Healing with others

In worship, we pray regularly for problems in the world. We do this partly because we are not disconnected from the consequence of conflict in far-off places. Neither are we, in large part, innocent from the causes of these conflicts.

The growing conflict in the Ukraine affects the whole world. This problem is not isolated in its implications for the well-being of people everywhere. For example, a couple of days ago, the markets in Europe and North America tumbled. Especially in Moscow – where the rubble sank to its lowest value in decades and their stock market lost 11%, or some 60 billion dollars, of value in one day. Russia holds the highest reserve of natural gas in the world.

We might very well feel the effects of this crisis in our global economy. The markets dipped because of the fear that shipping of natural resources from Russia through the Black Sea will be disrupted. Hence, the price of oil goes up.

I mention the economic problems not to neglect the more important issues surrounding violence, loss of life, and respect for nationhood that is being stripped from the people of Ukraine at this time. But, only to underscore the truth of our inter-connected, inter-related and interdependent reality – both for good, and for bad.

Both the texts from Isaiah (58:1-12) and Matthew (6:1-6,16-21) that we read this evening on Ash Wednesday call our attention and some criticism to practicing our faith apart from a social awareness. It’s not so much to condemn fasting per se, for example, but what is motivating that fast.

After all, Moses fasted for 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai when he received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 34:27-28); Elijah fasted for 40 days and nights on that same mountain in response to the call of God (1 Kings 19:7-12); And Jesus fasted for 40 days and nights in the wilderness before being tested by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). During his earthly ministry, Jesus often went off to be by himself to pray (e.g. Luke 6:12).

But the difference is whether that fast or prayer is motivated ultimately by self-interest; or, an interest to help others. Isaiah (58:3-7) is quiet clear to focus the attention of the Israelites on acts of social care. Isaiah is among those prophets who say that the Lord does not want our ritual sacrifices (Micah 6:6-8), but the sacrifice of our hearts (Psalm 51:16-17) for the sake of others. Matthew reiterates the pious, self-centred worship when he records Jesus’ indictment: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)

Over these forty days and forty nights that we call Lent, our mid-week worship will focus on the healing ministry of our church, according to the liturgy in the Evangelical Lutheran Worship Book (Augsburg Fortress Press, 2006, p.276).

The discipline of healing is an important theme in the Christian life; and we will be fortunate to hear the testimonies of several people from the church who will share their experience of healing; we will also practice the laying on of hands and anointing with oil that grounds our practice in tangible ways. We come to this discipline freely, unforced, and open to the promise of God (e.g. Isaiah 58:8-12).

But lest we, too, fall in the trap of making healing something that is the sole purview of our individual, abstract, isolated, disconnected-from-the-real-world selves, I encourage us to reflect on the way we do this work for one another, and its effect on the world around us.

Yuriy Derkach is the chaplain at Algonquin College. He is a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Community here in Ottawa. We met last week to get caught up, reflect on the situation in his homeland. And, pray together.

He told me of an Orthodox discipline that some practice every year on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week, around the giving and receiving of forgiveness. In addition to recognizing the personal aspect of forgiveness between people that know each other, they also ‘ritualize’ the inter-connected effect of forgiveness on the community.

So, a few of them go into the downtown core of Ottawa, walk the streets, and meet total strangers. There, on the street corner, and quite genuinely, they ask the homeless for forgiveness, recognizing their own complicity in creating the problem of poverty in the world today. After receiving a word of forgiveness, they also offer forgiveness.

Yuriy believes this practice has a domino or butterfly affect. We may not go into downtown Ottawa and meet total strangers with words of forgiveness. But reflect, for a moment, on the power of forgiveness: When you throw a pebble into a still pond of water and see the ripples expanding outward, so, too, when you give and receive forgiveness the stratosphere is affected. Similar to the proverb you may have heard that when a butterfly bats its wings in Japan, a tornado is spawned in the American mid-west. When we pronounce words of promise, forgiveness and affirmation – as we do intentionally to one another in the liturgy for healing – we affect the atmosphere and ‘climate’ of the community around us.

It goes both ways: When we carry around anger and express hatred to those we meet during the day, it may very well have a net negative, global consequence. But imagine, should words of affirmation, healing, and love come from our hearts to those we meet and relate to on the streets of our daily lives, and in the church – what affect that may have in the world? Not fear. But hope.

One of the passages from the bible that has also challenged me from the lips of Jesus, is when he said: “The first shall be last, and the last shall be first” (Matthew 19:30). Yuriy gave me a wonderful interpretation of that passage. Using the analogy of running the race, which St. Paul uses (1 Cor 9:24), he said if those at the front hold hands with those at the back; and those at the back hold hands with those at the front; then, everyone can cross the finish line together. Then, indeed, the first are the last, and the last are the first.

Healing is not done alone. Whatever that healing is, it doesn’t happen in an earthly vacuum, by ourselves and in our heads alone. Very likely, there are always people around, people who care, people who reach out to touch another with loving intent.

We are as much a part of what is happening across this world, for good and for bad. We are, each and every one of us, in need of forgiveness and healing for what we have done, known and unknown, to cause hurt in another. And we are, each and every one of us, capable of affecting the world positively in small acts of kindness with God’s love.

Let it be so, this Lent.

And though we may at times stumble and fail, we will not give up. Because God’s word is true: Our light shall break forth like the dawn, and our healing shall spring up quickly; the glory of the Lord shall be our rearguard; we will call, and the Lord will answer; God will satisfy the needs of the afflicted; our light shall rise in the darkness; the Lord will guide us continually, and satisfy our needs in parched places and make our bones strong; we shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters never fail; our ancient ruins will be rebuilt; we shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in (Isaiah 58:8-12).

Let it be so, this Lent.

Invitation to a Holy Place

If we had interpreted Jesus’ words, “you always have the poor with you but you do not always me” (John 12:8), to mean we should not concern ourselves with social justice and serving the needs of the poor, we fall for the gnostic trap:

Gnosticism in the early centuries was a belief system that, basically, separated the material realm from the spiritual realm. And, in the gnostic worldview deemed heretical by the early church, this material realm is essentially bad and worthless.

But if we look at the broader context of this text, we can gain a richer and deeper understanding of what is going on here. Especially as this text invites us to experience the senses of sight and smell: “The house was filled with fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3). This story is very much rooted in the material reality of nard, perfume, feet, friends, the poor, homes, impending suffering and meals.

We cannot spiritualize this text away to mean something other-worldly, heavenly, eternal — basically disconnected from ordinary life. We cannot walk away from encountering this text only saying, “It’s all about sweet Jesus in heavenly glory and I can’t wait to get there!” Because the stuff of earth also matters dearly to our Lord.

To understand a difficult text it is often best to take a step back and see the big picture, what we call literary context. What are some of the contextual points?

First, the Gospel writer places this story at the beginning of Jesus’ final journey to Jerusalem where he will meet with treachery, suffering, torture and brutal death on the cross. Jesus accepts Mary’s extravagant gift of expensive perfume on the basis of his anointing for burial (v.7). Set in the broader context of Jesus’ passion, we begin to understand what Jesus means when he says, “you do not always have me” in verse 8. Because, literally, the time is coming when his friends will no longer see him in human form on earth.

But there is more.

Jesus begins this journey to the cross by coming home. Bethany, in some respect, was the home of his dear friends, Lazarus, Martha and Mary, whom Jesus “loved” (11:5). These are Jesus’ dearest friends. We say home is where the heart is, where we encounter family and friends. Home is a place where we feel safe to be who we are and know that we will be accepted by our loved ones no matter what. Understandably Jesus begins a difficult journey by first touching base in this holy place for him. This text begins with friends gathering around table for a meal.

A holy place, as I have heard from many of you over the past few weeks, is an event, experience or physical place where we have met God and God has met with us. It is, to some degree, a place of comfort, stability and grounding — where we feel revitalized and energized. We want to go there. From this holy place we are able then to re-engage the world refreshed with renewed vigor and commitment.

Holy places are defined by transformative relationships. Even when we are alone, so to speak, in that secret place of our hearts or sanctuary, God is with us. And we are called from that place forward.

The holy place for Jesus is not simply escapism to a Caribbean beach or any other dreamy landscape where we are protected from any discomfort. Our true holy places are not about withdrawal or drugged immunity from challenge and conflict. Otherwise those holy places just keep us addictively stuck; they do not serve to grow us as people of faith.

It gets muddy in those holy places. Judas complains. And the reader knows what he is doing with the common purse: he is a thief, up to no good. We also know that he will betray Jesus in a few days. This is part and parcel of the holy place experience. Holy places in the presence God do not buffer or sanitize us from harsh reality. They keep us on our toes. And they ultimately pull us out of ourselves and challenge us.

Lest we shy away from going to our holy place, be encouraged by the implied promise of this text: From this holy place of Jesus’ emerges a great, extravagant, gracious and valuable gift. And this gift, this treasure, is not discarded and dismissed as wasteful. The gift of Mary out of gratitude to Jesus for raising her brother Lazarus from the dead, the gift about which Judas bitterly complains as ‘wasteful’, this gift is received and accepted by Jesus.

Everything in our lives is valuable to Jesus. Jesus values and deems important those very material concerns of our lives, and the lives of those in need — the poor. When I pray to Jesus for help often the answer may not be what I want. But the affirmations that often come are in the form of material reality. In other words, voices don’t boom from heaven. Lightening doesn’t strike in the moment of prayer. Supernatural responses don’t come so much as does a phone call from the accountant, a letter in the mail, the words of a friend, the seemingly unconnected event — all shed a clear light on the matter of prayer.

Perhaps, if anything, I am called during Lent and by this text to pay attention to the daily, ordinary, earthly matters of my life. Therein Jesus is present, active, and values each ordinary decision I make. Because it’s important to him.

But it’s not just about my material needs. Mary makes a supreme material sacrifice, likely foreshadowing Jesus’ even greater sacrifice of love.

You have the poor with you always. Serve the poor. By focusing on serving others we let go of those distractions and obsessions of life that keep us trapped. You heard the advice given by the new pontiff, Francis, who advised his Argentinian church members not to spend money on attending his installation in Rome but rather to give that money to the poor.

But know this: In that good work, pay attention to the presence of Jesus who is always with us and guiding us and supporting us. We do live in the shadow of the cross. But we also live in the presence of the risen Christ. We may be surprised, in all our work for good.

So here is an invitation to daily companionship with Jesus — at the Table, in extravagant acts of compassion and generosity, in moments of worship in those holy places. (p.145, H. Stephen Shoemaker, Feasting on the Word). Because Jesus will not abandon us.

So, come! Come, eat with us. Come, share this time with us. Commune together with God and with one another. Come, join together with the people of God in holy places defined by relationships of love, to serve those in need and celebrate the great treasure we have and that we offer to the world.

Massaging the text

It doesn’t help to get tendonitis in my arm in the middle of a Canadian winter. Especially when you rely on arm power to shovel snow.

It does help a bit if you live next door to a massage therapist who is willing to offer free advice and treatment!

My neighbour held my sore arm with one hand, and then began kneading the palm of my hand with the other. “But that’s not where I hurt,” I protested. “It’s my forearm that’s the problem!” He smiled and continued massaging the palm of my hand.

He went on to explain his strategy: “In order to maintain the nerve sheath’s integrity, I used the sustained pressure of gently squeezing your arm to prevent one layer of muscle from moving. At the same time I rubbed the palm of your hand to restore the relative movement between the muscles of your arm thus revitalizing blood flow and neuro- vascular health.”

I pressed him for a lay person’s translation, which goes as follows: An indirect contact must be located to allow for full restoration of the affected area. In order to heal a distressed part of your body you have to access not only the area directly affected (my forearm) but an area indirectly connected (my palm) as well.

When people engage me in bible study, often what they question or query are the difficult verses in a text. It’s those lines that cause confusion, that appear contradictory, that simply do not make any sense on which we first tend to focus.

It’s not different in our Gospel text for the fifth Sunday in Lent — John 12:1-8 — when Mary pours expensive oil on Jesus’ feet wiping them with her hair. When Judas objects for the perceived waste, Jesus accepts Mary’s extravagance and concludes the passage with a statement that has been often misinterpreted: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me” (v.8).

This is the verse that tends to get traction in conversations. What does Jesus mean?

Employing the massage treatment methodology here, we have to address both the direct and indirect areas of the text. First, the direct. Let’s simply apply a gentle squeeze on the first part of Jesus’ statement: You always have the poor with me.

Most biblical scholars will suggest Jesus is doing here what he often does throughout the Gospels — quoting the Hebrew scriptures. Someone counted 78 times that Jesus cites verses from what we call the Old Testament. So, it follows that here Jesus is citing Deuteronomy 15:11 — “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.'”

Contrary to what sometimes is interpreted as a justification for ignoring the needs of the poor, Jesus’ words are actually an injunction to continue serving the needs of the poor, not to give up this good work:

Open your hand to the poor. Be generous in response to the needs of others. Be generous as Mary was in spilling a year’s wages of expensive perfume on the feet of Jesus.

But how can we continue this work when we know the needs will always be there? How can our spirits be sustained in serving the poor when it seems our efforts will never eradicate poverty, slavery, or any other social illness. Despair is a hairline step away from futility.

Let’s now apply the indirect method of dealing with this challenging text, as we look at the second part of Jesus’ response to Judas — “… you do not always have me.”

Like peripheral vision, in bible study we need to look at the broader context of the passage in question — the before part, and after part. Sometimes by looking to the side, we can see better the area in question. If we look only at the point in question, we might not see it. We must shift our gaze to the side in order to get a clearer vision of what is before us.

To be continued in the next post …

Holy Place: A Lenten Exercise

A hymn we often sing during Lent and Holy Week, “Beneath the Cross of Jesus”, leads us into an appreciation of physical space.

The title of the hymn suggests that we view Jesus from a certain standpoint, a particular perspective — at the foot of the Cross. It is from this spot on the earth that we look up to Jesus and see what he is doing for us. From this inner stance, we express our faith in the Holy One who died on that Cross to fulfill his Call of Love for us and for the whole world.

The Gospel message of Jesus finds its grounding, its rooting, in the Cross. Of course, we know the end of the story. But even the message of new life, of resurrection, fresh starts, new beginnings emerges from that original place – beneath the Cross of Jesus.

An awareness of where we are, brings us into the holy. The Lenten season is about recognizing a holy place where God meets us and we meet God.

In developing a theme of “A Holy Place”, I invite you to reflect on one space and place in your life you have considered “holy”. Describe it: What surrounded you? Was there anyone with you? What were you doing – being still, physically, or active? What did you sense in this place – smells, sounds, tastes, visions? What happened in the time you were in this place? How did you feel?

And then, consider what about this “holy place” reflects the character of God? Is it quiet or noisy? Funny or serious? Solemn or filled with laughter? Is it in some way gentle and sweet, powerful and overwhelming, or busy and active? Did the holy place come to you quite unexpectedly, like a surprise, or by accident? Or was it the result of an intentional discipline and preparation on your part? What is it about God that this holy place teaches you?

Finally, consider a biblical text, scriptural quote or story from the bible that enhances, converges with and affirms your experience of God in this holy place. Conclude with a short prayer.

Thank God, during Lent, for that holy place.

Once you’ve thought about it, would you, sometimes during the Lenten season, tell someone about your holy place?