“Proud” Flesh: A Metaphor

If you want to know who I am, put your hand in.

“Put your hand in my wounds,” the risen Jesus said to Thomas. “Do it, and you Will know who I am.”

I have a story to tell.

Through it, you can put your hands In my wounds and know my pain and loss, my experience of death and grieving. But my story isn’t only of wounds. It’s also about how God heals, transforms and Brings life out of death. It’s a tale of grace and hope, an Easter story. Every story has facts and truth.

I’m a mother who, on three occasions, was Informed that one of my beloved children was dead. That’s the stark fact of my Story. Its truth is that God heals.

My husband, Steve, and I raise horses. They are majestic animals but incredibly Fragile and thin-skinned. The most frustrating injury a horse can get is a cut On its lower leg where precious little muscle or fat lies between the skin and Bone. The skin pulls apart, and it’s virtually impossible to suture. On top of That, the healing process is deceptive.

Healing appears rapid. You can almost watch fresh pink tissue forming. But the New tissue keeps growing, pink, ugly and lumpy, rising far above the healthy tissue around it.

“Proud flesh” is what we call this scar tissue.

Proud flesh is false healing. It becomes increasingly ugly when it’s allowed to Grow unchecked…

At its worst it inhibits the horse’s movement until the animal becomes lame.

I know proud flesh.

On Jan. 9, 1967, I gave birth prematurely to a 2-pound boy. He lived less than two days. Today medical technology probably would have saved Him. Since it was clear that my baby would not survive, some believed it would be better for me not to see him or bond with him. This would help me avoid Grief,— or so it was thought.

Other than a fleeting glimpse in the delivery room, I never saw my first-born Son. I never touched or held him. But I heard him cry — a weak, fragile wail. I Can still hear him today. “You’re young. You’ll have more babies,” we were told by people trying to be Helpful. Steve and I did have more babies and put our firstborn’s death behind us. But it was false healing — proud flesh. I carried a deep, nameless hurt.

Once proud flesh develops, the only hope is to surgically slice it off and begin the healing process again. Occasionally you have to repeat the process several times. I certainly did.

On Feb. 16, 1988, our second child, our first daughter, Stephanie, took her own Life.

She was 20, and with her death I began learning about the true healing process. I discovered how long it takes, how painful it is and what grueling hard work it takes. Three years and eight days later, Feb. 24, 1991, two sheriff’s deputies and an Assistant from the coroner’s office knocked on our door. They informed me that Missy, our fourth-born child, our second daughter,— our baby, — had been killed in a car accident.

How healing happens

How could I heal from all this? I go back to my metaphor.

It’s a long, painful process to treat a horse with a wound on its lower leg. It requires patience and hope, courage and stamina. It takes an enormous amount of time, and it’s never easy. The horse hurts and doesn’t want you messing with its wound. The horse sees you as the source of its pain and will most certainly kick.

My reactions weren’t much different: My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?

How could God let this happen to me? How dare you try to comfort me.

Diagnosis & confession

When a horse gets an injury on its lower leg, I first shave the hair around the wound to get a good look at it. Exposing the wound, naming it, sizing it up is difficult and scary.

We don’t like to look too closely at our own woundedness for fear of what we and those around us might see. It is called confession. Washing & baptism healthy healing can only happen when the wound is clean.

The best way to clean a cut on a horse is with a high pressure stream of saline solution. I fill a syringe with the solution and squirt a steady stream deep into the wound, leaving no crevice unwashed.

For me, healing began with continuous reminders of baptism. The words, “Child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ Forever” gave me courage and hope.

The Tuesday night that Stephanie disappeared she left her dorm room and rode her bike to a quiet pasture outside Greeley, Colo. She swallowed a bottle of Sominex and died of hypothermia. We spent Wednesday night searching for the daughter we loved more than life itself. It was Ash Wednesday, a bitterly cold night, unrelentingly dark and utterly without hope. The search narrowed to a farmer’s field.

I couldn’t pray as I watched the searchers’ flashlights crisscrossing on the dark snow and heard the handlers urging their dogs to keep trying. But unbidden, the words repeated themselves in my mind: “Stephanie Ann, child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.”

I remember that Ash Wednesday night whenever I witness a baptism and hear those words — and Stephanie is very present.

The antiseptic word

The next step is to apply antiseptic ointment. Antiseptic— “against poison” — stings and soothes at the same time.

Plenty of poison exists in our suffering — guilt, bitterness, self-pity, resentment. Our only weapon against it is the Word who is Christ, our Lord, the words of Scripture and the true bread from heaven. Sometimes I receive help from the stinging words of the lamentation psalms. “Is God without any power at all?” the psalmist cries. “Has his steadfast love ceased?” (Psalm 77).

Hearing that I know I’m not alone; someone else has asked the question. At other times I’m soothed by Paul’s words: “What, then, shall we say to this? I am sure that neither death, nor life … nor things present, nor things to come … nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:38-39).

First contacts

Directly over a horse’s wound, I place a Telfa pad, which won’t stick to the wound and tear it open when it’s removed.

We usually receive the shocking news of tragedy from an official source — a doctor or nurse, a law enforcement officer, a coroner. You never forget their words or tone of voice. It’s unbelievably helpful when the news comes in a caring but objective way. Also in this vital front line stand pastors, family and friends who come in the middle of the night to hold your hand in the Garden of Gethsemane and point you gently to Easter. And bless that staunch church committee, usually made up of women, who drop everything to put together a casserole, bake a cake and feed you.

Gauze of prayer

Then I carefully wrap gauze around the horse’s leg. It’s a loosely woven net. You can see through it, and you use a lot of it.

As I came through Stephanie’s death, and especially following Missy’s accident, I became a fervent believer in the airy net of intercessory prayer. When I couldn’t pray for myself, I was gratefully aware that I was being swaddled in the prayers of others.

Supporting the wound

Next comes the cotton batting. It supports the injured leg and protects the wound from bumps. Soft to the touch, it’s a comforter, a stabilizer.

The community of Christ, the congregation of faithful, loving and caring friends, provided this support to me following Stephanie’s death and Missy’s accident. They kept me alive when life no longer held meaning for me. I remember the faces of sisters and brothers in Christ who didn’t know me personally, yet who took the time to be with me and my family at our most wounded.

They celebrated with us when we were blessed with our own Easter miracle.

For Missy wasn’t killed in that car accident. Her best friend, Ann, was also in the car. Ann died. In the gruesome aftermath of the accident, the girls’ identities were confused. People came and rejoiced with us. They sat with us when Missy was in surgery — and as we grieved for Ann.

Pressure and protection

Over all these layers goes the vet wrap. It protects from dirt and water while applying pressure to the wound. Pressure is key to prevent proud flesh and promote healthy healing. It requires a careful touch. Vet wrap is very elastic. The more you stretch it, the tighter it becomes. The trick is to apply the right amount of pressure. Too little and proud flesh will develop; too much and circulation is cut off and gangrene sets in. You can kill the horse you’re trying to heal.

Nowhere have I experienced the paradox of pressure without constriction more than around the communion table. The Lord’s Table has provided the greatest healing for me. I wanted to go to church on the Sunday after Stephanie died. I felt driven to the true bread. But I wasn’t ready for the love and caring that I knew was waiting for me at my congregation.

It would have smothered me that morning.

I needed a smaller, more intimate setting with some degree of anonymity. I knew a smaller church nearby offered an abbreviated communion service at 7 a.m. I set out for church before the sun had risen. I knelt at the communion rail, and I’ll never forget the healing pressure of a chunk of bread and a tiny glass of wine being pressed into my hand.

The healing process takes a terribly long time. Every few days, you remove all the bandages, apply fresh ointment and gauze, cotton batting and vet wrap. Eventually the wound heals. You have staved off proud flesh. There will, of course, be a scar. It will always be there, a reminder that healing happened in that place.

And so it is with me.

“Put your hand into my wounds,” the risen Jesus said to Thomas, “and you will know who I am.”

Christ’s wounds descended into the grave with him, and they came up with him. Rising didn’t remove them. Christ’s rising from the grave is a sign of our own rising from our graves, from woundedness to healing, from hopelessness to joy, from death to new life. Because of Christ’s rising I know the deaths that I have,— and will, — experience aren’t the last word of my story.

But as I rise up I still bear the wounds. New life doesn’t remove them. They mark me. They tell me where healing has happened.

If you want to know who I am, put your hand in.

By Terry Bowes

2 comments on ““Proud” Flesh: A Metaphor

  1. This was an excellent read. My heart goes out to you regarding your loss, but the healing process you experienced is life changing if we all would apply the same treatment; a daily walk with the Holy Spirit, a healthy way to not totally prevent, but mitigate “Proud Flesh.” Thomas

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