Healing

Isaiah 40:21-31 | Psalm 147:1-12, 21c | 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 | Mark 1:29-39

When Cathy Luck was here last week, sharing her work with Oasis NWA, she asked how many people were familiar with Becca Stevens. I was surprised to see not everyone knew who she is. If you already know this, bear with me, but there are some things in Episcopal culture everyone needs to be aware of. Becca Stevens founded Magdalene House in 1997, a house of refuge and healing for women who have been trafficked or addicted. Now it’s called Thistle Farms, which started out as the social enterprise side of things, selling oils, cards, and body products made by the women themselves. Now it’s over a million dollar industry and has expanded to include many other products from other countries, focusing on fair trade goods and teas made by women so that they can support themselves, their families, and their communities, too. Meanwhile, the model of the original Magdalene House has been replicated throughout the country, including Oasis here in NWA, Serenity House in Fayetteville, and Coming Home in Little Rock (which is still in development). The unaffiliated religiously and non-governmental model focuses on assuring that the environment is safe, non-judgmental, and holistic. A woman can stay up to two years, spending the first getting the health treatment she needs and the second to continue to heal and to build up her self-confidence and job skills.

A sexual assault survivor herself, Becca knows that healing is a monumental effort, and she said that reading the Gospel, she couldn’t help but hear over and over again how it was God’s love that brought about healing. So when she started selling oils, it was with the intent to heal not magically but with the intention of love and care, with the practice of unction in mind, with anointing those whom we love. How better to put into practice God’s message of love and healing? The motto and the title of her most recent book is “Love Heals”–plain and simple.

The gospel stories affirm the simplicity of God’s power to heal. In fact, there’s a pattern to the healing stories, just like there’s a pattern to a prophet’s call in the Old Testament. As we hear in Mark’s narrative today,

1) there’s the description of illness: Simon Peter’s mother-in-law has a fever, apparently a pretty bad one.

2)Then there’s a request for healing. Simon, Andrew, James, and John hurry back to Jesus to tell him about it. (Like when I tell my kids their room is a mess, I’m really telling them to pick it up.)

3)Following the request, there’s action done by the healer. Jesus takes the woman by the hand and lifts her up.

4)As means of affirmation, the fourth step in the pattern provides evidence of restored health. After the fever’s gone, she’s healthy enough to begin to serve.

So if we take this pattern and apply it to our lives, I agree with steps one and two. We identify our illnesses and make our requests, our intercessions, praying for health to be restored. But at step three, when in the Bible every time Jesus intervenes, health is restored (even if it takes a second try), what do I do with the times healing doesn’t come, when prayers aren’t answered? Because our model is that God has the ability to make all things new, to intervene on our behalf. When the good results come or good things happen to us, don’t we say, “Thanks be to God”? I know I do.

But true healing isn’t as simple as that. Just as true love isn’t as simple as it sounds. God’s love for us is abiding and unconditional. God’s love affords us–all of us–free will. God’s love, God’s healing participates with us, in relationship. And always, when we are in full relationship with God, we are moving toward our fullest restoration into God’s image. If that can happen in a miraculous recovery or if that can happen in death, I imagine that one is not greater than the other, if we have the fullness of understanding that God has. We hurt and anger and fight and doubt and turn away because sickness and death are not what we want. We don’t want the suffering and pain. The words of Julian of Norwich sound trite when she says, “All shall be well,” just as when someone tells us everything will be alright when our whole world is crashing in on us: everything is not well and alright. We may even scream it in rage at the well-intentioned speaker. But Julian’s “All shall be well, and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well” comes from a deep well of wisdom, prayer, contemplation, and practice. She knew it. She knew what being healed meant in body and spirit, and it was well with her soul. Times of tribulation truly try the sagest of souls, for when we are wounded or in danger, our defenses are up, our ego on watch though completely vulnerable. It’s painful to watch a wounded animal. Humans aren’t that different when we’re deeply hurt. What we need to be fully restored isn’t always diagnosable or treatable, if there even is a cure. But the peace of mind, body, and spirit that Julian speaks of connects to the healing love of God that guides us through the times we wonder if we’ll make it through. And all the while, whether we realize it or not, God is ever present, loving us, guiding us, healing us in ways we can’t even comprehend, let alone name.

When we are healed in a manner that allows for evidence of our restoration, what is it that we do with our lives? The mother-in-law gets up and gets to work, serving her guests. As a feminist, this might make you cringe a little bit. Shouldn’t she be getting rest? But so full and complete is her recovery that she is able to fully live into her honor as the head woman of the household. A servant or Peter’s wife could have done the work, but this was an important event, Jesus and all the disciples gathered in her home. It would be like me as a young woman offering to make my grandmother’s chicken dressing at Thanksgiving. She wouldn’t have dreamed of it as long as she was well enough to do it.

Today, a 30-years sober alcoholic might faithfully facilitate a meeting, carry a coin, and mentor someone new in recovery. A cancer survivor might lead support groups. The bereaved share in grief groups. Former sex slaves share their story to prevent others from being kidnapped and trafficked. Parents who lose a child advocate for legislation regarding gun violence, car seat safety, bullying . . . the list goes on and on.

However complicated and individual the story, it does appear that the pattern is simple: love heals. But it’s mighty hard.

It’s hard to say what’s hurt, sick, or broken.

It’s hard to ask for help.

It’s hard to be at peace when the action we’re asking for isn’t visible or visibly doesn’t happen, to trust that God is at work loving and healing us.

It’s hard to live into the fullness of health when things still seem hurt, sick, and broken.

It didn’t seem to be incredibly easy for Jesus, either. He retreats to a lonely place and prays, knowing full well the weight of everyone hunting and searching for him with all their dis-ease. But he had shown them hope, brought his message of peace, and proclaimed the gospel message: that the kingdom of heaven had come near. He offered them words but also showed evidence in his healings.

In our own ways, may we be so empowered, so loved, so healed.

Continue Reading

Beyond the Shadow of Doubt

Acts 2:14a, 22-32 | Psalm 16 | 1 Peter 1:3-9 | John 20:19-31


Oh, the Easter joy!

We proclaim our resurrected “Alleluias!” as we continue in the glorious season of Easter. There’s not enough to be said of the exuberance of Easter morning joy, the euphoria that comes with the masses celebrating our Risen Lord: our newest frocks, the fragrance of the lilies, and music of the angels. We get caught up in the moment, carried away into the sentiment of the masses, but the mass sentiment that sends us into praise also carried us into cries of “Crucify him!” not long ago. All the more reason for our renewed praise to resound to the heavens, for God’s will surpasses our will, God’s triumph overcomes our transgressions, and God’s love knows no limits . . . even for the masses and especially for the individual.

If the Easter joy hasn’t caught up to you yet or if you’re spiritually fatigued or maybe even heartbroken, you might sympathize with Thomas today. Grief strikes us all differently, and I can imagine Thomas as one not so quick to rebound. We have the luxury of hindsight that gives us assurance of what’s to come. No matter how sincerely we move through Lent and Holy Week and enter into darkness of life without Jesus, we know Easter’s coming; so we never really lose sight of the Light that is Christ. And don’t get me wrong, I’m infinitely grateful for this eternal hope. But our kinship with Thomas is this: he attends to his very real and present grief, and he’s openly honest about doubting even the good news proclaimed by his friends.

In case you’re lost in thought about your own heartache or grief, let me draw you in as we move into deeper understanding of our dear apostle Thomas. Moving deeper into understanding requires equally deep listening. You’ve probably heard me mention holy listening before–something familiar to you if you’re involved in contemplative practices or if you are familiar with the work of Parker Palmer. In Parker Palmer’s Circles of Trust, the circles or groups use a “third thing” to get us outside ourselves, untangled from our monkey minds of busy thoughts and self-centeredness, and get us closer to God. Poetry is most often used as the third thing, for good poetry has a way of pointing toward greater truths, which is the case in Denise Levertov’s poem “Saint Thomas Didymus.” She writes from the viewpoint of Thomas, taking us in and through his web of grief.

Before I share the poem, however, it’s important to know that when we use a poem or other reading or art or music as a gateway to deeper understanding, we set our intention on being present and still as we can be. We heighten our awareness like a hunter, seekers that we are, as we listen for what pricks not only our ears but our hearts. What makes us tense or relaxed? Where do we sense a surge of energy or feel our flesh tingle with goosebumps? Trusting that we are in a safe and holy place and time, we open our whole selves to prayer, opening heart, mind, and soul to hear, ponder, wonder, and maybe even understand what God might reveal to us.

Now with presence and prayerful attention–maybe even closing your eyes, we turn to Levertov’s portrayal of Thomas, who begins with a flashback to a time earlier in Jesus’ ministry when a father with a son possessed comes seeking healing (Mark 23-25). She writes:

In the hot street at noon I saw him

a small man

gray but vivid, standing forth

beyond the crowd’s buzzing

holding in desperate grip his shaking

teethgnashing son,

 

and thought him my brother.

 

I heard him cry out, weeping and speak

those words,

Lord, I believe, help thou

   mine unbelief,

 

and knew him

my twin:

a man whose entire being

had knotted itself

into the one tightdrawn question,

Why,

why has this child lost his childhood in suffering,

why is this child who will soon be a man

tormented, torn, twisted?

Why is he cruelly punished

who has done nothing except be born?

The twin of my birth

was not so close

as that man I heard

say what my heart

sighed with each beat, my breath silently

   cried in and out,

in and out.

 

After the healing,

he, with his wondering,

newly peaceful boy, receded;

no one

dwells on the gratitude, the astonished joy,

    the swift

acceptance and forgetting.

I did not follow

to see their changed lives.

What I retained

was the flash of kinship.

Despite

all that I witnessed,

      his question remained

my question, throbbed like a stealthy cancer,

known

only to doctor and patient. To others

   I seemed well enough.

 

So it was

that after Golgotha

my spirit in secret

lurched in the same convulsed writhings

that tore that child

before he was healed.

And after the empty tomb

when they told me that He lived, had spoken to Magdalen,

told me

that though He had passed through the door like a ghost

He had breathed on them

the breath of a living man —

      even then

when hope tried with a flutter of wings

to lift me —

still, alone with myself,

        my heavy cry was the same: Lord,

I believe,

help thou mine unbelief.

 

I needed

blood to tell me the truth,

the touch

of blood. Even

my sight of the dark crust of it

round the nailholes

didn’t thrust its meaning all the way through

to that manifold knot in me

that willed to possess all knowledge,

refusing to loosen

unless that insistence won

the battle I fought with life

 

But when my hand

   led by His hand’s firm clasp

entered the unhealed wound,

my fingers encountering

rib-bone and pulsing heat,

what I felt was not

scalding pain, shame for my

obstinate need,

but light, light streaming

into me, over me, filling the room

as I had lived till then

in a cold cave, and now

coming forth for the first time,

the knot that bound me unravelling,

I witnessed

      all things quicken to color, to form,

my question

     not answered but given

its part

in a vast unfolding design lit

by a risen sun.*

Such is Thomas’s transformation, as imagined by Levertov, the unfolding of belief that leads to Thomas’s declaration of “My Lord and my God!”

How beautiful it must have been for the other apostles to witness Thomas’s declaration. We have no sign that they had outcast Thomas for his unbelief: if anything, they may have held him nearer in his tender grief, which is what we do for those we love. Thomas was among the apostles that night the week after Easter morning. Thomas was in that closed room. Surrounded by others he felt alone in his doubt. As God would have it, we see Thomas there, and we witness the outreaching, the outpouring of Christ’s love for him. Christ overcame death and the grave for all, and all means all, no limits or restrictions.

Here today, whether we are strong in our faith and belief or weak with pain and doubt, as we come with praise and thanksgiving for our Risen Lord, may we feel the light streaming in, allow it to swim all around us, and usher it into the world with peace and great joy. For the Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

 

*“Saint Thomas Didymus,” Denise Levertov, The Stream and the Sapphire: Selected Poems on Religious Themes, New York: New Directions Books, 1997, pp. 80-84.

Continue Reading