Monday, July 03, 2006

Fully Alive

We have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep and there is no health in us…

These words, no longer in the General Confession, imply a certain view of human nature. They suggest that the default position for human nature is illness; that the paradigm or model for Christian salvation is recovery from illness. Therefore, clergy are practitioners of spiritual medicine, the church is a kind of hospital, and the sacraments are a sort of medicine. There is much to be said for this view.

After all, healing is a persistent, perhaps even central, theme in the Bible. Healing was central to Jesus’ ministry and today’s gospel reading is a good example. Mark tells us of two miracles of healing: a woman was healed after a 12 year illness and a little girl appears to have been raised from the dead. However, I think these two stories actually illustrate another often overlooked theme in Jesus’ ministry, but I’ll come back to that later.

It is a serious misunderstanding to believe that the fundamental human condition is sickness rather than health. It follows that it is equally wrong to believe that Jesus’ ministry was mostly about healing diseases. Rather, I believe that the fundamental human condition is one of health and Jesus’ ministry was more about promoting health than healing illnesses. The word “health” is related to the word “wholeness.” Christ’s mission and ministry were not just to heal those who suffered from diseases but to bring wholeness, to allow human life to flourish. As Jesus says in John’s gospel, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

With that in mind, let’s go back to today’s gospel reading. Notice that in the two stories Jesus does more than just heal. When the woman who had been ill for 12 years touches Jesus clothing, she was instantly healed. If Jesus’ ministry was just about healing, that would be the end of the story, but Jesus stopped and spoke to the woman. Mark says that she “came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.”

What was her whole truth? We don’t know but based on what we know about Jesus’ world, we can make some reasonable guesses. Her illness seems to have been some kind of dysmenorrhea. Such a condition would have rendered her ritually unclean. More than likely she had been married, but her medical condition would have been more than enough reason for her husband to divorce her, and divorced women often had no alternative but to turn to prostitution. So, the “whole truth” that she told Jesus was probably a long tale of illness, divorce, and perhaps even prostitution. After she had finished, Jesus says to her, “Woman, your faith has made you well, go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” But she had already been healed when she touched Jesus’ garment. I believe that she found more than healing; she found wholeness.

Consider the second healing miracle. Jairus, the “ruler of the synagogue”, was a very important person. He was not a rabbi, rather he was the chief lay official of the synagogue. A synagogue was more than just a place of worship; it was more like a community center. It was where children came for instruction; legal proceedings took place there; the scrolls of the Torah and the prophets were kept there so it was even a kind of library. And Jairus was responsible for its upkeep, as well as for seeing that the rabbis who presided were orthodox in their teaching. When his 12 year old daughter became ill, he urgently sought out Jesus. Can you imagine how distraught he must have been when Jesus stopped, not only to heal the nameless woman, but to hear her long tale of woe? Finally, when they arrived at Jairus’ house, it appeared to be too late. The professional mourners had arrived and had begun their keening cries of grief. When Jesus insisted on seeing the little girl, even though they thought she was dead, they laughed at him. And with a word and a touch, he woke her from death’s long sleep. Again, as with the woman previously, Jesus did not stop with healing. He ordered them to give her food. Over and above healing, Jesus was concerned with wholeness.

Human nature is not riddled with spiritual illness and in need of medicine; however, it is partial and fragmentary and in need of wholeness. The difference between the two positions is very important. The first position, that human nature is diseased and in need of spiritual medicine, is the position of most conservative churches. The problem with this position is that to communicate the gospel we have to convince people that they are spiritually sick, that they are morally contaminated. Churches that embrace this, then have to spread the bad news before they can spread the good news.

But if we start out with the belief that human beings are not spiritually ill by nature, then our message is not “you are sick and need radical surgery.” Rather our message is “you are God’s beloved daughter or son and God wants to take you on an amazing adventure.” We don’t have to convince people that they are bad; rather we have to invite them to join us on a journey to wholeness.

Perhaps C.S. Lewis’ least read book is his novel Till We Have Faces. The main character asks the enigmatic question, “How can we see the gods until we have faces?” I understand the meaning of the question to be this: we see the world in a partial and fragmentary way. By and large, we have enough information to navigate through life. We go to school, we have jobs, we take care of ourselves and our families. But what if there is so much more to life, so much more to the universe, than we are able to see or know? What if our five senses show us only a tiny fraction of reality? What if God wants us to have not just life but abundant life? What if God wants to give us a whole new way of perceiving the universe, to expand our senses beyond our wildest imaginations?

Consider your pet dog or cat. Its perceptions of the world are fairly limited. We may quarrel over this point, but most scientists would argue that an animal has no self-consciousness. It has feelings but no thoughts. It avoids pain and seeks pleasure and that’s about the extent of its mental life. In contrast, humans are capable of producing great art and music; we don’t just mate and produce offspring, we fall in love, court our beloved, marry and have families with all kinds of both comic and tragic consequences. We have sciences that have plumbed the depths of the cosmos. If our perceptions of the world are so much deeper and larger than our pets, how much greater must God’s perceptions be than ours?

Athanasius, the 4th century bishop of Alexandria, Egypt, wrote, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” That is what God desires for all us: full and abundant life, wholeness, and glory unspeakable and full of wonder.