“They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. ‘Peace, peace,’ they say, when there is no peace.” Jer. 6:14 NIV
The prophet Jeremiah had an unenviable job. He came to tell his people that they were in trouble. He was sort of like a doctor who sees a patient, runs some tests, and then has bad news. “You are not well,” he says, “and I’m afraid it is serious. We have treatment options, but if we don’t act immediately, your condition could be fatal.”
How did his people respond to this somber message?
“I want a second opinion!”
So they went out and found other doctors. They found charlatans, snake-oil salesmen, quacks and false prophets who told them, “Don’t worry. There is nothing to fear. Jeremiah is not a good doctor; in fact, he isn’t a doctor at all. You should probably sue him for malpractice. You are the very picture of health. Fit as the proverbial fiddle.”
They covered up the wound. They gave sugar pills. They gave a savory placebo, and ego massage, and a pat on the back. They charged for their time, of course, but it was worth every penny. Who wouldn’t want to hear such good news. The only problem was, it wasn’t the truth.
Here at the CURE hospital we see the same thing. Many patients come to us after seeing a local witch doctor. They don’t bring a referral from the fetisher, but the voodoo calling card is hard to miss. Usually it’s an amulet around the neck, or something of that sort. Something harmless and small. Sometimes it is something more imposing, and when they try to meddle in orthopedics, the results can be most unfortunate. But either way the approach is the same, it is a cover up, a cosmetic cure. Try to make the wound look nice, or at least presentable, and then declare the patient healed.
But you cannot hide from the truth.
My dad is a veterinarian. No, sorry, that is false modesty. He is a specialist in bovine herd-health. Also, he is a great teacher, and even though he is my dad, I have learned a great deal from him. Almost everything I know about science and medicine I learned from him. That I know very little about science and medicine is not his fault; I could have learned a great deal more from him, but, after all, he is my dad. For much of my adolescence I took what could almost be described as a principled stand against learning anything from him. Youth is wasted on the young, etc. Now, with the distance of time, I see my mistake. He is a great (and determined) explainer, and in spite of my best efforts, I have retained some of what he taught me.
Growing up I occasionally accompanied my dad on his daily visits to different dairies. I think I went just often enough to be sort of used to the sights and smells (mostly smells) of a dairy, and to kind of know what to expect. But I didn’t go often enough to prevent occasional bouts of nausea or shock/horror at seeing things like blood dripping down to stain freshly fallen (neon green) manure. More than once I found myself saying, “This is not normal.” But what is normal?
On one of these infrequent, educational trips, I learned about abscess. Cows often get abscesses on their face, and they go from a small bump to grotesque very quickly. Usually it comes from an infection, and since there is no way for it to drain, the nasty puss and fluids start swelling up under the skin and create a big lump. I saw a cow that had a cheek the size of a softball and started to worry.
“Is that serious?” I asked my dad. “Is it some kind of tumor?”
“No,” he said “It’s just an abscess. Happens all the time. Even though they look really bad, they are relatively easy to treat.”
“Oh, good.” I said. “So how do you treat it?”
“You have to lance it,” he said, “like this.”
At this he pulled out a scalpel (where did this scalpel come from you ask? No clue. It is the kind of thing Veterinarians carry around all the time. They are not to be trusted) and thrust it authoritatively into the center of the abscess. Before I knew what was happening, he was “expressing” the puss, which fell lumpy and yoghurt-like onto the floor of cow manure.
“You see,” he said, “no big deal. Now we just flush it out, clean it up and give her some antibiotics. She will be better in no time.”
Call me selfish, but at this point, my concern for the cow was gone. I was trying to keep myself from “expressing” my lunch. Not that it really mattered. Once you are already knee-deep in cow manure, what’s a little vomit on your boot-toes?
One day a man brought in his little boy to the hospital. The boy was about 5 or 6 years old, and had a massive tumor on the left side of his face. It was so big that the boy could no longer close his mouth or shut his left eye. His face was hidden by a piece of cloth, and his father only removed it to show the doctor his tumor. Unfortunately, we were not able to take on this case because it was too far advanced. He was given a referral to the National hospital, but the prognosis was not good.
In talking with the father we discovered that the tumor had been growing for five months, but this was the first time he had brought his son to see a doctor. Five months! And they didn’t even come from very far. They live in a village that is only about 30 km away from Niamey. I don’t know if he took his son to see a witch doctor in those five months. He probably did. Either way, he was clearly neglectful as a father, and he told us that the only reason he brought his son now was because he wouldn’t stop crying, day or night. It was heartbreaking and frustrating all at the same time, especially since they could have come and had a consultation for free. I don’t know if it would have made a difference, but it certainly could have.
Our world is full of abscesses, and so are we. Our sin is like an abscess, and nobody who ignores it is doing us any favors. It is a wound inside of us, a sickness at our core. When physical or emotional damage has been done, we have to deal with it up front. But that is not our tendency. Instead we do our best to cover it up. We hide it away and try to sweep it under the rug. We tell ourselves, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. We say it like a mantra. When we get tired of our own voice (for we know it is not true) we find others to say it to us. But this is a losing strategy. Any wound and any sin will take time to heal, but first it must be brought out and exposed to air and to light. If it is covered up by darkness and smothered with dirty bandages or excuses, it starts to get ugly.
Infection sets in. The wound starts producing evil liquids. Truth becomes fluid and lies pile upon lies. They multiply with amazing speed, and pretty soon something unnatural is swelling up within us. The bigger it gets, the more we want to hide it, but (naturally) the bigger it gets, the more impossible it is to hide. Eventually we get to the point where we cannot avoid it anymore, it is there on our face, or in our soul, an undeniable lump. It has grown so much that we no longer believe it can be healed. It seems impossible, but that is the amazing thing about this type of wound – it can be treated and can be healed, no matter how bad it looks. Look, for example, at some of the amazing work being done at the CURE hospital in Ethiopia.
Yes, a knife is required. Yes there is pain, at least momentarily. But then there is relief and release. The lesson I learned from the abscess stayed with me for a long time. It is a lesson that seems to be applicable to every aspect of life: Whatever we sweep under the rug will eventually trip us up.
A long time ago, I wrote a poem about the lesson of the abscess. That is probably why I still remember it (it helps if I write things down – my memory is a barren wasteland populated almost exclusively of texts). Enjoy:
Whoever said that time heals all was all wrong;
Some wounds stay around even when you think they’re gone
Just beneath the surface where they can fester and rot,
Whether it’s a bug-bite, or it’s a gunshot.
They’ve got to be cleaned and given time and Neosporin
Or in two or three days infection will begin to set in, and it stays
With no issue, for puss or dead tissue
And wells up like a Tel, about to break through.
Swelling up, filling up with nasty off-white gunk.
Pressure pushing on the poison makes a nice sized lump.
You can feel it growing hard like an abscess obsession
Waiting to be lanced or let out like a confession.
Flush it with Betadine. Get it right this time.
No more covering up for wrong ways and past crimes.
Only then can you restore, make it like it was before
Time alone won’t make it better, you got to squeeze the pore.
Pour everything out to erase the stain,
It will hurt, it’s true, but no pain no gain
And don’t claim that it’s better to just let it be.
Get it right from the start next time. Now inevitably
It’s busting through the first light that it sees
And all it needs is a pinhole of opportunity.
You can change street names. Expand. No more barricades,
But fake land deeds plant seeds of rage.
And it’s all covered up like a pressure cooker.
My history book should read, “Contents Under Pressure.” If you look
Between the covers do so at your own risk,
Cause the ones who cover up are steady trying to own this.
History can’t lie, but truth can be misplaced
When nobody knows why whole villages get erased,
And good luck trying to find that place in Tiananmen
Where that guy stood face to face with tanks, and millions
Of people saw that picture, and gasped in horror.
But now that place is gone and it’s not just paranoia.
And in the city of Paris, on the hill of martyrs
There’s a rotten sore. A disgrace to forefathers
Who in that very place fought and died for freedom
But they didn’t write the history because they were beaten.
One day that sacred part of our story will snap,
Come alive and be more than a sacred heart tourist trap.
Be it through rap, hip hop or picture snapping,
Throwing rocks, taking shots, one day they’ll be caught napping
When they slack off, slip and let a hundred flowers bloom,
Cause they forgot that type of foliage spells their day of doom.