Sunday, July 28, 2013

Reflections on Healing and Hope


Scripture can be found here...


As some of you know, my daughter has recently gone through the process of having her wisdom teeth extracted. And the surgeon was really thorough, so we were given lots of printed information in advance about what to expect on the day of the procedure and in the days afterward, we had a good sense about how to prepare.

Except, when you get right down to it, it’s pretty hard to pin down the whole process of healing. Bleeding may persist for up to 24 hours. Swelling may occur immediately, and increase gradually over 24-48 hours, and maximize between 48-72 hours. Nausea may result… you get the picture.

In fact, when we started talking to other people who’d had the procedure, we heard amazing variations on stories of recovery. We heard from one person who went to camp orientation the very next day, and from another who was in pain for almost three weeks. One person was incapacitated by nausea, and another had absolutely none. One person had no swelling, but remembered the pain; another had no pain but remembered the swelling (and had the pictures to prove it).

Healing is an imprecise and unpredictable process. It is as individual as, well, individuals. What is one person’s healing process is not necessarily another person’s healing process.

The same is true of communities. As many of you know, eleven of us from Union Presbyterian Church went to the Jersey Shore this past week to take part in the recovery process from the devastation of “Superstorm” Sandy. We spent a lot of our time in one particular house on Oak Street in a little beach-front community called Keansburg. A walk up and down Oak Street showed the varied pace of healing. One house was already up on stilts—homes there now have to conform to a new code in terms of elevation, or they risk not being able to have homeowners insurance. The house we were working on was in process of preparation for being raised. Another house right across the street from us looked ok on the outside, but on the inside still was filled with sand and debris from the storm. A few blocks away we saw a house that was so utterly ruined, it looked like a toy that had been stepped on. It made the heart hurt.

Our readings today show two different points of view with respect to healing. In the reading from Ecclesiastes, the writer seems to throw up his hands. All is vanity… uselessness… and days full of pain are pretty much what we can expect.

The reading from Luke’s gospel stands in powerful contrast. In it, we see Jesus, who is being pursued by people in pain because he is known to be a healer. He is known to have compassion on those with days and nights full of pain, and so people seek him out.

The two who are healed couldn’t be more different. One is a girl, a child of twelve. The other is a woman whose age is unspecified, but the nature of her ailment leads us to suspect she might be well into middle age. The younger is on the point of dying, and we have no idea how long she has been sick. The older has suffered from her hemorrhages for twelve years. The younger has family to intercede for her: her father seeks Jesus out. The older seems to be on her own, probably a result of her physical condition, which would render her a kind of untouchable in her family and community. The girl is passive, the woman is active. The girl’s father asks Jesus to heal his child; the woman reaches out to take her healing herself, by simply touching Jesus’ garment.

And… here is perhaps the most important detail. Jesus speaks directly to the woman who reaches out for healing. “Daughter,” he says, “your faith has made you well. Go in peace.” If we had only this story, the tale of the woman with the hemorrhages, we might be left with the impression that our healing is up to us. If only we had the faith, we would be healed.

But we have the other story as well, the story of the girl. She is not healed because of her faith. She is dead, past healing, past hope when Jesus comes to her. Jesus’ miraculous touch is not connected in any way to her faithfulness. If anything, it is connected to the faith of her father, someone who loves her, but even that is a stretch, because Jesus doesn’t identify it that way. As far as we can tell, it is sheer gift, sheer grace.

Healing comes when it comes. We cannot rush it. We can try not to stand in its way… not to impede or disrupt it. The only thing we know with certainty about healing is that God wills it: God wants us to be whole. But we don’t necessarily know what wholeness looks like. In our longing for wholeness we may at times feel like the writer in Ecclesiastes: that all is vanity, all is useless. But there is another witness in scripture, and that witness tells us to hope, to reach out, to seek out the healing we need. And if we aren’t able to do it ourselves, it tells us to lean on those who love us, and allow them to hope, and to reach out, and to seek on our behalf.

That is what the people in New Jersey are doing. They are working for recovery and they are leaning on the help of friends like us. Healing is an imprecise and unpredictable process. We can help one another to heal, but we have to offer our help in a way that honors the experience of those seeking healing. In closing, I’d like to share with you the wisdom of a pamphlet: It’s called “A Volunteer’s Guide to Offering a Ministry of Presence.”

As a volunteer, you are Christ’s Hands and Feet and Eyes and Ears for the survivors. The most important gift you give them is your very presence. Your being there gives them hope, connection, and love… The key is tuning your heart to the Holy Spirit and the survivor, listening with the ears of your heart, and seeing with the eyes of your heart.

In the process of healing we tune our hearts to God, and to one another. For the healing of individuals, families, communities, nations, even the world, we open our hearts with hope to the imprecise and unpredictable process that brings us closer to God’s vision of wholeness for our lives. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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