I collapsed across the finish line after last year’s Christmas services, and after a day of familial and gastronomic mirth, I prepared for the re-entry into ministry life.
Re-entries are usually violent and ungraceful. The transition from vacation to normal life passes from the lightness of vacation through the atmosphere of responsibility, falling back to the firmness through gravity’s pull, and slamming into the mass and density of life. Ah, the impact crater spreads debris and shockwaves for miles.
For a pastor, the fall back into the desperate pace of church life is marked with the shocking regularity of Sunday morning. Thankfully in my case, God put a stop to that. The day after we returned, I got sick as a dog. Being bedridden led me to an awareness that, though I had apprehended it, I had never been able to articulate it, and now I am (thanks to my good friend, Ping) able to relate it to you: I realized that I am only free when I am sick.
C.S. Lewis has written, that his “ideal happiness…would be to read the [Renaissance] Italian epic — to be always convalescent from some small illness and always seated in a window that overlooked the sea, there to read these poems eight hours of each happy day.”* Lewis speaks of the same principle. Illness provides a justifiable excuse to rest. A “small illness” is too ambiguous a thing for me to mediate. I’m always of the assumption that I can push through some measure of difficulty. What I need (and needed) was something a little more definitive.
The humble desperation of either trying not to vomit or desperately sprinting to the toilet is wonderfully centering. You really don’t care about anything else. You don’t worry whether there are empty nurseries or if there is toilet paper in the church bathroom or the bulletin is typo-free or if the overheads are correct. You don’t care whether or not your sermon is “finished” or the light bulbs have been fixed or doggone it, that that person who has dropped in unannounced is just so disappointed in the church or me, and they’ve just got to let me know — something.
“Sorry,” I say, “I can’t answer your question, hear your concern, listen to you complain– I’ve got to throw up now.” How incredibly freeing! But it’s also brilliant. Because, at this very moment, I am not being insensitive or ungracious, I am actually loving them, by getting away from them as quickly as possible so that they won’t get sick either. And what is the response to this terse, “Not…now!”? It is sympathy and kindness and concern. Is that incredible or what?
I have framed this new principle into one of the classic formations of Reformed theology. You’ve heard of soli Deo gloria or perhaps the three solas: fide, gratia, scriptura? Well let us add to it: sola aegrotus “by illness alone” or its theological cousin and more widely recognizable, soli vomitio, “vomit alone.” I really think this has potential.
There is also the universalist approach which sadly is more definitive, less debatable, and absolute; it is called: sola morte.
*This quote is pulled from Alan Jacobs excellent book on the life and thought of C.S. Lewis entitled, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis.
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