I attended a Mission Southwest meeting last week. It was comprised of several pastors and other church leaders and we all gathered around tables to plot paths forward regarding various ministry opportunities in the Christian Reformed Church and the Reformed Church in America. Of course, we gather from all around the state and before we sat down, as is the custom, we walked around greeting each other. Hearty hand shakes. Big smiles. Lots of laughter and happy hellos. Lots of shoulder pounding.
“Rod, good to see you again!” followed by a clap to the shoulder. A clap that brings me almost to my knees as pain rockets through my neck and shoulder and radiates down my arm. I remember then, too late, that I must guard myself from these shoulder pounding attacks. I quickly stand by a pole with my sore shoulder near the post so that they can’t hit my body so easily. Another pastor type comes up with arms outstretched for a hug, but I wave him off and mumble about my sore shoulder. These are not strangers I am meeting with. They are old friends. They know what I am facing. They know that soon there will be surgery to fuse my neck even more than it is already fused. These folks know about my neck and shoulder pain and my struggles and they are people who pray for me regularly, yet, in the moment, they flail away at my shoulder and send me to my knees in tears.
It is a strange North American custom. I habit I have exercised throughout the years and one that I now repent of and wish could be undone. It is a particularly a habit, methinks, of pastors and male church members. Perhaps it is sort of ‘bro hug’ substitute. Macho, but not too macho. Intimate, but not too intimate. A way of expressing affection without things turning awkward. I’m not a social scientist and I don’t know why we do it, but I see it all the time. There is a bit of ‘big guy’ disease in all this, as well. I am 6’8″ tall and weigh over 300 pounds and people forget that nerve endings are nerve endings regardless of the amount of skin stretched over them. Many smaller people feel that they have some right to clobber a guy my size on the back although they would never do so to someone who was much smaller. No one would ever clap my little sister on the shoulder since she suffers from cerebral palsy and would fall over from the blow, no matter how mild. But my problems are hidden so I get to bear the brunt of this strange way of expressing affection.
I start to cringe when I walk into church groups now days. I visited a church plant worship service on Sunday and one of the guys came up behind me and smacked my shoulder while exclaiming, “Hey, how awesome that you could join us tonight.” He was shocked when my knees buckled and I fought back tears. He didn’t know. I forgave him. I told him about my hidden disability. Then I met with their leadership team on Monday over dinner and as I sat eating my meal he walked in late and slapped my on the shoulder again. Again I cringed in pain. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I forgot. You just told me and I forgot. It is such a habit…” It is.
When I was a teenager Mr. Diekman used to shake us kids’ hands after church. He was a man who worked with powerful hands digging ditches and turning wrenches. He had massive arms and shoulders. I thought I was pretty tough. but when Mr. Diekman squeezed my hand I would crumble into the ground. And squeeze he did. He would squeeze until you cried, “Uncle!” and then smile as he walked away inviting us to come back when we were men. I vowed that some day I’d by as strong as Mr. Diekman.
One Sunday I braced as I stuck out my hand to Mr. Diekman, prepared to once again be shamed by my wimpiness. This time he didn’t squeeze at all. I was startled by his not availing himself of the opportunity to show off his strength and so I squeezed his hand hard in hopes of eliciting a response. He told me to not do it. To stop squeezing. To prove my manhood some other way. It was awkward and embarrassing. He told me that he had recently crushed the bones in the hand of a friend who suffered from arthritis and who had to subsequently have painful surgery on an already painful hand. He said he had learned his lesson and that he hoped I could learn it, too.
Hidden disabilities are hard to deal with. Asking the tiny little bagger at the grocery store who is half my size to carry my grocery sacks to the car is embarrassing. Asking my wife to open the jar of spaghetti sauce is embarrassing. Wanting to sit in the red chair at church, not because it is the most comfortable (it is!) but because it has high arms on which to rest my arm and thus relieve some of the stress on my neck seems way too needy. I have to fight through the humbling and accept the reality.
The shoulder pounding is hard to dodge. I wish I’d never engaged in it. I wish I’d never squeezed a hand of a friend hard just to prove how tough I was. I wish I’d never thought judgmentally about someone who asked a little grocery clerk to carry their bags or made assumptions because someone preferred a particular seat. I wish I would walk a while in someone’s shoes before I assumed I knew what they live with on a daily basis. The truth is, I can’t see or know what someone else experiences. Even if we have similar struggles, they are always different.
I’ll tell you one thing. I don’t pound people on the shoulder anymore.