St. Michael and All Angels
February 12, 2012
Several years ago during a very painful time in my life, my best friend invited me to go on a retreat on Molokai. She was leading it and thought it would be a good place for me to experience some healing. I am a lover of beaches and had always fantasized about a trip to Hawaii and all the enchantment that comes with that. This trip wasn’t exactly enchanting. I was in the midst of big changes in my life and I didn’t know what to do with the pain of it. It seemed ironic to go to paradise at a time like that.
Molokai is breathtaking! I was stunned by it’s beauty! I loved picking bananas off the trees and breathing in the fragrant flowers as I ran in the mornings. I don’t remember much about the retreat, but I do remember feeling that I could stay on Molokai forever. One day we hiked several miles to see the other side of Molokai. This paradise has a painful history as well.
When leprosy began to spread in the late 1800’s, there was no cure available and the solution was to isolate victims. Molokai was a perfect location because it was undeveloped and far enough from other islands. Authorities thought it made sense to separate people so that they couldn’t contaminate anyone else. They were taken by ship and sometimes, they were told to jump and swim the rest of the way. The ship’s crew would throw provisions overboard and hope the current would take it to the shore. The first arrivals to the island discovered that there were no buildings, shelter or potable water. Leprosy took people of all ages. Children were removed from their families and sent to live on Molokai until they died. Nearly 8,000 people were sent to live here until the segregation law was lifted in 1969.
Jesus touched a leper in a risky moment of solidarity. In doing so, he reversed their situations. The leper was healed and became clean, while Jesus became unclean. Mark tells us that Jesus was moved with pity. The word pity in Greek means an intense emotional response that propels one into action. Clearly, the man’s suffering moved him, but it also is likely that he was motivated by anger at an exclusive system. The man knew that Jesus was his only hope and by asking, he found the healing he desperately sought.
Naaman’s story is a bit different. Naaman is a man of power. He is respected for his great defeat of Israel. But he suffers from this awful disease. There are some interesting power dynamics in this story. A girl who was taken from Israel to be a servant for Naaman’s wife tells him that he should go to Israel for healing. He pays attention even though the girl has no authority, but he uses the systems of power to get what he wants. He goes through his king, who sends gifts and a letter vouching for him to the king of Israel. Then things start to fall apart. The king of Israel is scared by the request. Elisha steps in to help, but it doesn’t meet Naaman’s expectations. For one, Elisha doesn’t even come in person and there is no magic wand. Naaman is insulted by the recommendation that he bathe in crummy old Jordan river. He is used to much finer rivers and will not lower himself to this pathetic river.
Once again a voice with no power changes things. Naaman’s servants carefully ask, “Wouldn’t you do something that was incredibly difficult if told to do so? Why then, will you not do something so easy?”
That question gets me every time. Why do we make things so hard? How often do we miss the healing that is there for us because we aren’t willing to choose the path of humility? Have you ever been unwilling to say you are sorry? Have you ever entrenched yourself in a position even when you knew it was no longer right? Have you ever missed God right in front of you because things weren’t as you expected? Have you ever failed to look beneath the surface to find the beauty underneath?
So bathing in the Jordan isn’t your first choice? YOU HAVE LEPROSY. Do you really think this is a time to be choosy about your healing?? What have you got to lose…a bit of pride? Is it worth the loss?
Last week I began a new journey. I started a yearlong intensive Soulcraft program. Soulcraft is a series of nature based practices designed to help us more deeply connect with our truest self and discover our path in the world. I had my Naaman moment there too. Those of us who gathered came ready to encounter our souls. We dove into the practices and listened with care to one another and the earth. It was a powerful experience for me individually in the context of a loving community. It is the beginning of a rich journey. One of our great teachers is nature. We were sent outside each day and often were told to ask nature to give us direction. Our guides gave each of us a task based on their experience of us. My first task was to lie face down in the earth and let it hold me. I was less than enthusiastic about this. Really? I came here to have a deep soul encounter and I’m supposed to go lay on the ground? (I could have done that at home.) How about reading a book on the subject? That’s a good task!
While outside one day, I decided to try it. I didn’t choose to do so in a lovely grassy area, but in a dirt pile that was pretty damp. I saw the place and wandered over to it, and then I worried about getting muddy. I did it. I laid down on the ground for a few seconds, then I lifted myself up to see how muddy I was getting (I wasn’t) and laid back down again. I felt the earth holding me and realized that this strong beautiful earth holds me all the time. I loved the way it felt to connect with the earth in this way.
I also discovered a simple practice to do several times a day…plant my feet in the earth and feel it holding me, lift my eyes to the sky and find myself in it’s vast expanse, and open my hands to receive the gifts that are there.
As followers of Christ, we often have lofty assumptions and expectations. The spiritual life will be beautiful and glorious. We ask how to follow Jesus and we are told two things: Love God and love our neighbor. Then we ask, “Is there anything else on that list?” We were kind of hoping for something more complicated so we could excel at this faith thing. Yet loving God and loving our neighbor prove to be the easiest and the hardest thing in the world.
Then there are the books and preachers who tell us that loving Jesus should bring us lots of money and a life of ease. Deep down we know better, but we are still baffled by all the pain and struggle we encounter in life. We don’t know what to do with suffering but we know that it doesn’t fit into our carefully constructed view of what Christian life should be. Jesus wants people who think, “Where the Messiah is, there is no misery” to understand “where there is misery, there is the Messiah.” (Preaching Through the Christian Year, p. 103)
I am stunned at how easy it can be. I am stunned at how near God is. I am stunned at the opportunity to lean back and find that God is here holding me. One of my best experiences of God in recent years came in a hammock swing when I realized that is what God is like…lovingly holding us and inviting us to lean back into the fullness of life.
You are all invited to join me in reading a book together this Lent. We will be reading Philip Simmons’ book Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life. Philip was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease at age 35 and was told he had less than five years to live. Learning to Fall is his encounter with the fullness of life, with nature often teaching him what it means to live. It is a beautiful book and his perspective opens me to a deeper understanding of life each time I read it. Philip says:
“We have all heard poems, songs, and prayers that exhort us to see God in a blade of grass, a drop of dew, a child’s eyes, or the petals of a flower. Now when I hear such things I say that’s too easy. Our greater challenge is to see God not only in the eyes of the suffering child but in the suffering itself. To thank God for the sunset pink clouds over Red Hill—but also for the mosquitoes I must fan from my face while watching the clouds. To thank God for broken bones and broken hearts, for everything that opens us to the mystery of our humanness. The challenge is to stand at the sink with your hands in the dishwater, fuming over a quarrel with your spouse, children at your back clamoring for attention, the radio blatting the bad news from Bosnia, and to say “God is here, now, in this room, here in this dishwater, in this dirty spoon.” Don’t talk to me about flowers and sunshine and waterfalls: this is the ground here, now, in all that is ordinary and imperfect, this is the ground in which life sows the seeds of our fulfillment.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Let us pray, then, that we do not shun the struggle. May we attend with mindfulness, generosity, and compassion to all that is broken in our lives. May we live fully in each flawed and too human moment, and thereby gain the victory.” (p. 37)
God is here with us in every moment. God is with us in the beauty and ease and God is with us in the pain and struggle. Let us open ourselves to the fullness of life and lean back into God’s embrace. It’s that simple and that difficult.