“Are you limping?” I’ve heard that question several times over the past months, and the answer has been “Yes.” A year ago, I injured my left knee as I was beginning to ramp up mileage for a race. A visit to an orthopedic doctor eventually revealed a few stress fractures as well as a medial meniscus root tear. I wore a knee brace for seven months and stoically endured approximately twenty-five special airport security checks from very patient, kind, and professional TSA employees.
After continued doctor visits with the hope that my knee would heal on its own, I eventually decided to have surgery. However, that was near the beginning of COVD-19 when elective surgery was not permitted in order to ensure adequate medical resources for COVID-19 cases. I ended up having the meniscus repair a month ago and came home with an even larger knee brace! I am now rehabbing my knee in the hope of eventually being able to run again. I also have to confess that right after the initial diagnosis in June 2019, my husband Gary and I spent a month walking the 500 mile El Camino pilgrimage trail in Spain. Probably not smart, but I have no regrets!
Whenever I hear the word “limp,” I am drawn to Genesis 32. Do you remember how Esau was born before Jacob, who came out holding on to his older brother’s heel as if he was trying to pull Esau back into the womb so that he could be firstborn? The name Jacob actually means “he grasps the heel” and implies deceptive behavior in Hebrew.
We are also told that Isaac loved Esau and Rebekah loved Jacob. One day Esau returned from the fields famished and impulsively begged Jacob to give him a bowl of stew in exchange for his birthright. The birthright is the right of recognition as the first born. To make matters worse, Jacob also tricked Esau out of his father’s blessing. The twins were subsequently estranged.
After many years and more trials and tribulations, the two brothers came together on the banks of the Jabbok River. Jacob was terrified to come back home because he thought Esau was still out to kill him. Yet, it was God’s desire that these two brothers be reconciled with each other. At the Jabbok River ford, Jacob wrestled with God and with his guilt and fear. During the fray, an angel struck Jacob on the thigh, and he came away with a limp.
I suspect it was then that Jacob truly became a mature adult. Only when Jacob was willing to embrace his limp and the consequences of his youthful scheming could he be reconciled with his brother. When they finally met, it was Esau who ran to meet Jacob, embraced him, fell on his neck, kissed him, and wept. And Jacob said to his brother, “Seeing your face is like seeing God’s face, since you’ve accepted me so warmly.” (Genesis 33:19)
The most significant learning of my years at Yale Divinity School took place in a class taught by Henri Nouwen called “Ministry and Spirituality.” And the most transformative of the many Nouwen books I read during the years has been The Wounded Healer (1972).
Nouwen’s words changed my life and grounded my ministry. “Nobody escapes being wounded. We all are wounded people, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. The main question is not ‘How can we hide our wounds?’ so we don’t have to be embarrassed, but ‘How can we put our woundedness in the service of others?’ When our wounds cease to be a source of shame, and become a source of healing, we have become wounded healers.”
At the time, I had not been wounded yet. Nor was I limping. I had a clear call to music ministry, but that changed dramatically during my first two years at Yale. Due in large part to Nouwen’s influence, I read all of his books, but I did not yet have the practical experience in the church to understand the depth of woundedness that was coming my way. Yes, I had a part-time job at a nearby United Methodist Church as the organist and choir director. And yes, I had to become hardened to the petty complaints that left me with a limp.
But I also came to realize how my own words and actions as a religious leader can hurt others deeply. Nouwen said this, “The Church often wounds us deeply. People with religious authority often wound us by their words, attitudes, and demands. Precisely because our religion brings us in touch with the questions of life and death, our religious sensibilities can get hurt most easily. Ministers and priests seldom fully realize how a critical remark, a gesture of rejection, or an act of impatience can be remembered for life by those to whom it is directed.”
Henri Nouwen’s legacy in my life was the realization that if I were to be an effective pastor, I would have to acknowledge my own woundedness and embrace a permanent limp.
Last month, in rearranging our basement storage room, I came across a box with notes from Henri Nouwen’s Ministry and Spirituality class as well as several typed papers that he had written. In his paper, The Minister as a Healing Reminder (1977) Nouwen wrote,
- “The great vocation of the minister is to continuously make connections between the human story and the divine story. We have inherited a story which needs to be told in such a way that the many painful wounds about which we hear day after day can be liberated from their isolation and revealed as part of God’s relationship with us. Healing means to reveal that our human wounds are most intimately connected with the suffering of God himself.” (Nouwen had not yet been exposed to inclusive language.)
- “By connecting the human story with the story of the suffering servant, we rescue our history from its fatalistic chain and allow our time to be converted from chronos to kairos, from a series of randomly organized incidents and accidents into a constant opportunity to explore God’s work in our lives.”
- “All of ministry rests on the conviction that nothing, absolutely nothing in our lives is outside the realm of God’s judgment and mercy.”
This is a very tender time in our history as a conference, country, and world. We are struggling around the legacy of racism in the U.S. as well as the devastating effects of COVID-19. So many people remain unemployed, and in The United Methodist Church, we are still wondering what we will look like in the future because of our differences around human sexuality. At the same time, I experience every day the walking wounded among the clergy: those who have lost hope; those who bear too many responsibilities; those who are struggling to help their church make ends meet; and those who carry the burden of complaints and pettiness, knowing that they cannot possibly please everyone.
The wounds seem unbearable at times, and we wonder how reconciliation and healing can become a reality. As disciples of Jesus Christ, whether clergy or lay, our own woundedness reminds us of the suffering of all humanity as well as the wounds experienced by God through the suffering of Jesus.
I’m in the midst of physical therapy now and am working hard to strengthen my knee and enhance the healing process. At the same time, I am reminded every day of the limp that grounds me in my humanity and frailty. Even if I am able to start running again, I will not forget that it is our own wounds that bring healing, hope, and compassion to our world. Perhaps it is only the wounded who can truly heal.
P.S. I will be taking a summer break from writing my blog. The next Leading from the Heart will be published on Tuesday, September 8.
P.P.S. If you are looking for summer reading, I invite you to pick up a copy of my 2020 book, Wandering into Grace, published by Abingdon Press. You may purchase the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Laurie-Haller/e/B084RFGDJH?ref_=dbs_p_pbk_r00_abau_000000