We were on a retreat this past weekend in Normandy, and the night before we left, I stepped on a piece of glass that came from a broken perfume bottle. I didn’t realize I cut myself right away, and when I did, I didn’t realise there was a piece of glass in my foot. I just noticed the cut, gave a quick wash and disinfect, then went on my merry way. By the middle of the next day, my foot was starting to hurt more and more but we were packing to leave, so I told my husband we’d need to bring some disinfectant and his Swiss army knife (for the magnifying glass and tweezers) and he would have to remove the glass. If, indeed, there was any.
Everything went according to plan, and I limped to dinner, and to the games, and we cut out early for the procedure. It was not pleasant, but I was determined, and when my husband asked for a pain number I lied and stuck to 2 or 3. After 15 minutes, I was happy to switch to a lying down position on the bed, with my foot propped up on a stool, to let the blood flow back into my head. At the end of 30 minutes, when my eyes started to roll back into my head, my husband deemed fit to call it a night and turn me over to the specialists.
It was the perfect place for this to happen, really. We were surrounded by church families who took our kids with them on the planned activities (laser tag and zip-lining) – activities we were too tired, burnt out, and old to sign them up for ourselves. People volunteered to take over our responsibility of teaching the kids during the morning classes, and we left for the emergency room, somber, but appreciative.
It was a 40 minute drive to the nearest hospital in Rouen, and the scenery was breathtaking. Rolling hills, rows of trees, black pavement with red flowers on the side, white cows grazing contentedly.
We decided to pray the ACTS prayer, which we had not done in years. In case you’ve not heard of it, it’s when you pray by Adoring God, then Confessing your sins, then giving Thanks, then Supplicating (putting your needs before God and asking him to meet them). We got through the first two before we arrived at the hospital and took our place in line, figuring that Thanksgiving would be a good place to pick back up again on our way home, with the unpleasant procedure safely behind us.
The ER is a vulnerable place, even when you have nothing serious. People come in on stretchers, and everyone present is the victim of some accident or unexpected illness, or is there to support a loved one. It’s not a reassuring place to be. You’re forced to face how fragile a creature you are, wrapped up in this “jar of clay”.
To make a long story short, four hours later I was seen by a plastic surgeon. The four shots of anaesthesia were the most painful part of the ordeal, but then I only felt a tugging rather than the cutting. Finally, there it was – a small shard for a rather big ordeal – embedded in the foot at an angle that couldn’t be retrieved without a small surgery.
The tetanus test revealed I had no antibodies left, so I needed a shot, and I got my prescription for antibiotics. We managed to squeak into a brasserie at 2:30 just before they closed for lunch, and had an exceptional lunch – tête à tête – with creamy chicken and foie gras salad, and artisanal anise-flavoured sorbet for dessert. (Yes, it really was good. They put lemon zest and mint leaves and berries). We got back to the retreat in time for some fellowship and dinner, and our kids returned, radiant to have had so much fun at their activities (and to have their mom back).
When Matthieu was trying to extract the glass, I prayed to God for him to be able to remove it. I was willing to endure the pain if only this foreign object could be removed from my body. I remembered the scripture:
Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ (2 Corinthians 12:7b-9a)
Like Paul, three times I pleaded for the Lord to take it out of me, but he said no. And I wonder if I would have thought of antibiotics and tetanus shots myself if my husband had been able to retrieve it, or if I would have sprayed some disinfectant and called it a day. Having faith in God, I’m confident his no was for my benefit. Whether it was to spare me later infection, I have no idea.
I tried to imagine what sort of spiritual parallel could be in play that would take a shard in my flesh to pull me out of fellowship. Why did we have to spend an entire day of a very short retreat on our own and away from the classes and fellowship. I mean, I suppose you don’t have to look far. A little conceit and you’re no longer enjoying the nourishment of the Word, and the benefits of fellowship.
But I don’t think it was that.
I think, more than anything, sometimes we cannot remove a particular thorn from our flesh by our own strength and skill. We want to stop doing destructive behaviour and need a master surgeon to perform the job.
My husband had a good conversation with someone the next day. It was a tough conversation – a challenging one. This brother is sort of a John the Baptist type of guy – hard-line on sin, radical in his faith, and living on the edge. Out of the many things they spoke about, this guy said we shouldn’t always pray to add on to what we already have. We tend to do this. We tend to pray for things. But he said we should instead pray for God to remove the things we don’t need. Like the grape-grower, who cuts off branches from the vine which bear no fruit, we should pray for God to remove the dry, withered branches in us, which keep us from being fruitful.
When Matthieu recounted the conversation, I was not a fan of the revelation. I’m all for challenging conversations, but I couldn’t help but think that asking God to remove what we don’t need is counterproductive. God will remove what we don’t need. He will prune us – because he loves us!
But … if we ask for it, it’s a little like navel-gazing. It’s focusing on the wrong things. It’s focusing on our own sin, weaknesses, and decayed parts instead of God. I did a global search on the Bible using the words “remove”, followed by “cut” and didn’t come up with anything that seems like this is something we should pray for. Rather, I found that we should cut off what we know to be unlike Jesus, and trust that God will cut off what we cannot see.
Isn’t it more productive to focus on wonderful, praiseworthy things, like God’s beauty and holiness, and all the ways he can build us up to make us more like Jesus and bring us to completion?
Plus, I reasoned, I’ve had enough cutting for now. As if my minor foot surgery were not enough, we still have a massive hole cut out of our living room wall as the work stalls and stalls, and we have to live with the October chill until they can put in a furnace. I would much rather pray that God sends his Spirit through our withered branches and bring them to life again. In fact, that’s exactly what I did pray that night with Matthieu to battle the anxiety we’re both feeling about stalled construction, health issues, minor car accidents, insurance problems, a surcharge of work and demands we’re unable to meet …
So I prayed: God, send your Spirit to flow through our withered branches. Send your source to bring our vines to life. Bring forth buds and blossoms where there were once dead leaves. Let your Spirit touch all the areas of our life that have laid dormant. Restore to us the joy of your salvation.
As I was typing this, my husband came home and said he got a call from Jesus (that’s our carpenter’s name), and that the plumber would be coming tomorrow to start installing the pipes and the new heater. I also got through to someone (who was friendly! and helpful!) about an insurance problem. It seems the Spirit is flowing through the vines and bringing buds where there were once only withered branches.
I don’t know why the shard of glass. I certainly have other thorns in my flesh in the metaphorical sense, which bring their share of frustration. I have my share of conceit. I just know that when God removes the shards, it’s done in his perfect timing, with perfect precision, and the only after-effect of the surgery is thorough healing, which makes us whole again.