A reflection on Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39.
Two and half years ago I suffered a serious illness. From a fractured tooth came an abscess, from the abscess came an infection that ran 2-1/2 inches through my jaw bone. The infection followed the nerve in my jaw, leaving me unable to feel most of my bottom lip, chin, and teeth. The infection then travelled up the side of my face. All of this developed over the course of one week, taking me from a dentist who thought I had TMJ to a hospital room and a team of doctors including a surgeon, an internist, and infectious disease specialist. At first the hospital attempted to cure me with IV antibiotics, and after about 24 hours it seemed like it might work. But by 36 hours it was apparent that it was not. By 48 hours I was prepped and waiting for surgery.
I remember waiting for the surgery; it was about 5:00 in the evening. I was taken down to the surgical unit and left in this holding area. Alone. Well alone except for some guy in surgical attire who was tinkering on some piece of equipment. I have no idea who he was or what he was doing – and in a pain-killer induced stupor I had this sense that I had been parked in a mechanics garage – the hospital equivalent of a Jiffy Lube stall. At one point I became cognizant of this guy’s presence and felt awful that they had just parked me in his space and left me, so I apologized for my disruptive pain filled moans. He must of have thought I was nuts. I waited there for nearly 90 minutes, a big old clock hung on the wall, showing me just how slow time can pass. In spite of my pain killer induced hallucinations I remember feeling as if I was waiting for God in the stillness of that slow moving clock.
As we hear in our Gospel this morning, Peter’s mother in law is sick with fever. Jesus, coming straight from the synagogue where he has healed a man possessed by demons, walks into the home and into her room, and heals her. Upon which she immediately rose from the bed and began serving her guests. It is an awesome story of healing and the transformation that God offers us; of the new life we find when we are healed.
But that does not mean that the transformation comes easily. Part of this is because God’s healing does not always happen the way we want – it may not include being cured of our illness. Sometimes we find a healing of spirit takes place within the context of an incurable illness. Some of us here are struggling with an illness of such magnitude that it alters our entire self perception – some of us may say to ourselves, “because of this illness I am no longer the person I was.” That is certainly true for me. In the course of the illness I lost teeth and I acquired what seems to be a permanent paralysis of lower lip and jaw on the right side. You can tell because I sometimes garble my words even when I aim to enunciate carefully.
In a similar way some of you are permanently changed from some illness in your life. God’s healing does not necessarily mean a cure, but it does transform us.
Others are struggling with a loss of identity: Who am I now that I am retired? Who am I now that I have retired from that position or that company? Who am I now that I have lost my sense of power, given up that place where I had some authority, left behind that sense of self that told me who I was and calculated the hours of my day with a schedule and appointments that told me I was important. Who am I now?
I remember when my daughter was first born and I quit my job at the interior design firm to stay home with her. One day calling the pediatrician to make an appointment they asked me what I did for a living, and for a moment I had no response. Just a week before I was waking up at 5am, dressing in my professional maternity business suits, and heading into the office. On that day, it was 4:00 in the afternoon, I had not showered, was still in my pajama’s – consumed all day with the activities of tending to a new born – diaper changes and feedings. With a moment of free time because the baby was napping, I had to squeeze in phone calls and a shower and begin supper. Who was I, the person asked? Finally I managed to say, I’m a stay at home mom. A very different sense of identity than the interior designer working for a high powered firm.
My husband has had a similar loss of identity. In 2002, as a result of 9/11 the company he worked for went out of business and laid off all their employees. For the next 6 years he struggled to find work and to make a living. He lost every sense of himself in the process, going from being a sought after computer consultant with an expertise in graphic arts and Macintosh systems, to someone was seen as too old to sell Apple’s. It became a young person’s industry. As a man that loss has hit him particularly hard. He always saw himself as our family bread winner. He has lost a lot of his sense of self and identity and is slowly rebuilding it. Likewise most of our friends are in the same position, for one reason or another, losing jobs and therefore most of their retirement savings. We all know we will end up working the rest of our lives, gone are our dreams of retirement.
Each of us here has, or is, or one day will struggle with a loss of identity as we move from independent lives into assisted living, or memory centers, losing our sense of self along the way.
Perhaps you’ve never had a life changing illness, and you’ve embraced retirement with gusto, finding joy in travel and leisure, golf and bridge, and perhaps you’ve been thankfully unaffected by this or any other financial crisis. Perhaps though suddenly one day you realize that the world around you has changed – and now you, who were once riding the high tide of this American life, are feeling lost and left behind. Remember that saying, “Stop the world, I want to get off?” Technology and computers and internet and cell phone just make you want to hide in your world. With every ounce of your being you just want to keep things the same. It is the only way you know to hang onto your sense of self – to know who you are.
There was a woman in my former diocese who would stand up at Diocesan Convention every year to speak against some resolution for change, and as she began to speak she would say, “I know I’m a dinosaur, but….” I imagine that after a number of years she realized, even as she rose to speak, that what she longed for, the world as she knew it, was gone…with only her words to mark the passing of time and a lost hope for what had been her comfortable world.
We are broken people – and I mean not just this church or the Episcopal Church or the state of Arizona, or this country – but of our entire world. Each of us in our own way. We are broken. We each carry deep pain and loss and sorrow and grief, or at the very least scars from such. Some of us have healed and, though scarred, are working our way into a new life. Some of us are looking for healing and have a glimpse of hope. Some of us may be finding a new sense of identity in the brokenness itself, an identity grounded in depression or anger – we all know someone like that, right? Someone who is always complaining or morose, or angry about something, and working hard to make others feel the same way?
Yes, we are broken. So, what are we to do? Let’s hear again the words of Psalm 147
“The LORD builds up Jerusalem; he gathers the outcasts of Israel. He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.
What God offers us may not be what we want. It may not be some magic cure for our illness, it may not be some fantastic solution to our finances, it may not be some new sense of power. But what God offers will bind up our wounds and heal our brokenness, if we allow God too. Which reminds me of a story, perhaps you’ve heard it:
One evening an old Cherokee told his grandson about a battle that goes on inside people. He said, “My son, the battle is between 2 “wolves” inside us all. One is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, insecurity, superiority, and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion and faith.” The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: “Which wolf wins?” The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
In the words of our post communion prayer, from the feast at the table, through the love of God, our brokenness can be healed. Here we are fed on God’s love and renewed in God’s grace. From here God sends out from this table to love and serve Christ in the broken places of our world. We are broken, but within that brokenness we have choices. Which wolf will we feed?