It started simply enough. I was meeting with four folks, planning a worship service, drinking coffee, and struggling to stay on conversation. I felt fine. Happy even. And then the meeting was over. I stopped by the grocer, picked up some lunch, and made the five-minute drive home. I put the coffee creamer up and started to make a sandwich, when suddenly I wasn’t hungry. But it was worse than not being hungry. The thought of the food nauseated me.
My legs started aching. It felt like I had been doing squats or leg presses – you know, exercise. But it wasn’t my muscles really, or, wasn’t just my muscles. The pain moved deeper, sinking into my bones. I could feel the inside of my femur, the spongy marrow dehydrating into a brittle stick; my joints grinded against my knee caps. Then my ankle bones and the little bones in my feet flared with pain as though something sharp and hot had jabbed them.
Then I started coughing. Hacking really. At first, I just whiped my nose with tissues. Then I lost control and was in and out of the bathroom.
What was happening to me? Only an hour, maybe two, had passed from the end of the meeting.
My body was arrested with cold. Freezing. I put on layers. An extra pair of socks. I wore a jacket inside the house and covered up with blankets. I sat on the sofa, shivering in bundled tiers of wool and fleece and cotton. I wore a toboggan. The knifing sensation in my bones stabbed again, and again. My lungs rattled. My teeth chattered.
What was wrong with me? How do you go from waking up feeling normal to feeling like this could be it? And I was certain this was it. I was dying. I knew it, and I was mad. When death comes I first want all curiosity satisfied. I want to die in an exotic, far-flung place that nobody has ever heard of before, a deserted island maybe, or above the arctic circle while watching the Aurora Borealis, or I want to have a Sherpa find my frozen corpse at the summit and report back to his buddy, saying, “I’ve never seen anyone try it naked before.” I want to clutch my chest and heave over the top of my computer having written language’s purest sentence. I want to feel as though words have been exhausted. I want the world to mourn my death by making coffee passé. When death comes for me I want to feel like Mary Oliver who wrote, “When it’s over, I want to say all my life/I was a bride married to amazement.”
Instead, I was dying of a man-cold.
By the time my wife came home from work I was a blanket covered, gelatinous residue of human tissue. Pasty and red-eyed, even my footsteps left glops of mucus and goo as I was escorted to bed. The dogs eyed with me with a sort a sort of tail-between-their-legs fear, as though I were going through a reversed metamorphosis. And my dogs were right. I was turning into Jell-O flavored phlegm.
Each step hurt. Each breathe felt like it was filtered through two inches of dog hair or vacuum cleaner refuse. And the cold. How could I be shivering underneath three, four blankets? How could the universe suck all the heat out of my bedroom?
The next day the doctor gave me the answer. I had the flu. This was the same doctor who had given me my flu shot, so, I asked him if I could have my money back. With a crooked smirk, he said no.
I did some extensive internet research (thank you Wikipedia) and learned that there is such a thing as human flu (duh), horse flu, dog flu, swine flu, and bird flu. Okay, so with the exception of learning about horse flu I already knew about all the other kinds of flu. I’ve got a pretty good idea about what happens to dogs and horses when they catch the flu – they get pampered. Pigs, I’m not so sure about but I just can’t muster the energy to feel too much empathy for something I go to the grocery store and buy. But birds, birds I can feel sorry for. And by birds, I don’t mean chickens or turkeys. I eat them too. I’m talking about the little song bird that sometimes sits outside my window. Who takes her temperature? Who covers him over with a blanket? Who brings her a cup of hot chicken broth?
Maybe I am too sentimental or too sensitive (as my mother says of me) but I can’t help but wonder what happens to birds when they get sick. There’s no bird hospital or doctor’s office; I’ve never seen a bird standing in line at Walgreens or CVS. I like to think of birds as being springtime birds, happy birds chirping melodies, building nest underneath the eaves of our house. But the other week when the wind blew down from the North and ice and snow covered the grass, I saw a frustrated blue heron quivering beside a frozen pond.
Is there something wrong with me that years from now I will still remember that blue heron and hope he found a warm place or moved to Florida? I don’t know, but, if there is something wrong with me, I don’t think I would change it.
Jesus says that “not [a sparrow] will fall to the ground apart from your Father.” Maybe I don’t understand Jesus. Well clearly, I don’t. But his words offer little comfort. The sparrow still fell to the ground and that sparrow probably had the flu.
So much of what defines us is our childhood. That first decade, give or take, decides too much of what we will feel for the rest of our lives. And I know why I feel sorry for little birds. It’s my mother’s fault, of course.
We had a little, green bird named Tiki who lived in our playroom. Tiki seemed as happy as a caged bird could be, jumping from one side of the cage to another side, bobbing his head in the water tray, crunching dinky-sized birdseed. Every now and then Tiki would be allowed out of his cage to sit on our fingers or our shoulders or walk on our heads. And even when Tiki had to stay in his cage, I would talk to Tiki.
“How you doing, Tiki?”
“Me too. I gotta do math homework.”
“At least you don’t have to do math.”
Then my mom watched a news broadcast or read an article in the newspaper that said, “Birds Carry Diseases.” And that was it. Tiki had to go. The last thing my loving mother wanted her children to be exposed to was a disease-carrying, filthy bird. So, in the afternoon, my mom took Tiki’s cage to the back porch and lifted the gate. Tiki was free to go, my mom explained. He was free to fly the skies, play outside, be with other birds. She made it sound like recess.
But I knew better. Tiki didn’t look like Tennessee birds. Tiki was bright green with other bright spots. Tiki was a warm weather bird who didn’t know how to hunt for worms. And Tiki knew this too. He stayed in his cage, ducking and outmaneuvering my mother’s hand. But my mom insisted. No disease-carrying bird was going to live in her house. One way or the other Tiki was out. I couldn’t bear to watch the cage shaking and the shoo, shoo. I went inside and waited. A little while later my mom returned with an empty bird cage.
For months, I looked outside for Tiki. I looked in trees, on top of houses, I watched the Tennessee skies for a rare, green bird. But I never saw Tiki again.
I hope Tiki flew south. Maybe he made it to Costa Rica or a beautiful tropical island. But we know that’s not what happened.
The flu hasn’t given me any marvelous spiritual insights on the human condition. I didn’t go on any great adventures to capture these images of birds. (They were all left over images from my December travels.) And, for me anyway, there is a connection between doing and understanding.
But if the flu counts as doing something, I can say this: the flu is sin. Not the sort of sin we had pounded into us in Sunday school. Not even the sort of sin so easily bombed away at folks sitting in the pews. I’m not even talking about the kind of sin that demands repentance and shame and endless guilt. Sin is not a moral failing. Sin is not what we do but what is done to us. I mean this quite literally, the flu is sinful.
Disease, hurt, pain, brokenness, if it separates us from ourselves, call it sin – that original sin wasn’t an act of disobedience as much as it was having God’s created purpose left behind. The wage of sin is death, we hear and read so often, but isn’t that a medical prognosis not a moral spanking. And it follows that if we are separated from our true selves by sin only the gossamer threads of prevenient grace keep us moored to the Divine. Depression, addiction, personality disorders, PTSD, anxiety, just because it is sinful doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. Just because it is sinful doesn’t mean you deserve it. John Wesley wrote “[Our sins] are diseases that drink up our blood and spirits.” Now, to be fair, Wesley had a great deal more to say about sin, and it’s probably equally fair to say that the above quote isn’t entirely representative of his thoughts. And you’re not going to find a comprehensive theology of sin in a blog either. What I’m driving at here, however, is the connection between physical and spiritual wholeness. You can’t have one without the other.
So, what does all this mean for those of us suffering from the flu or cancer or disability? I think it means we’re like little Tiki, shoved out of our safe place, dealing with obstacles others are fortunate enough to be ignorant of. It is something done to us, something God did not intend.
My flu will pass. But some of this other stuff I’m burdened down with will stick around for the rest of my life. I suspect the same is true for most folks who read my blog. Those of us with ample, care-laden sinful lives don’t need the same kind of compassion and sympathy as others. I think of the healthy people, the people without actual money concerns, the people of sound mind and good fortune, the people who honestly believe that all you’ve got to do to succeed in this world is work hard, the people who are so well off they don’t know they’re well off, the people who are less sinful: Ought we not consider these less sinful people with a greater sense of pity? Will they not go through life understanding grace as brittle and judgmental – something they’ve accomplished?
One of my heroes, Henri Nouwen or Thomas Merton or Fredrick Buechner, I can’t remember which one, said that broken glass outshines unbroken glass. If you are a healthy, mentally well-balanced person this will make no sense to you. But if you are broken, if you are filled with the kind of sin that inflicts misery and heartbreak on your body and soul, all the more grace avails itself to you. You are God’s chosen one.
So, I’ll keep my flu, thank you very much. I’ll keep it until the virus is eventually defeated. And, yes, next year I’ll get another flu shot. In the meantime, I’ll remember that Jesus sought out the sick and quarantined and ostracized; I’ll remember that Jesus hung out with the unbalanced and the hungry; I’ll remember that Jesus sought the company of children and those possessed with what were called demons. And I will take comfort in knowing that at least God knows what happened to Tiki, and what happened wasn’t God’s plan but somehow a part of God’s grace.
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