This morning, I went for a tooth extraction. It failed. Not that I blame the dentist at all: she called in the senior partner, who confirmed that the roots of the tooth were, er, too healthy to come out. They were long and awkward. I have been referred to a specialist dentist for them either to cut into the gum or even into the bone next to the gum to get the roots out. It will be either more local anaesthetic or sedation.
It must have been bad, even my wife was sorry for me. I was sorry for myself, anyway – natch! I’ve kept trying to make the site of the work cold to reduce the soreness. After a couple of hours, I gave into the dentist’s counsel and took some ibuprofen.
The experience reminded me of something the Jesuit John Powell wrote in one of his books. Someone said to him, ‘When you have a toothache, who are you thinking of?’
‘Myself,’ he replied.
‘Exactly,’ said the other person. Powell drew the lesson that when we are in pain it is so easy to be consumed with ourselves.
When I remembered that story in the middle of my inconsequential gum discomfort today, I thought all the more of the people I know whose witness under extreme, chronic and sometimes terminal pain is quite extraordinary. I think of a woman in one of my congregations here who suffers from degenerative lung and skin conditions. Yet she and her husband are a tonic to visit. She has a compassion for others that is equalled by few. Her own pain is complicated by the fact that in the past she has received ‘miraculous’ healing from God. Not with her current conditions, though, at least not to date.
I long that she does not continue to deteriorate in the way she is doing, slowly. I hope and pray for her winsome witness to play out in a pain-free life. I would rather see any Christian eventually die ‘old and full of years’ as Scripture puts it, rather than from some hideous, yes evil condition.
Yet we follow One who thought of others in the midst of unmentionable physical and spiritual pain, the One who said, ‘Today, you will be in Paradise with me’ to the penitent thief and who ensured his own mother would receive care.
Sometimes pastoral ministry means a relentless contact with people in terrible situations. I can find my mind consumed with morbid thoughts of mortality as a consequence. But there is also an immense privilege in encountering those who know suffering I hope I never personally experience, yet who think not of themselves but of Christ and others.