“Somehow, in the sharing of wounds, we come to see each other in a deeper way. No wonder the disciples recognized Jesus by his wounds.” Photo: Tyler Olson
I once heard the comment that people in an Alcoholics Anonymous group feel more accepted by each other than they would in church. Why is that?
In the gospel, we have a graphic story about the sharing of wounds. We find a group of frightened disciples hovering in a room with the door locked. They are dejected, dispirited people. They had high hopes that Jesus was the one to redeem Israel, but then he was arrested and put to death on the cross. When Jesus died, their dreams died with him. Now they are feeling anxious, confused and afraid.
But on the night of that first Easter Sunday, something miraculous happens. Jesus appears in their midst, bidding them peace. He opens his hands, and shows them his side. The disciples rejoice, for they see the Lord. They know him by his wounds-they recognize him by those marks.
Here, I think, is the answer as to why people in AA groups feel more accepted by each other than in church. It is by our wounds that we recognize one another.
Ray Holder is an Episcopal priest in the diocese of Mississippi. In an article in The Living Church several years ago, he wrote of his son, who fought in Vietnam. While riding shotgun on a lead tank in the incursion into Cambodia, he was shot in the back by an enemy sniper. Following emergency surgery in a field hospital, he was summarily pronounced a paraplegic. But the prognosis was premature. He walked again, and was finally flown home for a long period of recuperation. Eighteen years later, he received his medical degree.
As a research physician, Dr. Holder once flew to Montreal to read a paper before an international symposium. On going through U.S. and Canadian customs he passed by detection devices with flying colours. Interpol was another story. On stepping through that gate, alarms went off with abandon, as if he was packing a live hand grenade! Ordered to spread-eagle by a man in a business suit brandishing a submachine gun, he instantly responded, hands behind head.
“Sir,” he exclaimed, “there’s an AK-47 bullet lodged here in my right side. Let me move my hand and I’ll show you.” Before he could speak another word, the well-dressed man, with lethal weapon relaxed in hand, replied, “At ease, fellow. It’s OK.” And then he added, “Sorry. I was there too, and like you, I’ve got a leg full of iron-shrapnel. Pass on through, Buddy.”
Yes, we know each other by our wounds. Somehow, in the sharing of wounds, we come to see each other in a deeper way. No wonder the disciples recognized Jesus by his wounds. For, in the sharing of wounds, they saw the Lord.
The gospel tells us that Thomas was not with the disciples when Jesus first appeared to them. When Thomas is told what had happened, he questions the appearance, saying, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe” (John 20:25). Eight days later, Jesus appears to the disciples again and says to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe” (John 20:27).
Jesus invites Thomas to know his wounds intimately. In doing so, Thomas recognizes Jesus and utters one of the greatest statements of faith in the entire Bible: “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:28).
Stanley Hauerwas is considered one of the great theologians in North America, yet he began his theological career as a sort of Doubting Thomas. In his recent memoir, Hannah’s Child, he tells of a time in his life when he was reluctant to call himself a Christian. Then something happened as he was teaching at the University of Notre Dame. His wife, Ann, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and treated without success.
For ten years, Hauerwas and their son, Adam, learned to live with the uncertainty and pain of Ann’s illness. Ann’s mind and behaviour were often uncontrollable, but through it Hauerwas learned to face the limits of his own energy, to receive friendship and support from others, and in the process he discovered what it means to be held together by the grace of God. It was by the sharing of wounds that he found the strength to carry on with his life and eventually to call himself a Christian.
Some of us may know of Henri Nouwen’s book, The Wounded Healer. According to Nouwen, only the wounded healer is really able to heal the wounds of others. Only the person who has suffered can enter into the pain of a suffering person. Perhaps for that reason the best drug counsellors are often former drug addicts. The best divorce recovery therapists often have been divorced. By our wounds we know each other and help each other heal. The temptation, of course, is to keep our wounds to ourselves-to guard ourselves, protect ourselves-in which case, our wounds become worse.
One of the bishops in the Episcopal church who by all accounts was eminently successful in his ministry was David Johnson, the bishop of Massachusetts. He was well respected by bishops and clergy alike. But beneath the veneer of the purple shirt and bishop’s regalia lay wounds-wounds that wounded other people and only intensified with time. Unbeknownst to his colleagues and friends, David Johnson suffered from a deep and pervasive despair. He was consumed by his hurts. When charges were publicized that David Johnson over the course of his ministry had sexually abused several women, this already wounded man could not take the hurt anymore. In a final act of desperation, he committed suicide rather than face the charges against him.
Most of us, I dare say, have been taught to bear our wounds silently. We hurt, but we say to ourselves, “This is just the way things are, and I guess I have to bear it.” But you don’t! Christians have a God who has been to hell and back. Jesus knows our wounds because he has been there. Too many of us deny we are wounded. We prefer to be people of the stiff upper lip, bearing our burden by ourselves, going it alone without anyone’s help, letting people see us as we appear rather than as we are. Although we may talk the language of community, at heart we are rugged individualists.
If we are going to be real, authentic people, we will have wounds. All of us need to drop our pretenses and be the human beings God calls us to be. We are walking wounded, all of us. Our wounds may differ, but we all hurt. And yes, we all need healing-the kind of healing that comes through people who know they don’t have it all together-not by a long shot. The church at its best is a healing community, and Christians at their best are not just sinners, but forgiven sinners. Forgiven, we can forgive others and even ourselves. Unforgiven, we can’t.
So, for God’s sake, why should AA groups be doing the work of the church? Shouldn’t the church be the one place where people find unconditional love and acceptance, where we come as we are, wounds and warts and all?
A play that I return to again and again is Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. It’s a story about a father who can’t relate to his children, no matter how hard his children try to relate to him. There are just too many wounds in the family.
In the play’s closing scene there is an explosion of tension between Willy and his oldest son, Biff. When it’s all over, Biff turns away and walks up the stairs in tears. Willy, who has been totally incapable of understanding his family’s true feelings, turns to his wife, Linda, and says, “Isn’t that-isn’t that remarkable? Biff-he likes me!” The long-suffering wife replies, “He loves you, Willy!” Younger brother Happy adds, “Always did, Pop.”
When Brendan Gill reviewed the play for The New Yorker, he wrote, “So many people were sobbing during the last few minutes of the play that they threatened to interrupt the action on stage.”
Real people have wounds and they share them with others, because in the sharing there is healing. Remember, it was wounds that enabled the disciples to know the risen Lord. When we share our wounds, when we strive to be real and authentic people-then God, who can turn despair into hope, will raise us from the depths to the heights, by the power of the risen Christ working within us.
The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.