John 9:1-41 & Psalm 23
We are surrounded and filled by God’s loving spirit – just how is God’s presence healing?
may you receive the Holy Spirit as a gentle touch on your tense shoulders,
or a warm blanket around your weary back,
or a fizzy drink for your upset stomach.
Just how are we healed? When we pray together here for God to be at work in each other’s healing, what are we asking for? What do we expect?
There are so many places to go with today’s scripture readings – they are provocative and profound. And as I sat with them through the week I also sat with the texts of our own lives, and I’m aware of how many deaths we’ve seen recently, how many of us are grieving. And how many people are waiting for news – good? bad? – news of their health or the health of someone they love. Let alone all the anxiety and disease in our country and world right now.
So it’s an important time not to be trite or idealistic about God’s healing.
There’s the outright cure healing that the blind man experiences with Jesus in the Gospel according to John. Some of you tell stories of this healing, too (maybe without the mud) stories of praying to God for a cure, and then the cure comes. Good news! Praise be to God!
And there’s the slightly subtler healing of reconciliation –
when we find we are able to forgive one another,
open our minds and hearts to one another –
even transformation and forgiveness for our own selves –
like Evan’s witness to reconciling with his own self in a deeper way leading to greater trust, faith and confidence. Praise be to God!
And sometimes we pray over and over, faithfully, sincerely, and the cure doesn’t come. Wasn’t God listening? Did we pray wrong?
When I was a hospice chaplain, most of the patients and families I worked with accepted that death was coming. Officially, to be eligible for hospice care a doctor needs to say that death within six months would be a natural progression of someone’s illness or aging process. Some people live much longer than six months with hospice care, but to receive hospice care, the inevitability of death has to be on the table.
Now that doesn’t mean that people living on hospice and their families don’t pray for miracles. And sometimes miracles
come! People occasionally have to quit hospice because they become too healthy. But most of the time, hospice is an invitation to pray for other kinds of healing, for other kinds of miracles.
And that’s where I came into play. The nurses were the ones to call about pain management, the health care aides were the ones to call for activities of daily living – getting to the shower, learning how to get dressed safely.
Call social work to get financial support or help with transportation or companionship.
And look to the chaplain to figure out what to pray for. I make it sound simpler than it is! The stress and sadness that so often accompany death and dying muddy our brains, and patients and families rarely think systematically about any of this. But we read between the lines and listen underneath the words and look for deep needs that haven’t yet been named.
A family admits that their long-lost son doesn’t know dad is dying and they haven’t talked to him in years and the miracle we pray for is reconciliation – that relationships be healed rather than that the father’s body be healed.
A lonely widow just wants to die, sees no reason to stay on Earth – she’s said goodbye to her friends as they’ve passed on, one by one. Her daughter and husband are already dead – what does she have to live for? We can pray for the healing of death, pray that her miracle be to reunite with loved ones in the hereafter. And we do, because she wants that comfort. And I ask her about her life, too, and we tease apart her stories to find what wisdom she’s gained, and she finds another miracle – that she does have a legacy to leave in this world.
But most of my patients didn’t have the words to share their struggles. I romanticized hospice, thinking I would hear people’s stories all day and work with them to say meaningful goodbyes. Most of the patients I visited in hospice have advanced dementia, live in nursing homes, rarely see their family members, and no longer use words.
What healing do we pray for? What miracle should I ask on Beth’s behalf? Beth had been on hospice for over a year when I started visiting her, and she was still alive when I left the company. I would visit her at mealtime because that was the only time she might stay awake.
It takes a full hour to feed Beth lunch. She chews slowly (just like doctors say we should – but who other than a 96-year-old has time?) and her eyes follow the lunchtime bustle in the memory care unit.
Some visits, Beth can feed herself. Sure, sometimes she eats toast with a fork or scrambled eggs with her hands.
One visit, I could barely wake her, and even once she began murmuring responses to me, minutes passed before she could muster the energy to open her eyes. Beth usually talks incessantly, and I have no idea what she says. “Word salad” is the technical term for speech that uses real words but tossed together in incomprehensible ways. Beth tosses in more babble than actual words. Yet her emotion is clear; I can always tell when I’m supposed to laugh (her eyebrows shoot up and she looks at me with an expectant smile) or answer a question (she cocks her head and waits). When I give the appropriate response she resumes a stream of words.
Beth’s chart says she’s Catholic so I reach for the power of prayer, not prayer’s mysterious power to heal, but prayer’s mystical rite of return. For 96 years, Beth’s had the habit of the Hail Mary, the rhythm of the Rosary, the memory of murmuring so many Glory Be’s and Glorious Mysteries, countless Apostles’ Creeds and Amens.
Myself a creedless Brethren, I have a rosary app on my phone; if I recite the first couple words, Beth and her memory-impaired peers usually take it from there.
Hail Mary full of grace, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
With Mary’s prayers, with Mary’s companionship, we can speak our death.
And then we serve communion – in this memory care unit communion is full-service, sit-down. We have bread and juice on trays and walk and wait among the wheelchairs, listening for the Amens.
Beth reaches – not for the cup, not for the wafer – and takes the whole tray in both of her hands. “I need this,” she says, each word clear, her hands clutching that tray with more strength than I could imagine resides in her frail body.
Is it a miracle? Is it a coincidence? Does it really matter to Beth, or just to me, because I want to believe I’m making a difference, channeling a bit of God’s healing.
It certainly is a mystery. How we are healed is a mystery. We are wise to be creative – to see that the miracle may not be a cure but might be a reconciled relationship. We are wise to trust the mystery of healing, and to soak up the gentle presence of God and let it work within and all around us.
Beth couldn’t find her own words most days, but she could recall the Hail Mary, the Our Father. She could say the 23rd Psalm with me.
All of my hospice patients could – doesn’t mean they could all recite it from memory if I didn’t say it along with them, but the words and phrases are deep inside their minds, deeper even than dementia. I wonder what my generation will be like on hospice, with dementia – we haven’t memorized scripture as well as our elders. And we who are Brethren don’t memorize creeds or Hail Marys – what rituals will our hospice chaplains find to stir our deepest memories of church and worship?
Memory-impaired people teach me that words do and do not matter. Meaning matters – words are one tool for sharing meaning. We don’t have to know just how we are healed to be healed. We don’t need to understand a miracle to be blessed by it. Psalm 23 has it all! The mysterious healing of God’s presence. We still walk through the valley of the shadow of death – it’s not a Psalm saying “the miracle is that God gives you immortality and you never suffer again!” Nope. We’re living with death, and we do so with God.
“You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” The healing isn’t that God gets rid of our enemies, or even that God miraculously turns our enemies into our friends. Rather God’s healing presence amidst the worries of our lives means that even in the presence of our enemies, even when we are afraid and off-kilter, we are invited to God’s table to enjoy the feast of holy presence and the abundant life Jesus calls us to celebrate.
May Psalm 23, or the Hail Mary, or the Our Father, or your favorite poem or song, be a feast for you today. May Holy Words of comfort and healing be like rain on arid parts of your life – restoring them to luscious green pastures. May Holy Words of mystery and peace be sunshine into your shadows until joy overflows your soul and your cup of gratitude runneth over.
This story from Matthew guides us into Lent, because Jesus fasts forty days in the wilderness, and Lent is the fasting season before Easter. But those 40 days get only a sentence in the book of Matthew.
It makes sense, from a literary perspective, to focus on Jesus’ dialog with the Devil, to hone in on the conflict, rather than give readers a glimpse of Jesus’ 40 days. But since we turn to this story to enter into our own 40 days of Lent, I want to know more about Jesus’ 40 hungry days!
I imagine him dirty, dark circles under his eyes, face gaunt, shoulders slumped, weary—and also serene….I probably romanticize his wild time as holier than it would have felt to be hungry for 40 days.
Are you giving something up this Lent?
Phillip and I decided to give up sugar this year. We talked about it a couple weeks ago, and wondered if we would give up all sweeteners, or just processed sugar. We never got around to deciding, we’ve been thinking about other things and then on Thursday night as we split a fabulous dark chocolate bar we realized that we were definitely breaking our Lenten fast, on day two! We promised we’d figure out the details…and figured we might as well finish the chocolate.
Fasting has a rich history in Christianity, but most Protestants don’t practice it these days. It’s hard enough to fast in a world as overflowing with food as ours, but without a community of support and accountability, fasting takes extreme discipline.
We can read about Jewish families preparing for Passover’s weeklong diet by getting all the yeast and leaven out of the house. Then for a week they eat unleavened bread, like matzah.
Mardi Gras, French for Fat Tuesday is similar. The day before Lent begins, many Christians have a big feast to use up all the fatty, rich foods in the house before the lean fast of Lent.
If Phillip and I properly celebrated Mardi Gras this year we would have thrown a big party and eaten all the sugar in the house so that we could start Lent without any temptations around. That would’ve helped. But within days we’d swing by Weis for groceries and be surrounded by sugar – not just in desserts, but in nearly every processed food in the store – soup, bread, most things in boxes or cans or bags have some sneaky form of sweetener.
Let alone all the social and church occasions with sweet food provided – how often do you pick up some cookies for a church event? They’re so easy – no fridge or fork necessary.
For all these reasons, I believe fasting – for Lent or any other occasion – is harder in our time and society. Fasting certainly isn’t easy in other times or places – people get hungry! People want treats! But if we lived in a religiously uniform community where we all feasted and fasted on the same schedule, Weis and Giant would stock their shelves accordingly, we’d follow the same rules for the potlucks, and we could commiserate together about what we’re hungry for.
But we live with religious diversity, and we live in a culture of constant feasting. Religious traditions pair fasts with feasts – Lent is the fasting season to prepare for the feast of Easter. But in our culture we feast all the time – Sunday dinner is a traditional feast for some families, most of us have dessert every evening of the week and sometimes at lunch, too, and some people eat donuts for breakfast. Then there are office parties and church parties and birthday parties and Super Bowl parties and holidays. Then the reception at the speech or musical or gallery opening has cookies and punch.
The only shared cultural concept we have today for fasting is dieting, which is fundamentally different. Dieting is individualistic, it’s about making oneself acceptable.