I’m lying in the nurse’s office at the hotel, incredulous at my predicament. She is meticulously removing a dozen tiny sea urchin spines from my right foot. For several days my foot has been feeling tender, and it isn’t until Gary examines it closely that he sees numerous black spots in my skin. The nurse says that removing sea urchin spines is a normal part of her job.
I’ve been an avid beachcomber my entire life. Vacationing along the Jersey Shore as a child, I adopted my parents’ love of shell collecting. It always seemed like a safe hobby … until six weeks ago when our family vacationed together over Thanksgiving. I was walking through shallow salt water looking for sea urchins, not realizing that I should have been wearing water shoes. I did find some beautiful sea urchins (I did not touch the lives ones), but it came at a cost.
How is it that something as tiny as part of a sea urchin spine can cause so much discomfort? It reminds me of all the baggage that we humans carry around with us, petty things in the grand scheme of life that weigh us down because we cannot let them go: resentment at a perceived slight, jealousy at another’s good fortune, unresolved anger over a small matter, failure that holds us back from ever risking again.
Back home from vacation, my foot seems better, but after a few weeks I realize it’s not healed. Gary looks closely with a flashlight and sees more black spots deeply embedded in the ball of my foot. I investigate online and discover that multiple deep sea urchin puncture wounds may result in swelling and redness around the area, which may cause “fatigue, weakness, muscle aches, shock, paralysis, and respiratory failure. Death may occur.” Hmmm.
I call my internist, who asks me to come in early the next morning. He delights in a new challenge and uses a razor blade, tweezers and headlamp to “operate.” It takes a half hour, but he finally removes several microscopic spines and thinks he got them all. My foot feels better immediately.
I ponder how God is speaking to me through the spines. How many of my unhealthy practices result in physical, emotional and spiritual pain. How many tiny spines prevent me from experiencing fullness of life because I’ve allowed them to become embedded habits: over-functioning, work-obsession, enslavement to the expectations of others and perfectionism, to name only a few of my more egregious patterns. Instead of acknowledging and embracing my shadow self and seeking necessary change, I allow the darker aspects of who I am to fester like tiny sea urchin spines, gradually infecting my entire being. The “letting go” that God continually asks of us reminds me of a story that I include in my new book, Recess; Rediscovering Play and Purpose, which will be launched in several weeks.
I hadn’t thought about this story for years. Garth and Talitha were in the middle of a fight. Tears and angry words flew about the room. Normally, I let the children resolve their own differences, but this dispute called for parental action.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Garth won’t let me play his harmonica!” Talitha sobbed. I never knew Garth had a harmonica, so I called him into the room.
“What’s this about a harmonica, Garth?”
“Mom, I found a harmonica out on the street this afternoon, and I don’t want Talitha to play it.”
“Because I’m collecting harmonicas.”
“Oh, really? Since when?”
“Since yesterday. Now I have two harmonicas, and because I’m collecting them, nobody else can touch them.”
I didn’t buy his story and told Garth that if he was not going to play the harmonica himself, he had to share and let Talitha use it. Garth absolutely refused. He stormed into his room, shut the door and proceeded to sulk. Fifteen minutes later, he came into my room and said, “Mom, I just threw the harmonica out the window. I decided it was causing me too much trouble.”
It was an incredible insight for a 10-year-old boy. Garth realized that the harmonica wasn’t worth holding on to. It wasn’t worth the conflict it was causing. Garth didn’t have any interest in harmonicas anyway. He was simply using it as a way to provoke his younger sister. When it dawned on Garth that he was not going to get his way, he wisely gave up. He didn’t need to get into trouble over a dirty, bent harmonica.
I can think of a whole lot of harmonicas I need to throw out the window. Having the opportunity to step back from active ministry for a few months, I am beginning to realize the unnecessary baggage I carry with me. To live a whole, spiritually healthy life centered in God, I need to throw away some stuff:
- the feeling that I am indispensable
- the craving for recognition
- the desire for attention
- the need to be right
- anger when I don’t get my way
- bitterness toward people who have hurt me
- the inability to call it quits and relax
- an obsession with work
- the insistence that I don’t have time to nurture my spirit
Of course, I can think of countless harmonicas others can throw out the window as well, but I’ve decided to focus on myself. As we all know, the only person we can change is ourselves. I’m going to start and end with me.
Unfortunately, the irritation in my foot does not completely go away, but I have to focus on Advent and Christmas, just like so many others who experience deep pain at this time of year but don’t want to be a Scrooge. Because we don’t give ourselves permission to accept who and where we are in our spiritual lives, we go through the motions in December without allowing our melancholy to inform our faith and deepen our awareness of the depth of God’s grace.
On Christmas Day, Gary takes one more look and says, “I think I see a black spot, and your foot is red. It’s time to go back to the doctor.” I have an appointment for this afternoon, hoping to let go of the last spine. Then again, I suspect spines of one sort or another will always be a part of my life, reminding me that discomfort and pain are pathways to spiritual growth.
How will the year 2015 be different for you? What deeply embedded behaviors and unhealthy attitudes do you need to let go of? What harmonicas do you need to throw out the window? O God, the Great Physician, use the tweezers of faith to remove whatever spines prevent me from being a pure reflection of your grace and hope.
Recess recounts the gift of a three month recess from pastoral ministry in 2001. This leave gave me the opportunity to face burnout and depression after twenty years of active ministry, look deep into my heart, reassess my vocation and rediscover my love for God and the church. You are invited to two book launch events:
- Saturday, January 17 at 2:00 p.m. at First United Methodist Church, Grand Rapids MI
- Saturday, January 24 at 2:00 p.m. First United Methodist Church, Birmingham MI
Books may be purchased for $20 after the launch events from Cass Community
Publishing House at ccpublishinghouse.org.