you, was a bit of a blur.  Sunday night they transferred me from the ICU in at CVH to the ICU at Fletcher Allen — hoping that they could stabilize me and whatever it was that was wreaking havoc in me.  The short of it is that the defense systems that we all have to keep us safe from germs, became, in my case, the invaders and began destroying my blood cells to the extent that I had to be on 6 liters of oxygen in order to have enough oxygen saturation in my blood to support life.

Exactly what went wrong with my immune system remains a bit of a mystery to us today, and we continue to monitor blood counts and test out various theories. The standard treatment for a thing like this is to administer steroids, beginning with a mega dose over three days in an attempt to suppress the immune system and to bring my system back into some normal equilibrium.  After that mega dose of steroids, I was put on a high dose of which would gradually be decreased over the next six months.  What I have learned about this is that while steroids saved my life, they are also dangerous and life-shortening when used at high levels over time.  But you can’t just stop using them either since the steroids I’m on cause the adrenal glands to stop working.  The adrenal glands need to be slowly brought back online through a slow taper of the drug to avoid a life-threatening condition called Addisonian Crisis.

I describe all of this because it is part of my recovery reality.  As much as I don’t like the prednisone — it makes me hungry all the time, it gives me the shakes, it makes me tired, and leads to muscle wasting, which is a problem since I already lost 25 pounds of muscle in the hospital — I have to go off of it slowly. I have to accommodate accordingly.  My schedule, for the time being at least, is one thing in the morning, one thing in the afternoon and a big long nap in between.  That makes getting around to everything I’d like to do, next to impossible.  I’m learning again, the lesson that we all learn again and again at various points in our lives, that the things we think are so essential that we do, really are not.  That the world keeps on spinning, people keep on living and relating and working with one another.

I do not take for granted what has happened here in the months that I was unable to prepare worship, unable to conduct funerals, unable to help people out either with a listening ear or a check from the Good Neighbor Fund.  In fact it is so remarkable, that I am still in awe when I reflect on the way myriads of people literally from across the state pulled together to help us out.

When I first got out of the hospital, I had a ton of mental energy, and not much physical energy.  For a guy who likes to read and write, I was OK.  I ordered some new books and started to do some thinking about the relation of health, theologically.  That’s when I discovered this little book called The Enigma of Health by Gadamer from which we read an excerpt today.

Gadamer’s essays on health are interesting to me for the simple reason that the awakened sense of gratitude I was feeling for being alive, seemed to be germane to a point that Gadamer wanted to make and about which our reading today is exemplary.  When we are healthy, we do take our health for granted.  I think this is why Gadamer calls it our “miraculous existence of health.” But does he call it that because he cannot or will not try to explain how it is that life should be good, and not nasty, brutish and short?   Is this background of goodness, in which we live and move and have our being something like Kant’s noumena, theoretical but not observable? Something we can suggest should exist, but which we can no more talk about than prove?

I wonder, can this miraculous existence of health, not only be miraculous, but also rational, something upon which we can reasonably base our lives? Ultimately Kant’s idea that these things are simply beyond our experiencing, beyond our reasoning was his undoing.

In another essay in the same book, Gadamer hints that he wants to say more. In that essay, he notes the irony around the invention of the phrase “the search for quality of life.”  He calls attention to it, because its very language indicates what has been lost, indicates that we can indeed say something about the unsayable.  The phrase implicitly betrays the grounding of human life in a transcendental good.

Gadamer won’t go there, though, because he denies that we can talk about this implicit ground of our being at all.

Perhaps he won’t go there because so much of our traditional language about God and health verges on the ridiculous.  A case in the point is the mistranslation that arose around the final verses of Job.  When the divines of King James translated the Book of Job they did so from a medieval metaphysical framework — that is with a view to a mighty, easily angered, must-be-placated-God-in-order-to-live-in-God’s-graces, kind of God.  And so even though a more appropriate translation was available to them, one that fits more with the poetic progression of the book, they chose to make Job grovel before God.  And to portray the God human relationship as the anti-thesis of what a relationship ought to be, if it is to be defined as good.  This medieval image of God and human has defined, and thereby ruined it, for a great many of otherwise interested seekers of the meaning of the background of life, of God.

To me, when we get to experience the ending of Job as Stephen Mitchell has translated it, a whole new, and welcome meaning comes to light.  The tale still tells of human suffering, but instead of having to blame it on God, we see a long struggle to see God as God.  God is no more the one who must be placated, as Job assumes in the prologue to the book.  But equally God is no more the cursed destroyer as Job thinks in the middle dialogues.  Job is changed to see God as the whole meaning of everything, including his own cursing and questioning.

Job is now truly religious, where before he was only pious.  He sees himself and accepts himself as fallible and fragmentary, but that does not, cannot, will not preclude him from saying something about God.  Ultimately, to be alive, in the Jobean sense, is to worship — to love God with whatever it is one has to love.  And to find rest in it.  Amen.


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