A Call to Heal

While we don't have teachings every week yet at Haven, Leah does occasionally get her preach on.  The following is the manuscript of a teaching she gave on Sunday, 2/6/15.

I’m gonna start today by telling you two stories that took place in my previous church, the Iowa City Vineyard, where I served as a staff pastor for five years.  The first happened when a young woman in our congregation brought her father to church.  Her parents, who were both long-time church goers themselves, were visiting from out of town.  And they decided to accompany her to our church on Sunday morning.  Our pastor’s teaching that morning was about healing.  It was part of a series of teachings on practicing the gifts of the Holy Spirit.  The young woman's father was moved by the teaching.  He felt inspired to seek prayer after the service.  He had a painful growth in his face, which surgeons were preparing to operate on.  So people in our church laid hands on him and prayed for the Holy Spirit to come and bring healing.  As they did, he felt God's presence.  There was tingling in his face.  He began to cry.  He knew that God was removing the mass.  And sure enough, when he returned to the doctors for surgery that week, the physicians were mystified to find that the mass they intended to remove had already vanished.

The second story involves a middle-age woman in our congregation who found herself suffering greatly from back pain.  It had come on acutely and was immediately impeding her ability to function.  After a few days, the pain was only growing more intense, requiring her to seek medical help.  An MRI revealed that she had a herniated disc.  The proposed treatment was surgery.  Friends from the church, myself included, repeatedly laid hands on her and prayed for relief, but the pain persisted.  So our community walked through the experience with this woman and her family of preparing for and going through back surgery.  Folks brought meals when the family needed them.  They prayed for relief from fear and anxiety.  They visited the woman after her surgery when she was recovering at home, bringing gifts, food, and listening ears.  And slowly but surely, recovery did take place.  Function was restored, pain relieved and the woman in question was cared for by her friends and church family all along the way.

So my question to you based on these two stories is: which of these stories is a story of healing?  Which of these two stories demonstrates Jesus' healing power ministered to someone in need through a community of Jesus followers?  The answer, of course, is both.  Both stories tell us about someone experiencing the healing touch of Jesus in the context of a church.  However, what is interesting is how differently we can tend to regard such stories.  

I came to faith in a Vineyard church in college, and was amazed to find a place where people actually believed that God could and does still do the miraculous stuff of supernatural healing.  I began to hear stories from people I knew and trusted of healings they had witnessed and been a part of.  I confess that I myself was a bit skeptical, but found my skepticism challenged by reports from folks I knew and trusted as credible.  And then I saw it myself firsthand as I chaperoned a group of high school students to a conference and joined the kids as they prayed for their friend with chronic severe asthma, and saw her breathing dramatically improve and a genuine supernatural healing take place.  So through the years I have seen these kinds of things occasionally, and seen the excitement these stories can generate in the church, and rightly so.  But I've also seen that this kind of healing alone is not the whole picture.

Where does the second story fit in a framework that defines healing as a supernatural dramatic event?  The woman with back pain did receive prayer, just as the first man did.  Some of the same people prayed for her.  And yet there was no divine drama in that story: at least not on the surface.  Does that mean that God was not present in her healing?  No, I don’t believe that.  Clearly this woman did receive healing.  But healing was a broader experience then having her symptoms instantaneously relieved.  It was a process which, even in the midst of walking through physical pain, brought her relational, spiritual, and emotional wholeness.  And I believe that was a gift from God.

I’m starting this talk focusing on the topic of healing because we’re getting into the portion of Luke where we begin to see a lot of stories of Jesus healing people, as we will see in our passage tonight.  Sometimes it’s hard to know what to do with these stories, and we wonder how they connect with our experiences of healing.  Even in this room, when we talk about the subject of “healing” we will likely have folks coming from a number of different places of experience.  Some of your experiences may be like the stories I described – praying for people and maybe even seeing supernatural relief.  Others of you are scientists who may do work that relates to the medical profession, and so your perspective is coming from a more scientific point of view. If statistics are to be trusted at all, there are those of us who are living with a chronic illness or disability, or are close to a family member or friend who is.  Some of these limitations are public and obvious.  Many others are not as outwardly visible, but they all have an impact on our lives, and they all prompt the question, “What does it mean to experience the healing presence of Jesus?”

In seminary, I had the opportunity to take a class on spiritual issues pertaining to chronic illness and disability.  One distinction I have found helpful in much of the work done by theologians and pastors who study the topic is the distinction between healing and cure. Cure, they say, is recovery of function or elimination of physical symptoms.  However, healing is a broader concept.  It deals with the whole person, not merely the affected part of them.  Healing deals not just with the physical, but with the emotional, relational, mental, and spiritual state of a person.  Healing can, and often does include cure, whether it be through medical or supernatural means.  But what about the person who experiences no cure?  Is God's healing not present in their life?   A broader view of healing recognizes that, as positive a thing as alleviating symptoms often is, there is more involved than that in the ministry of healing.

John Naude is a vicar, a priest in the Church of England.  He is the senior leader of his congregation, the Church of the Good Shepherd.  He is married to his wife Belinda, and the two are parents to a son named Samuel.  John Naude is also one of the only clergy within the church of England to use a wheelchair full time.  

When speaking at a conference in 2010 he shared the following: “Those of you with a disability know the experience of having people ask you, 'How long have you been suffering this disability?'  My usual response for those people is 'I don't suffer from my disability.  Rather, I suffer people like yourself.'”  This funny, but biting, response highlights a reality that Naude, as well as many other people living with disability understand: that their experience of having a disability is not merely physical, it is also social.  And often it is the social challenges, rather than the physical limitations, that people living with illness or disability experience as the most difficult.  Naude, and others like him, have spent years literally being looked down on, often treated as children, and excluded from meaningful participation in community life.  

Unfortunately, the discomfort and perceptions that surround people living with illness and disability are deeply culturally embedded and sometimes painful to acknowledge.  When you think about it, even the term “dis-abled” is demeaning.  It emphasizes a lack of one certain ability rather than recognizing that the person in question has a variety of other abilities.  To say someone is “disabled” or “handicapped” means to reduce their entire identity to their limitation.  For this reason, disability advocates prefer to use terms such as “persons with disabilities” ,“other-abled” or “differently abled” to remind the broader culture that all of us are people with our own strengths, abilities, and dignity.  

The issue of social barriers creating a “disabling” experience is not new, which brings us to the passage we’ll be looking at tonight.  In biblical times this was a very relevant issue.  Social stigma was related to religious practices that often required that a person with a disability must be excluded from the life and practice of faith. Arguably, the condition that demonstrated this social stigma the most was that of leprosy.

To understand what made the stigma of leprosy so strong, we must understand a bit about religious life in ancient Israel.  So we’re going to play a little imagination game.  Imagine that you are an ancient Hebrew man or woman living in an encampment with the rest of your nation.  Your people have been liberated from slavery, you’ve left Egypt, and are now en route to your promised land, but here you are camped for years – nomads in the desert  as you travel and wait for God to lead you into your destiny.  In the meantime, your entire culture is shaped by the laws and regulations Moses has given you on Mt. Sinai to live by.  A number of these have to do with restrictions of purity, and fitness to participate in corporate life.  The effect of them is that they establish a system by which people are understood to be, at any given time, “clean” or “unclean”.  To be clean means you can live in the camp; you can be with people.  However, to be unclean means you need to be removed from society, living outside of the camp until your state of uncleanness has expired.

The reason that someone deemed unclean needs to be isolated, is that the very state of being unclean itself is highly contagious.  If a person who is ceremonially unclean comes into contact with a person who is ceremonially clean, that clean person will also become unclean.  Sometimes that person can make others unclean, who can make others unclean.  So contact with people who are unclean is to be totally avoided. 
Folks are deemed unclean for a variety of reasons.  Some of these are sinful behaviors.  Some of them are due to contact with various animals.  Eating certain foods can make you unclean.  And some are purely biological - a woman's monthly period, or for a woman or a man, the appearance of any kind of skin disorder, will cause one to be unclean for as long as it persists.

There are rituals for re-entry into the community after a period of being unclean.  For skin conditions, once your outbreak has resolved, you need to be inspected by a priest who can confirm that the condition is cured and can pronounce you ceremonially clean.  However, if you suffer from a skin disease for which there is no known cure, you will have to live on the margins indefinitely.  Leprosy is such a disease.

If you contract leprosy you will have to spend the rest of your life outside the camp.  Your body will deteriorate.  At first you will see lesions appear on your skin, followed by nerve damage and loss of sensation in your hands and feet, which causes them to be easily injured.  In addition to this physical suffering, you will need to be separated from your friends and family.  If you ever come in close proximity of other people, you will need to cover your mouth and then yell out “Unclean! Unclean!” to everyone in your midst so they can make sure to stay away and not be contaminated by you.  And that will be how you live the rest of your life until your condition deteriorates to the point that it eventually kills you.

As you can imagine, to contract leprosy in ancient Israel was akin to immediate social death.  By Jesus' time, centuries later, people living with leprosy were literally called “the walking dead”.  It is in this world that Jesus finds himself when he encounters a man living with leprosy in the passage we’re looking at today.  
Let’s quickly revisit the context for this passage in Luke.  Jesus has announced himself and his mission to the people in his hometown synagogue.  They got mad and tried to kill him so he went elsewhere and  has begun to do ministry.  This ministry has  included healing physical conditions and casting out demons.  He has also begun to explicitly call some followers like the fishermen Simon, James and John.  Having told us these things, Luke then shares this story in chapter 5, verses 12-16:

12 While Jesus was in one of the towns, a man came to him who was covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed down with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.” 13 So he stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I am willing. Be clean!” And immediately the leprosy left him. 14 Then he ordered the man to tell no one, but commanded him, “Go and show yourself to a priest, and bring the offering for your cleansing, as Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” 15 But the news about him spread even more, and large crowds were gathering together to hear him and to be healed of their illnesses. 16 Yet Jesus himself frequently withdrew to the wilderness and prayed. 

So this is a short story but if we dig beneath the surface, I think it becomes really interesting.  In this healing account, we see Jesus heal this man with leprosy in multiple ways.  On the one hand, it is easy to focus on the supernatural element.  We see the miraculous cure and are amazed, as well we should be.  But by focusing on the eradication of the disease alone, we might miss something else that’s very important. This story is not just about the fact that Jesus healed the man with leprosy.  It's also about how and why he did it.

The man with leprosy was unique in his approach.  He gave Jesus a choice rather than simply requesting a healing.  He knew that for him to even be in a town where Jesus was, amongst the community and the people gathering around Jesus, was forbidden.  He also knew that physical contact with Jesus would make Jesus ceremonially unclean.  So the man beseeched him.  He bowed before him and begged him, but he acknowledged the risk to Jesus by giving him a choice, “If you are willing, You can make me clean.”

What must Jesus have been thinking in that moment?  He was an observant Jew who knew his torah backwards and forwards; he was aware of the social taboo around this man and the danger to himself of being contaminated by contact with him.  So what was going on in his mind?  Was he nervous?  Frustrated at this stranger’s gall?  In Mark’s version of this story, we actually get a little bit of information about Jesus’ emotional response that Luke doesn’t include in his version, but I think it’s helpful insight.  The text in Mark in many English translations says Jesus was moved with compassion.  Other translations say this differently.  “Jesus was indignant” or “angry”.  It’s a bit confusing.  The actual image in the original Greek is of Jesus being moved so deeply that he feels it in his gut, literally in his bowels.  It's as if a mix of compassion and righteous anger from deep within overcome him and he is moved to respond.  And this is where Jesus does the most remarkable thing which would be completely shocking to the people of his day.  He reaches out his hand, and touches the man with leprosy in front of him.

There are other healings that Jesus does that are hands-off.  Sometimes he merely speaks a word and someone is healed.  Jesus could have done that here.  But instead, he chooses to stretch out his hand and touch the man, making himself ritually unclean.  So why? Why does he do it?  Why take that risk?  

Personally, I don’t think Jesus is being careless here.  I think he’s being really intentional.  This is a man who probably hasn't been touched by another human being in years.  He has been kept at arms’ length for as long as he has been unclean.  And in a moment, Jesus breaks the invisible barrier that has surrounded him, that wall of absent space that has been his cage of isolation, and with his own hands, Jesus touches him.

The miracle of Jesus in this moment is two-fold.  Firstly, it is purely a miracle that when Jesus touches this man, his incurable condition is cured.  The lesions on his skin vanish.  But more than skin has been healed in that moment.  A person has been healed.  Not only is this man relieved of his physical discomfort but his very person-hood has been restored.  No longer is he “the walking dead”.  What was dead has been resurrected.  He has been given an opportunity to relate to others, to touch them, and to be touched, to live a real life once again.  I believe Jesus looked in his eyes, he heard his voice, and he understood that what tortured this man wasn’t at it’s core the condition of his skin.  What tortured him was isolation.  Jesus’ desire to free this man from his isolation trumped his need to keep himself ritually clean.  He touched the man, knowing that in the eyes of others he was taking on this man's unclean state.  But by doing this he was making this man truly clean and restoring him to life in the community.

Jesus instructed the formerly leprous man to go to the priest and show himself to him.  He knew that this was the religious procedure for restoration, as only the priests could officially pronounce someone ritually clean and ready to re-enter society.  He also knew that the priests, confronted with the evidence that this man with leprosy had now been miraculously cured, would be forced to recognize that Jesus had genuine supernatural power. Wouldn’t it have been fun to see the look on his face when that priest discovers what has happened?  Classic.

But it’s not just about a fun “gotcha” moment.  The moment the priest examines this man and sees that his skin is clean, his new life will begin.  Jesus won’t be the only one who sees and declares his humanity, though he may have been the first in a long time.  When the priest looks at his clean skin, that priest will have to put his own preconceptions aside about who this man is and how he should be treated.  He will have to welcome him with open arms back into their social world.

I recently read an article that appeared on the Huffington Post that seems relevant to me on this point.  It was titled, “The Likely Cause of Addiction Has Been Discovered, and It Is Not What You Think.”  The article describes research that counteracts the popular notion that addiction is primarily about chemical dependency.  While chemical dependency is certainly a factor in how people become addicted to substances, a seemingly more important factor has to do with relational connection.
As the author, Johann Hari, points out, this has been demonstrated in a number of ways.  One of the most interesting involved experiments done on lab rats.  In the 1980s, Partnership for a Drug Free America ran ads that told the story of a lab experiment that supported the chemical dependency angle on addiction.  Maybe you remember them.  The commercials showed rats who were given the choice between regular water and water laced with heroin or cocaine.  Again, and again, the rats chose the drugged water until they overdosed and drugged themselves to death.  

However, one scientist, Bruce Alexander, made an important observation about that study.  All the subjects being tested were isolated rats, living in a plain cage, with no other source of stimulation other than the choice to drug themselves.  Alexander wondered what would happen if the rats tested had a happier social environment.  So he built a “rat park” and put rats together in an environment with lots of cool social and creative rat stimulation.  Then in that setting, he introduced the drug-laced water, alongside regular water.  What do you think happened? The incidence of rats choosing to repeatedly drink the drugged water plummeted.  No rats overdosed.  They had powerful connections with one another that made them much less likely to be interested in chemical intoxication.  Even rats who were introduced to drugs in isolation, became dependent on them, and then were brought into social settings, gave up their addictive habits.  Being with others literally saved their lives. 
In his peace in the Huffington Post, Hari points to studies in humans that demonstrate the same phenomena, after having interviewed a number of doctors and scientists who have studied the issues involved. He reports, “Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It's how we get our satisfaction. If we can't connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find -- the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about 'addiction' altogether, and instead call it 'bonding.' A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn't bond as fully with anything else. So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.”

The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.

It make you think doesn’t it?  If you’ve known someone whose struggled with addiction, alcoholism, or some other unhealthy bond in their life, how might they have felt isolated?  What life circumstance pushed them to the margins?  How were they like this man with leprosy in Luke 5, and how might that have contributed to their unhealthy attachments? Also, hearing that conclusion from a very secular source, I can’t help but hear an echo of the Genesis story. God looks at the first human being he has made.  Though this person has been given an opportunity to bond with every creature in creation, not to mention God himself, he cannot find a suitable companion.  And God says it is Not Good for the human being to be alone.  It is Not Good.  Humans need other humans.  It’s how we were made.  We’re made for human connection, we thrive with human connection, we even experience God most fully through human connection.  It’s powerful stuff.
John Noude, the vicar from the UK who uses a wheelchair, wrote the following in an essay on his experience of living with disability.   I’ll read a quote of his at length:  “As a 38-year-old man who uses a wheelchair and is approaching middle age, I find the concept of being not disabled quite intriguing. Many friends and colleagues tell me about the benefits of not being disabled, yet I have never felt the need or the desire to be healed or to become non-disabled.  I appreciate that some people who become disabled through ill health, accident or some degenerative condition may wish to be as they were before. Yet many disabled people say the biggest issue that they have is not the impairment itself, but rather the way people respond to it.”

He continues, “Many people tell me that without my disability I would be free from pain and discrimination and be able to do so much more. Similarly, I have asked the female participants in disability awareness training, if they would prefer to be men so as to be spared the pain of menstruation and childbirth, and the discrimination against them as women. They tell me very clearly 'No, I would not want to be a man.'… The fact of being a woman…is part of who they are. While there is an assumption that disabled people would rather not be disabled, I and other disabled people would say that the disability is part of our identity.”

As a woman, John’s point resonates with me.  I have spent much of my life caught between multiple understandings about what my gender means.  On the one hand, I was told by my family and throughout school as a young girl, “You can do anything.  Girls can be whatever they want to be.”  But as an adult I’ve found it to be more complicated.  I’ve found myself butting against systems in the greater American church or my own seminary that weren’t created for a person like me – a woman, a mother of small children, who was training to develop as a senior pastor and eventual church planter.  I’ve had to sit across a table from a well-meaning friend and fellow seminary student as he told me point blank that he didn’t believe that God wanted women to be senior pastors.  I’ve had to say no to opportunities for education or training or ministry involvement because I am the primary caregiver to our kids, and these opportunities assume that I have a wife of my own at home to care for them.  And yet, I would change nothing about my gender or my motherhood or my vocation.  They are gifts to me and I believe that the kind of pastor God has called me to be is a woman, a wife and a mother, despite the social challenges it brings.

So what healing does Jesus bring for John Naude, the vicar?  Being cured of his disability is not something he is seeking or believes he needs from God.  While John acknowledges that others living with disability are longing for cure, and are entitled to feel that way, John himself is not.  Rather, the healing that John needs is the same healing that the person marginalized for their gender, their ethnicity, their race, their socio-economic status, their age, their sexual orientation, their employment history, their level of education, or any other factor is in need of.  They need their society, or perhaps even their church, to stop calling them “unclean”.  They need to be welcomed as human beings and have their unique identities affirmed.  They need to be given the freedom to be who they are freely among others, rather than pushed to the margins in isolation.  I believe the core of Jesus’ mission, was to bring this kind of healing.

So how do we participate in this kind of healing: both receiving it and giving it?  As we come to an end, here are a few quick, practical tips.

1. Don’t accept isolation as a way of life.  Find safe places to be fully known, even in vulnerability.  The man with leprosy made a bold choice the day he went to see Jesus.  He was desperate but he also had hope.  He had not given up on the dream of living a life once more when he could be know.  And so he did not hide in the shadows when Jesus passed by, but he risked rejection from Jesus and all the others gathered there, as he approached Jesus and showed his infected skin to him.  How many of us are willing to do the same, either to Jesus or to others?  That’s what our prayer groups are all about - they are places where we invite others in to know us beyond the surface, to know us not only in our strengths but also in our weaknesses.  Whether it’s a prayer group or some other setting, find places to pursue that kind of knowing and being known.  Because when we find acceptance for all of our humanity in those kinds of places, we experience the healing and the freedom we were made for.

2. Put intentional time into knowing others deeply, especially those who may be different from you.  As you do this, listen more than you speak.  We get into trouble when we try to project our own experiences or perspectives on others, especially on those whose circumstances are markedly different than our own.  Find ways to cultivate relationships that communicate your respect for those that differ from you, and your genuine desire to listen and learn about their life experience and perspective.  Consider reading essays, books, watching movies, and exposing yourself however possible to voices outside of your subculture.  Allow yourself to be shaped and stretched by hearing someone else’s perspective, even if it is uncomfortable for you.

3. Look for ways you can help our community at Haven include everyone and especially empower those who have been previously disempowered.  This doesn’t mean ignoring differences or pretending they don’t exist.  Most folks who work in fields like racial reconciliation acknowledge that the concept of “color-blindness” is far more damaging than it is helpful, because it only continues to privilege those who already have power, and it takes away the capacity of the disempowered to name injustice.  Rather, as we grow as Haven, we want to openly acknowledge our differences and choose to make space to hear and include all kinds of voices in our corporate life, even when it’s tricky, which it inevitably will be.

Friends, as we move forward together in building a community of faith here at Haven, that promise of this kind of healing we’ve been talking about tonight is here for each us.  Jesus is beckoning those of us who are aware that we are living on the margins of some social boundary to step across it.  To find inclusion, find companionship, find restoration.  He’s inviting us out of isolation and loneliness to come and play with him and all the other rats in the rat park.

And Jesus is calling all of us to be the kind of people he is.  This is part of what it means to be the Body of Christ: to be the ones stretching out our hands and touching those our world might call untouchable.  Yes, Jesus is calling us to pray for the sick and believe that we will see miracles with our own eyes.  But he is calling us to more.  He is calling us to break through the invisible walls that separate the clean from the unclean.  He is calling us to get ourselves dirty in the process of bringing his cleansing presence into unclean territory.  He is calling us to give privilege to the voices that our world has made voiceless.  He is calling us to be an en-abling community in a dis-abling world.  Haven, he is calling us...to heal. Amen.