Thursday, November 16, 2006

Stitched and Scarred

Yesterday we had one of those emergency moments that every missionary family dreads. Mallory (our 7-year old) was playing outside, slipped on the front steps and fell against the door frame, opening up a gash in the side of her face.

There was lots of blood and crying, of course. But as Leah and I cleaned it and looked at it, we knew that the wound was deeper than usual and needed stitches.

At that point, we began to feel a slight panic. There’s no 911 to call in Cameroon, and though we’ve received medical care, we had never needed this particular kind of emergency attention before. Thanks to a tip from our missionary friends, the Naines, we got ahold of a doctor in town who said he could see Mallory immediately.

As we drove into the city, I couldn’t help but begin to entertain some tough questions: would the doctor do a good-enough job? would this injury leave a permanent scar on Mallory’s face? if we lived in America, would she get better care and less chance of scarring?

I suppose at the core of it is the question that every missionary family has to face from the moment they decide to relocate their family to a place where the quality of medical care is … well, uncertain. That question is, “Are we putting our children’s welfare in jeopardy by following the call to ministry – and is that fair to them?”

I thought about all these questions as we stood in the small room where the doctor put two stitches into Mallory’s face. Everything went normally and smoothly. Mallory cried a bit when she knew a shot was coming, but otherwise, she handled the procedure bravely.

Of course, in the end, there never was any danger to Mallory’s health. I simply worried that the injury might leave a scar that will always be on her beautiful face. And who knows how the scar will affect her – will she be ashamed of it? will it cause deep psychological problems? will she blame me? will she blame God?

It occurred to me that most of us parents try to raise our children so that they have scar-free lives: physically as well as emotionally. We try hard to protect them from as much as possible from dangers and anxieties so that they can look back on their childhoods as blissful, care-free periods of time. This is a natural and good instinct, as much as it is unrealistic.

I thought of my own scars – my right arm, which is ever-so-slightly bent due to traumas incurred during birth; the line across my left pointing finger where I cut myself on a broken Coke bottle while playing with a seventh-grade friend. I don’t blame anyone for either one of them, neither have they prevented me from fulfilling my own God-directed vocation.

Being humans means encountering a lifelong series of scarring events. The resulting scars are not embarrassments, nor are they blemishes on an otherwise pure existence. They are part of life itself, and they become part of us. When we offer them to God and embrace them as a part of ourselves, then God heals them, even if he never removes them from sight. And they can even become useful in our own ministries: Henri Nouwen famously wrote of the “wounded healer,” who “makes (his) own wounds a source of healing.”

All of these thoughts were swirling around inside my head during yesterday morning’s mini-crisis. But what I will remember the most is the way that little Mallory handled the events.

What parents tend to forget most of all is the incredible resilience and courage of our children, especially in the face of pain and trials. In the afternoon, when Mallory returned home from school, Leah re-examined her injury. As she was silently re-living the events of the day, a few tears came to her eyes. Mallory noticed the tears and said, “Hey, Mom, if you’re crying about this” (pointing to her stitches) “then stop, because I’m fine.”

Yes, I am sure she will be.