In the beginning, God must have been like a bored teenager who looks around and says, “Hey, everyone, watch this!” So God made one decision after another, creating one thing after another—each as good as the one before. Until in a moment of godly hope and divine recklessness, God tossed humans into the mix. How else can we explain the Divine taking such a risk on objects made of dirt? Living dirt that brought pain into the world, each pain worse than the one before.
I’m convinced that God was the first to flinch, the first to feel pain, while it took some time before humans had a clue what they had done to themselves and their world. As a species we’ve always been slow on the uptake, still working with a dial-up modem in the land of DSL high-speed Internet. God, however, knew that we (Creator and created, the Divine and living dirt) were both in for trouble the instant that humans decided to trust themselves and take life into their own hands; the moment we told God: you’re not looking out for our best interests—just your own. You’re holding us back, afraid we might challenge you. So take a hike, leave us alone, and we’ll take care of ourselves (the brutal essence of Genesis 3). At that moment, God’s heart was broken like the heart of a devastated parent or a crushed lover. In fact, a bit later, God looks back on the decision to make people and wishes he hadn’t done it: “God was sorry that he had made the human race… it broke his heart…” And he said, “I’m sorry I made them.”[i] It’s hard to imagine and even harder to take in: there was a time God wished we weren’t around. We were so violent, hurting one another and at the same time, hurting God.
Slowly, we began to recognize and feel pain, as the consequences of our choice began to fill our lives and world. Dysfunction and suffering broke into every aspect of life: damaging our nerve fiber and causing physical pain; rupturing the ligaments of relationships, causing social pain; and infecting our hearts, causing emotional pain. Pain and suffering entered all of creation: guilty and innocent, saints and sinners, even the ecosystem and the grand sweep of the animal kingdom—land, water, sky, and everything in them. And finally, in the early months of 2006, pain found me.
Since moving to Abilene in the summer of 2005, I had reactivated my membership in The Brotherhood of Semi-Avid Slow Joggers (BSASJ), an exclusive club of males over the age of thirty devoted to living a more healthy lifestyle, at least for a little while. You may be or have been a member of this league of ordinary gentlemen. If not, you may recognize us by the Brotherhood’s regulation clothing: old shorts (often cargo shorts), an extra large tee shirt with a university or beer logo, new running shoes, and optional black socks. We’re not, however, to be confused with those less devoted to their health: the walkers. In fact, you may distinguish us from “those people” by our speed, moving along at such a pace that when we slow down to walk we actually speed up.
An active membership in The Brotherhood doesn’t last long—sometimes because we failed to check with our doctor or forgot to watch for traffic—both tragic oversights. More often, active membership is brief because members obey strict rules regulating the duration of their exercise regimen: six months or less. After that time, we put away the shorts and shirts and use our new shoes for mowing the lawn and going to football games. And, perhaps more important, good BSASJ members do not jog or exercise in any way for at least six months.
I joined The Brotherhood as a junior member when I moved to my first full-time pastorate in Sterling City, Texas, and became an active member ten years later, at the end of my pastorate in Midland, Texas. Two years into my doctoral studies in Denver, I renewed for the maximum of six months. And now that I was back at ACU in a fairly high-stress job, I took out the old shorts, picked up a new pair of running shoes and a bag of white socks (so my daughter would not die of embarrassment), and once again activated my membership.
During this time of rigorous exercise, from late 2005 to early 2006, I began to notice some discomfort in my left foot. However, it was confined to the top of my foot and was hardly noticeable. A twinge here and there when I stood up or walked across campus, or sometimes a slight ache at night—none of which was worth the dignity of an aspirin, much less justifying the time and expense of visiting a doctor, at least not for the first couple of months. Instead, when the discomfort got my attention, I’d stop my jogging routine for a week or two, decide I had rested enough, and then get back to the track or street. And when that didn’t resolve the pain, being a member of The Brotherhood and possessing the XY chromosome of the male species, I decided no pain, no gain and did my jogging anyway. Forget the torpedoes, men! Full speed ahead! And, oddly enough, not only did that strategy not solve my problem, the discomfort began turning into real pain.
The decisive moment came in early May of 2006 after I met with Ernesto, one of my students at ACU. We sat in my office for thirty or forty-five minutes discussing his summer research project for the McNair Scholars program. Then, when I stood up and stepped forward to see him out of my office, I fell to my knees from a spasm of pain in my left foot. After I caught my breath, Ernesto extended a hand to help me off the floor and helped me back to my chair. Then I made the call to set an appointment with my doctor. I had no idea that the events of this day would deactivate my status in The Brotherhood and revoke my lifetime membership.
How are we to know when an insignificant event will ultimately and radically change our lives? How can we imagine the challenges that will grow in its wake, from a morning of paralysis in the emergency room to long nights filled with pain and little sleep? I could never fathom how a little pain could eventually take away so much, from early mornings on a lake bass fishing, to classes filled with students. As I look back, however, I am able to discern an important lesson, what I call the Great Irony of my life. My attempt to get in shape, to deal with stress, and live a healthier lifestyle was responsible for my demise. In other words, exercise destroyed my life. Which leads me to the only logical appeal I can make to my family in The Brotherhood of Semi-Avid Slow Joggers: Stop now, before exercise does to you what it has done to me!
A week after the Ernesto Event, I sat in an exam room waiting for the final “all’s well,” feeling stupid for wasting time and money coming to my doctor over a sore foot. I wasn’t even limping today. And when Dr. C— probed my foot with his hands, at best he produced mild discomfort. It was ridiculous. Even so, since I was here I played along and went down the hall for x-rays: top, inside, and outside views—a full spectrum. And now, I waited for confirmation of the obvious and composed my apology to The Brotherhood for consulting a doctor and embarrassing the club.
Dr. C— tapped on the door and walked in with the x-ray film—never a good sign (for my younger readers, x-ray film preceded digital images and looked like an oversized dark piece of plastic). He hung the top view on the light box and turned it on: “Well, amigo, I could be wrong, but it looks to me like you have a stress fracture just about here.” He directed my eyes with a pen. “See this fine line here in the middle of your foot? That’s the center of the third metatarsal.”
It was fuzzy, but I could see what he was talking about. Dr. C— continued, “You see this white boney-looking material, the bright white stuff above and below the line?”
“That’s where the bone has been trying to heal.”
Instantly, I knew where this conversation was going and didn’t want to hear it.
“I would estimate that you’ve been walking with this fracture for three or four months. How long did you say it had been bothering you?”
“Three or four months.” Now I felt really stupid—and worse, as I thought about going back to the office to face the endless variations of “I told you so,” along with unsolicited commentaries about men, their refusal to go to the doctor, and their inability to listen. The whole situation only got worse when the nurse brought in an enormous black walking boot, strapped it on, and cinched it tight: “We’ll see you back in four to six weeks.”
I picked up my useless shoe—replaced by the big black walking boot—left the medical center, went by the pharmacy to fill the script for pain medicine, and bravely went back to the office to face the musical production of “I told you so.” You’d think that employees tasked with teaching and modeling the ways of Jesus would’ve had mercy or extended compassion. But not a soul working in the Department of Bible came to my side. I should have fired the whole lot for not being more Christ-like. Send them packing and teach them a lesson. But instead, like a good Christian, I faithfully wore my boot and plotted sinister ways to get even with my colleagues.
After a month of trudging around campus and accidentally kicking the back of my good ankle over and over, I returned to see Dr. C— with one desire: his permission to take that boot and shove it deep into…
–-to be continued—
Excerpt from a working manuscript, A Fire in My Bones: A Memoir of Life with CRPS (copyright Glenn Pemberton)
[i] Genesis 6:6-7 The Message
Glenn Pemberton is a minister turned professor turned writer. After serving churches in Texas and Colorado, Glenn completed a Ph.D. (Old Testament). He then taught at Oklahoma Christian University before coming to Abilene Christian University in 2005, retiring as professor emeritus in 2017 due to a severe chronic pain. Glenn now spends his time writing for the church. Along with short essays he has published four books, including The God who Saves: An Introduction to the Message of the Old Testament (2015), and Hurting with God: Learning to Lament with the Psalms (2012). Glenn and his wife Dana continue to live in Abilene, Texas.