Healing 101

A re-telling of Luke 5:17-26

Even though the house was already crowded, when the elders arrived, they were given front row seats, where the teacher was telling curious stories about seeds and banquets and quarreling brothers.

A Pharisee was posing a convoluted question when falling debris gave them just enough warning to avoid the chunk of ceiling that barely missed Jesus himself.  The dust cleared to reveal a makeshift pallet lowering by ropes, tipping and wobbling, its passenger trembling and wide-eyed, wincing when he landed with a thump.

The teacher laid a calming hand on his shoulder and then smiled up at his friends, whose chutzpah left a ragged gap in the ceiling.  Simon was heard murmuring his prediction: another healing!

But Jesus looked deeply and thoughtfully at the man and said, “My friend, be assured, your sins no longer have the power to cripple your spirit.” 
 
The elders immediately exercised their veto power, with force.  Jesus’ thoughtful gaze turned on them.

A pause.

“Please trust me.  I know the deepest truth and it is this: paralysis of the limbs is nothing compared to the paralyzing effects of a rebellious heart.  So that you will know this too, watch this man walk home with healthy legs and an unburdened heart.”

Sure enough, the man stood, tentative, took a few shaky steps and left differently than he came, light on his feet, his pallet of shame left behind in a pile of dusty, broken-down dogma.  
And a poem had to be written too!

Look Out Below

The heavens were opened 
when the Dove-Spirit 
surprised Jesus with her 
wings of light.  
He looked up every so often after that, 
just in case.
But what opened one day to his surprise 
was the ceiling, breaking apart 
and raining debris on everyone.  

No dove, only a trembling man 
on a wobbly pallet.

Despite the elders’ protests, 
Spirit tuned him in on the fractured heart 
of a broken man.
Not many of the crowds who came to him 
were so easy to read, 
but the shame had etched its lines on this man’s face 
long ago.

Such sadness needed its cure 
and so he did, 
touching the heart 
with a refreshing wash of absolution, 
and stroking life back into the shriveled limbs 
for good measure. 

The teacher couldn’t resist checking 
the reactions of the men gazing down.  
He did a double take when their glad faces 
seemed to flicker and gleam, 
and he felt a familiar flutter 
stirring the air 
just above his head.   

The Time it Takes

The longer I watch him
the more I wonder 
whether the Cross of Jesus
was not the only moment 
our saving happened,
as if such cruelty could solve
an inevitable, deadly equation.
Perhaps it was only the 
penultimate moment
to resurrections’ triumph—
though unheralded,
un-choired—
the sealing of
love’s new first word.

But even then it
would be hollow 
without all those 
other interruptions:
the divine impulse 
making food blossom 
in their hands 
on a hillside,
a girl’s lifeless eyes
fluttering open,
Lazarus leaning into 
the muffled announcement 
that even time must step aside 
for love’s insistent force. 

The shape of all the saving—
all the loving—
required the alignment 
of his arms.

He extended them
in one terrible 
timeless moment
into which he gathered
all the other moments
and offers all of it
time after time
resisting confinement, 
elusive as spirit,
expectant.
Constant.

Be still and see
there he goes again.

Ash Wednesday

 
 I often cross myself in worship
 especially when the bread and wine of Christ 
 are re-membered in me.
 The gesture is an affirmation of who I am
 and whom I follow.
  
 Today the cross is smudged on my face
 for all to see how poorly I reflect
 his cross I claim as my own.
 It is out of focus,
 lacking the crisp outline even a shadow can cast.
  
 My feeble attempts at following in his way
 make my cross indistinct. 
 And so I turn again,
 accept the invitation to come closer, slowly,
 to the cross made dim by distance
 until its texture and detail draw me in,
 fill my vision, and define me.   

How Time Works

This poem came to me as I as cleaning the guest room, after Christmas and the pleasure of hosting family from far away. We took a calculated risk with COVID, since several of us had already had the virus.

  They have vacated the room where I make the bed, unhurried,
 unwilling to disturb their presence that lingers in the quiet.
 They slept beneath the quilt my mother made.
 My child-adult and her husband,
 the soul mate and lover she awaited,
 yearning for the one who yearned for her
 while the patchwork of her life came together.
  
 Granddaughter of a stitcher of longings,
 a practical woman of vision, and prayer.
  
 Daughter of the one who watched the pattern come together
 and now makes the bed again,
 runs her hand over the
 storied, precious handiwork,
 in lambent, loving benediction. 

Dayspring

 Only you could merit a name
 that is a dawning
 a promise daily kept
 hope hinting
 slowly reassuring
 yes, I am here
 never rushing, yet insistent
 letting the dark take its rest.
 You let it sigh and set
 while you make yourself known
 calling my attention not to yourself
 but to the trees’ winter branches
 who nevertheless 
 pen their delicate praises
 upon the blue of you. 

Advent Oil

The angel visits Mary; one virgin is being prepared.  In a haunting parable (Matt 25.1-13) about the end times, there are ten virgins, five of whom are properly prepared. 

I am captivated by the sonnets of Malcolm Guite.  He also masterfully crafts poetry anthologies, including his Advent/Christmas collection, Waiting on the Word, which includes John Donne’s “Annunciation.”  The richness of this tribute to Mary is unpacked expertly by Guite, and my own slow reading of the piece yields precious insight.  The incarnation is mystery enough to behold for a lifetime, if only by pondering the last line:

Immensity, cloister’d in thy dear womb.

My imagination juxtaposes Gabriel’s announcement to Mary with the parable of the ten virgins.  I have always understood the oil in their lamps to be a symbol of preparation for the Day of the Lord.  Be faithful.  Be alert. 

But what is involved in preparation?  The lamps must be refilled.  The wise young women brought oil with them, but they only had enough for themselves.  The foolish ones had to find another source elsewhere.  They missed out on the advent of the bridegroom, because they did not have enough oil. 

Oil in the Scriptures is both a staple and a sign of God’s provision and blessing.  It is used for healing, for lamps, for anointing, and refreshment.  Where there is oil there is life and goodness.

A journal entry from a couple Decembers ago reads: “I am in a season of life that is not unlike Advent, so the mood of Advent itself feels especially intense this year.  For some months I have sensed a preparation for something that is to come.  God’s Spirit seems to be painting provocative designs on the walls of my imagination.  My prayers are often wordless yet profound.  I feel a great potential stirring.  A parable about oil lamps being refilled resonates.  Poems and images of Mary bearing a secret touch a deep cord.” 

The gospel images of preparation and potential are helpful.  Mary seems to be like the virgins who are prepared.  There is the oil of life, and also the image of the seed, which in Mary is the beginning of God’s “new thing.”  (Isa 43.19) The small seed of God’s inbreaking needs time in the darkness, time to germinate.  It must take in the nutrients required.  There is no need to hurry; indeed, pushing it to yield its fruit too soon will spoil it. 

We bear a secret, disciples of Jesus Christ.  We share Mary’s role as Theotokos, God-bearer to the world.  The substance of the secret is the Love that formed the universe.  As such, it is not only se’creted (hidden) within us, it is also secret’ed (generated or released) from us in myriad ways.  The “immensity” of God is borne into the world in the tiniest of ways, by a thought or a glance, a soft touch, a word fitly spoken. 

My mind moves to the story of another Mary and her secrets.  She poured oil on Jesus’ head (Jn 12.3) at a dinner given in his honor.  Judas objected to the extravagance.  He could not see that her gesture came from a deep place, where love had been pulsing and expanding until it had to find expression. 

The precious secret is revealed in the manger.  But it also exists inside us, where the oil of God’s life fuels our love for Jesus Christ.  Our love for him lights the way of hope, at Christmas time and always.

Thoughts for a Holiday Season When Grieving

 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
   slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
 He will not always accuse,
   nor will he keep his anger for ever.
 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
   nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
   so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him;
 as far as the east is from the west,
   so far he removes our transgressions from us.
 As a father has compassion for his children,
   so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
 For he knows how we were made;
   he remembers that we are dust.
(Psalm 103:8-14)

‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also...‘I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. (John 14:1-3, 25-27)

A Message for You This Holiday Season

We are approaching the shortest day of the year in December.  For many of us, it has felt dark for a long time, since the beginning of the pandemic at least.  Of all people, you who have lost loved ones this year are among those suffering the most from the restrictions of the pandemic. It seems that there are deeper levels of darkness we never dreamed of visiting, yet here we are. 

Every year in December we get into conversations about how Christmas gets co-opted or watered down by materialism.  We don’t like to see it become just another reason for over-indulgence and profit.  We feel as though we have to strive to stay focused on the “real meaning of Christmas.”

Yet this year you may suffer from a different problem.  The merriment surrounding Christmas feels hollow, even painful, when you are in the throes of grief.  Family celebrations highlight the absence of the person you love, introducing sadness into your cherished traditions.  Perhaps you even feel disloyal celebrating the holiday at all, because that special someone isn’t here to share it with you.

With all these tangled emotions, we can find ourselves sinking even deeper into grief.  It is hard to find comfort when others around you want to feel joy.  But you can’t. You just can’t. 

This is the reality of being human.  There are times of darkness, and times when the darkness is made even more profound because of the circumstances of the world around us that put our suffering in stark relief.

Yet here, too, we have a reason to turn to God, for God has plumbed the depths of our humanity and made all of it sacred—every part of it—with His presence and love.  Yes, there is love there in the depths with you, because God is there.

God sees you and will love you through the worst of it.  Meanwhile, you need to be gentle with yourself and do what you need and nothing more. It is all right to let go of or simply tolerate any part of this season that obscures your experience of that divine, healing love you need so much.

I hope you can hear the good news I want to tell you: God embraces both you and the one you have lost.  Nothing and no one is beyond the reach of God’s love.

Despite all the glitter and celebration surrounding Christmas, we know that Jesus was born in poverty and obscurity.  He knew what it was to be exploited, unseen, hopeless.  To observe the happiness of others while unable to experience it himself.  He withdrew often from the company of others to be fully in his father’s presence.  The love of the Father was his comfort, his strength.  That fierce love enabled him to show us that his love could not be snuffed out, not even on a cross.  I believe he died there not only to atone for our sins but also to prove that divine love does not die.  It cannot be killed.

Neither can your love for your spouse, child, parent, friend.  It lives on.  And their love for you lives on too.  This is not a wistful notion.  It is the deepest truth in the universe.

As you gaze into the manger this year, I hope you will see the one who knows your pain and asks only to be held close to your heart for your healing.  He will do that.  He came precisely for that reason.  Jesus will heal your heart, sooner or later.  Whether you feel his presence or not, he is with you, now and always.  Believe this truth, and know the peace that only he can give. 

Sleight of Hand

Luke 14:1-6…..On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely. Just then, in front of him, there was a man who had dropsy. And Jesus asked the lawyers and Pharisees, ‘Is it lawful to cure people on the sabbath, or not?’ But they were silent. So Jesus took him and healed him, and sent him away. Then he said to them, ‘If one of you has a child or an ox that has fallen into a well, will you not immediately pull it out on a sabbath day?’ And they could not reply to this.

  Jesus accepts their invitation 
 to dine
 as though he were not
 walking into the jaws of a trap.
 Ready to love
 always ready
 to eat the food of his detractors,
 metabolize their suspicion
 into compassion. 
 He knows how
 little boys who play in the streets
 lose their native joy
 at the feet of their elders.
  
 The guest directs their attention
 to a man crippled by
 his swollen limbs,
 as ignorant of their careful constructs
 as they are of his pain,
 and heals him.
  
 The magician 
 snatches their protestations
 from the air,
 and opens his hand
 where there appears a cool,
 damp rag.
 He offers it 
 like a mother
 to wipe away the crust
 of judgment 
 from around the mouths
 of their little-boy faces,
 rendering them silent.   

Bewitched

It was early autumn, a nip in the air.  I arrived at the soccer complex 45 minutes before my grandson’s game.  After positioning my car near the mini soccer field, I took off for a quick walk to get my exercise for the day, heading for the bike trail that lines the east side of our small town.            

It took me south past the agency on aging and a warehouse, over the railroad tracks, past the high school baseball and football fields.  Once I reach the county park and turn around to head back, I see a man approaching.  He is pulling a wagon with a child in it.  My automatic smile and greeting are ready, since I recognize him, although we aren’t friends or anything. 

But then I spy his daughter in the wagon behind him.  Four, maybe five years old, half reclined and calmly focused on something in the distance.  She is dressed in a witch’s costume, but not a black one.  This one is iridescent, dazzling.            

The encounter instantly transforms my obligatory greeting, and I offer my fondest grandma-smile, knowing and delighted.  He smiles back.        

I think of his mother Margaret, a nurse.  She embodies a higher calling, having mastered the trick of being both professional and winsome at the same time.  Each of her patients receives a tiny rubber duck perched on the tray table of their hospital room.  The tiny ducks have various costumes molded onto them: police officer, nurse, fairy, surfer dude.  A playful little gesture to bring a smile in an otherwise anxious time.  A small connection that communicates care.            

Margaret also sings to her patients if they need and want it.  Her generous, playful nature inspires me to let my own version of playfulness have free rein.  Do I dare?  Her granddaughter might not know it yet, but she is carrying on her grandmother’s legacy.  With her shiny pointed hat and shimmering dress, she is wearing her fierce self on the outside, where it shows.  Just like Margaret, who wears her love and joy naturally. 

Her daddy seemed quite content in letting her wear what she wanted for their outing.  Well, he is his mother’s son. 

He and his little witch-in-a-wagon unwittingly cast a spell on me.  She made me restless to wear my fierce, creative self on the outside, where it might not dazzle, but at least it shows.   

Winsome little witch,
may I borrow your pointed hat
to propel me up and up,
to pierce the weighty pall,
the fear
that I mistake for atmosphere?
I promise I will hold on tight. 
I will give it back
once I find my own wings
to fly above
and underneath
as I used to do
when I was small too. 

The Preacher in Front of the Camera

The fender bender probably didn’t help.

            I reached a low point in my COVID-coping consciousness that weekend.  On Friday, I didn’t see a woman approaching from my right at an intersection near my home as I turned left into her path.  I was startled by the impact of hitting her driver’s side door, because I had not seen her at all.  Having looked both ways before turning, I neglected to crane my neck to see around the column separating windshield from side window, and as I turned, the Jeep was still partly obscured. 

            The woman whose beautiful, shiny vehicle I smashed was very calm and kind under the circumstances.  (She friended me on Facebook!)  Nevertheless, I felt ashamed and upset for several hours afterward. 

            Not only was my car damaged (and hers), my ego also suffered a blow.

            So when I struggled yet again on Saturday evening with getting the worship service recording to work before uploading it to the church’s YouTube channel, I was running low on confidence.  No problem.  I could record the early service on Sunday as a backup. 

My tension mounted as I set up the equipment.  By the time everything was connected, I was disconnecting internally, ready to pitch the laptop and camera out the window.

            I sat in the front pew to pray and get some calm.  Instead, I began to weep. 

            I was done.

            Done with the stupid pandemic, done with becoming a video producer and preacher rolled into one.  Done with expecting to get good at it after weeks of trying to fit the pieces of technology and common sense know-how together. 

            The congregational president and his wife were the first to arrive.  He discovered me in the front pew.  I suppose he was alarmed, because he offered to help with the readings for the morning.  It was a kindness, but I told him that leading worship was the easy part.

            I pulled myself together, as we pastors often have to do at a moment’s notice.  I put on my pastor face, and made it through two services.

            But I felt fragile for several days. 

            The feeling was familiar.  It had been like this when I was burned out in ministry four years ago.  I reached out for help.  I lowered my expectations for the near future.  I was gentle with myself and got the rest I needed.

            Eventually I was able to focus and acknowledge what it feels like to “deliver” worship to parishioners over the internet.  For the first time, I felt angry that I have to keep pouring myself into creating quality worship services, with faithful preaching of the gospel and accompanying liturgy and prayers, record them, and post them up there along with all the YouTube influencers and silly videos.  One among many.  If mine doesn’t upload successfully, or if church members see the length and don’t want to spend the time, they can search and find another, shorter, worship service in under thirty seconds.

            It makes me feel cheap.  Like a hack.  Like the vocation into which God has called and equipped me, in which there have been countless holy moments in worship, with grieving families and preschool Bible school classes, in hospital rooms and wedding receptions, the vocation that has taught me to deeply trust God’s faithfulness, is no more than a video delivery service. 

           

Thankfully, I got to lead parking lot worship for several weeks this summer.  To be honest, even after having returned to in-person worship with precautions in place, that time out on the driveway with people honking their “amens” has been the most rewarding time of this entire pandemic.  Standing out in God’s creation where we paused to listen to the birds and the wind in the trees.  Singing hymns as the organist’s music came through the radio transmitter.  Grinning with people about the silliness and joy of worship like this on a summer day. 

            I was still recording worship for the people who weren’t in the parking lot.  But that makeshift situation was fun, and holy, and good.

            Reaching my breaking point was healthy in retrospect.  I have let go of my expectations to meet the challenge with confidence and skill.  Despite good advice—online and otherwise—this still intimidates me.  Nobody else in the congregation has the expertise either, and they are probably reluctant to try.  I don’t blame them.  Somebody should try anyway.  Maybe that’s another weakness I have to admit: not persisting to find help. 

It’s not fair, I know. Fairness doesn’t seem to be relevant right now. Nobody knows how to navigate this strange reality, and the people I serve have their hands full already. They are kind, and faithful. They are ready to help when they know how to do it. I am grateful that they seem to understand and empathize when I tell them how hard this is. Their lives are hard right now too.

Like everyone else this year, I will keep slogging forward with the tools and skills at hand.  I like to think we are all doing our best to be faithful and productive.  The worship videos will appear like clockwork on the church YouTube channel, with thumbnail graphics I enjoy creating to signify each week’s theme. 

For their part, the listeners keep showing up too.  I give them credit for that.  It would be easy for either of us to turn inward and abandon the enterprise. 

            So we are partners in it.  Even though it is hard, we have to keep hope alive by meeting together, held by the love of God who will not abandon us.  The God who sometimes uses silly videos to make me laugh, so I can endure. 

            Thank you, God, for the makers of silly videos, for those who fashion worship videos, and those who watch them.