One of the joys of ministry is getting to take a continuing education time. Most full-time clergy types like myself get two weeks away and attend various seminars or workshops. This year I get to attend the Festival of Homiletics. It is a celebration of great preaching and worship to the glory of God. There are various speakers and it is a Who’s Who among folks whose books we read and enjoy and professors of preaching and theology who provide us with top quality lectures and sermons. The music is also top notch and always outstanding. 2014 Festival is on par with several of the others I’ve been able to attend. I am thankful I get to go to such events. I am a preaching nerd. This conference helps me be fed spiritually so that I in turn can go and provide good spiritual insights to the folks I serve alongside. Several folks preached last night including David Lose whom I read almost weekly as he offers commentary on the lectionary texts from which I preach. He was not the one who stood out among the others for me.
Last night they had a storyteller named Kevin Kling as one of the speakers at the Festival of Homiletics. He was funny and very moving. He has two arms that don’t work the same way as everyone else’s. One hangs at his side unable to move, the other arm is equipped with a hand that has four fingers and a bit of a permanent bend in it. Even though he is able to use it, it isn’t in the typical way most folks can use their arms.
This was part of what made his story so compelling and why I’m writing. His right arm became immobile after a motorcycle accident he had as an adult. The wreck nearly ended his life. The other arm was disabled from birth.
He spoke of many things but the underlying message was about how his prayers had matured over the years. His prayer life began with prayers that went “Gimme gimme gimme”. The example was praying to Jesus to ask God to tell Santa he wanted a spider monkey for Christmas. His next prayer was “Get me out of this.” He prayed it while hanging from a rope ladder off the side of a ship hoping not to get caught stowing away on a trip to Ireland. Finally his prayer life evolved into “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
His transition into this prayer of thanksgiving came through the motorcycle accident that nearly killed him. The accident required an extensive rehab period and part of his recovery was stitches throughout his body and on his face. Plastic surgery was needed to reconstruct his face. The surgeons had to use pictures of what he looked like in order to try to put his face back together properly. Some friends were concerned because one of the photos had a picture of their dog in it.
During his recovery he described a multi-day morphine induced hallucinatory experience where no one could convince him that two men weren’t spying on him disguised as televisions. Following his time in that stupor he told of how his wife one day gave him and apple and said, “You have GOT to try this.” Because of his surgeries, he spoke of how nothing had tasted good and he hadn’t eaten properly for many days. When he bit into the apple his wife had given him, the sweetness on his tongue was breathtaking. It called to mind how thankful he was to still be alive after the motorcycle accident. So much so that he began to cry. His salty tears fell in his newly stitched facial wounds causing pain and he was thankful to be able to feel. The sweetness and the pain together made up life. He was thankful for the pain AND the joy. Not in some masochistic way, but in a way that reflects the Resurrection of Christ. Death does not and did not have the final word in his life, nor does death have the final word in ours or in all of creation.
In his story I saw my own story. My memory went back to one of 7 or 8 surgeries I’d had over time to correct my cleft lip and cleft palate. When I was in 7th grade I had my palate closed surgically for the fourth time (they grow apart after each surgery each time a little less). In order to protect my palate they packed it with gauze and wired it to my braces. Sounds wonderful right? The morning I was discharged from the hospital after having had only beef or chicken broth to eat for three or more days, my parents said I could get scrambled eggs from McDonald’s. They were some of the best scrambled eggs I’ve ever had. I remember saying so at the time and my parents and I laughed at how joyful something so seemingly mundane had made me. So I know what he meant when he talked about that apple.
I pray then today “Thank you God”. Thank you for being able to hear excellent speakers talk about their faith in times of trial. Thank you for the church that provides me the luxury of traveling to another city to this conference. Thank you that I have family that loves me. I pray too that you find those moments even if only brief ones that help you come to a place where you pray. “Thank you Lord.”
Thank you God for apples and scrambled eggs. Amen.