Saturday, March 26, 2011

( If you would like to listen to this posting, scroll down to the end...)

 Stories of healing    

I like to think of myself as a person of prayer. Yet I have recently noticed something a bit interesting about the way I pray: I don't often ask God to heal me. Now granted, I am not a particularly sickly person and I do ask God to bless me in other ways. But, if I am suffering with something specific, I don't often say to God, "Please heal me."

As I have pondered this, it has occurred to me that perhaps I am afraid to ask so directly, so specifically. Perhaps I am afraid I won't be healed and then I will have to wonder why not. It may seem safer to ask God to help me in some very general way so that the omission will not be so glaring if he doesn't do it. It takes a lot of courage to ask to be healed.

I was thinking of a particular story of healing recently. Allow me to share it with you:

A leper came to Jesus and pleaded on his knees: "If you want to," he said, "you can cure me." Feeling sorry for him, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him. "Of course I want to!" he said, "Be cured!" And the leprosy left him at once and he was cured.  Jesus immediately sent him away and sternly ordered him, "Mind you say nothing to anyone, but go and show yourself to the priest, and make offering for your healing prescribed by Moses as evidence of your recovery." The man went away, but then start talking about it freely and telling the story everywhere, so that Jesus could no longer go openly into any town, but had to stay outside in places where nobody lived.  Even so, people from all around would come to him. (Mark 1: 40-45)

I have always liked this particular translation of this story because of the enthusiastic response of Jesus, "Of course I want to!" It is almost like he is saying, "How could I want anything less for you?" As I am reading the story again though, some other things strike me as well. How bold and courageous of that man to state his request so directly, especially including the words, "if you want to"? With those words, any outcome other than healing would have suggested that Jesus did not want to, that he did not care about this leper, this outcast. The man did not try to hide the ugliness of his condition from Jesus but laid it right before him. He was, in a sense, asking Jesus, "can you really love - even someone like me?"

While the tension of the moment is relieved with the response, "Of course I want to!", there is something more. The passage tells us that Jesus reached out and touched the man. When we stop and remember when this occurred, when "leprosy" meant almost any skin disease that might be the beginnings of that horrifying, deforming condition, to touch a leper was unthinkable. People typically would not go near enough to even talk to lepers. At best, a charitable person might leave some food for them at a distance. Yet Jesus touched this man, this leper. And, in the touching, it seems almost as though he were saying, "I don't see you as a leper, I see you as a human being, the person you were made to be". Being seen as his true self, the man became what Jesus saw, a person, a beloved person, someone whole and complete...

With this in mind, why am I, why are we, so afraid to ask for healing? While it certainly may be that I don't want to face the possibility that what I ask for won't be given, I suspect it is more than that. After all, it is not difficult for us to see that praying for healing is not like placing an order in a store or online, where we ask with relative certainty that we will get whatever we ask for. We can see that it doesn't work that way. Yet part of the problem is that we don't see what way it does work - or if indeed it ever works at all.

Or perhaps we do get a glimpse of how it works and it is that that scares us. We have to put our "leprosy" out there, to allow our entire selves, with every good or bad or shameful aspect unhidden, to be entrusted to the One who sees the truth. It is as frightening as leaping off of a cliff in the dark, trusting that there is a Loving One there, waiting and wanting to catch me, to bring me back to safety. Could he see my truth and still accept me, still love me?

It is both our hope and our fear. Given how difficult it is for most of us to accept and love ourselves, it is not surprising that we are afraid to bring all of our pain and brokenness to the Creator. It is hard to imagine that he would be willing, much less wanting, to touch us after all we have done with his gifts ...

Let me share another story:

When Jesus returned to Capernaum, word went round that he was back; and so many people collected there that there was no room left, even in front of the door. He was preaching the word to them when some people came bringing him a paralytic carried by four men, but as the crowd made it impossible to get the man to him, they stripped the roof over the place where Jesus was; and when they made an opening, they lowered the stretcher on which the paralytic lay. Seeing their faith, Jesus said to the paralytic, "My child, your sins are forgiven." Now some scribes were sitting there, and they thought to themselves, "How can this man talk like that? He is blaspheming. Who can forgive sins but God?" Jesus, inwardly aware that this was what they were thinking, said to them, "Why do you have these thoughts in your hearts? Which of these is easier: to say to the paralytic, 'Your sins are forgiven' or to say, 'Get up, pick up your stretcher and walk'? But to prove that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins," he said to the paralytic - "I order you: get up, pick up your stretcher, and go off home." And the man got up, picked up his stretcher at once and walked out in front of everyone, so that they were all astounded and praised God saying, "We have never seen anything like this." (Mark 2: 1-12).

I don't know that I ever really noticed that this story comes right after the story about the leper. It seems that the cured (but disobedient) leper went around telling everyone about his healing experience, resulting in the crowds getting so large that many people could not get close enough to see or talk to the Healer. It occurs to me that, while undoubtedly there were people in the crowd who were hoping to be healed, there were probably also people there who were just curiosity-seekers. They heard about this leper who was no longer a leper and they wanted to be there and see something happen. The story teller also lets us know that there were some skeptics in the crowd, some that wanted to find fault with the Healer because they didn't believe that things like that really happened.

What is interesting is that the next person to approach Jesus - coming through the roof no less - was someone who was paralyzed. Someone so completely broken and helpless that he had to depend on others to get him to the Healer. Certainly there must have been some dramatic suspense when this paralytic came through the roof. This was the moment they were all waiting for: now we will see if there is really going to be a miracle.

And what does the Healer say? "Your sins are forgiven"! Certainly a let-down to the curiousity seekers. And a great opportunity for the skeptics. But it is interesting that the story teller doesn't tell us that the paralyzed man complained. Certainly he must have wanted very much to be healed of his paralysis. Like the leper, he had taken a great risk by publicly placing himself before the now famous Healer. He most likely felt shame, because people of his time generally assumed that physical afflictions were punishment for sin. So the paralytic was placing himself and his shame before not just the crowd, but before the great Healer. What if nothing happened? What if he was found unworthy?

It seems that Jesus saw the brokenness, the helplessness, the stuck-ness of this man in a way much deeper than just his body. In telling him that his sins were forgiven, he opened the man's heart and freed him from his inner pain, his shame. He was liberating the man from the paralysis in his soul, seeing the goodness of him as the person he was made to be, thereby enabling his body too to be freed. And then he simply told him to go on home.

These are marvelous stories. But are they just stories? We don't see miracles in our world. I have never seen a leper cleansed or a paralytic get up and walk. Sometimes we pray and something wonderful happens. We start feeling better from our physical or mental ills. A job is found. A rift with a loved one starts healing. But other times, it seems like we only pray and suffer, pray and suffer ... and sometimes some of us just stop praying, thinking that healing, if there is such a thing, must be for people other than us. He wouldn't want to touch me. He wouldn't be able to forgive my sins. There is no point in even laying out that kind of ugliness before him. How could anyone, even the Creator, love a creature gone so wrong?

I have seen the miracle.

I have seen it many times over.

I walked with someone for over five years of wanting only to sleep life away or commit suicide. And then, without any clear explanation, the inner pain eased and life began to have joy again. And years later, it still did.

I walked with someone who for decades had searched for something to ease the anguish of a life that began with abuse and continued with years and years of broken living. And then, in their 8th decade, that someone discovered the experience of loving and being loved for the first time.

There are many other stories. Not just stories that I could tell, but stories that are carried around in other hearts and perhaps never told.

And yet I know too that there is still much pain, much sorrow, much shame within us and around us.

Among us are devout believers, skeptics and the curious. Many of us may be all three.

I, like you, am afraid to ask.

So let's ask together.

God, if you exist,
Heal me.
You know what in me is broken.
You know my shame.
I know I can never deserve your Gift.
I am afraid to ask.
But I am asking.
Please heal me.
Please forgive me.
See me as the person I was made to be.
(And let me see, too.)

(To listen to this posting, just click on "play".)