Making a Mess of Things
Making a Mess of Things
August 12, 2018
A week ago, I had my annual dermatology appointment. As a formerly fair-haired (now “no-haired”), light-skinned (now red skinned) person, I am the poster child for people who really should have a very close relationship with their dermatologist…which I do! I go to his office and answer the usual set of uncomfortable questions. Then, the nurse hands me a paper gown that won’t come close to fitting. She reminds me to wear it backwards. After waiting a few minutes, the knock comes at the door. I get to answer that knock as if I’m at home: “Come in!”
Then, the real discomfort begins for both of us. The doctor (a very nice man!) leans about three inches away from me and begins searching every inch of me. The thing is, though, in order to make things extra uncomfortable, he uses a magnifying glass, too. Now, I’ve officially reached that age where unless I have my reading glasses on I can’t see some parts of me and if I have them on I can’t see others. So, I’m kind of curious: “How are things looking, Doc?” He just moves an inch at a time and says things like, “Good…Great…Excellent.” Of course, it’s when he stops and looks extra long at one spot that I get concerned.
That’s the thing. I have three people in my life who are dealing with melanomas. I could honestly care less if this is uncomfortable—for him or me! “Keep looking! Look closer! Just let me know if I can help!” On all my previous visits, he has found a little something that he decided to biopsy. He numbs things up and turns on the music. (We like to sing Hootie and the Blowfish songs together!) Pretty soon, I smell bacon, only what’s cooking is me.
This year…No biopsy, just a quick dab of that stuff that is so cold that it burns you. (I told him that I was a little disappointed!)
Seriously, though… You want my dermatologist. He is fully
focused and present. He is thorough. He cares. He does his job. Would you really want the doctor who walks in, shakes your hand and says, “Well, you look good to me!” That would be a real waste of everyone’s time and…there would be no healing going on. It’s uncomfortable but it is worth it. Being a healer and really caring…that’s an uncomfortable, messy business.
Jesus was a healer. Maybe just that thought makes you uncomfortable. You need to realize, though, that this was 2000 years ago. Medical science was just a gleam in the eye of some guy who would approach you with leaches! HMOs and PPOs and copays were centuries away from becoming the paperwork of our dreams. What you had were people who were sick, people who lived with disabilities, people who lived with pain. Those illnesses and disabilities and pains disconnected people from the relationships that mattered most, kept them from living a full life, and became the basis for judgement by strangers, since those people, “must have done something to deserve this.” The discomfort and disconnection and prejudice were exactly the kinds of things that Jesus was destined to confront.
Jesus was intensely aware of the needs of others. He was willing to wade into their pain. He did this not to gain fame or fortune. (He almost always begs those who have been healed to tell no one.) Rather, he seeks to restore respect and relationships and wholeness. And, as I’ve been arguing in the last few weeks, we, as witnesses to these healings are meant to examine ourselves, not only how we might be a source of healing in someone else’s life but how we might, ourselves, be broken and in need of a little healing. In other words, the question we all love to ask, “How’d he do that?” might really be missing the point…
So, last week, we heard the story of a woman who cared so much for her ailing daughter that she was willing to break all the rules and speak up and take a stand. Upon hearing her story, we might ask ourselves, “When will I take a stand?” Or, perhaps, when we see how Jesus broke the rules by simply listening to this woman, we might want to ask ourselves, “Who might God be calling me to care for, even if it means breaking all the rules?” And after watching Jesus “lose” the argument so that the woman could “win,” we might even ask how humbling ourselves might still be God’s calling…
This week, we have another of the healing stories. Jesus has left the big port city of Tyre behind. Now, he is in the countryside but still, nothing is like home. Things are uncomfortable. People are different. Nothing is the way it really “should” be, nothing, that is, except for one thing: a group of people approach Jesus with a man who can neither hear nor speak. That, in and of itself, is a vision of God’s Kingdom. Here is a whole group of people who have been moved by the plight of someone and they are doing something to help. (When the anniversary of Barb Mortimer’s death came up this week, one of the lasting memories was of the army of people who cared for her. That is God in our midst!) The group brings the man to Jesus and they ask him to lay a healing hand on him. (Ironically, Jesus’ home territory, the much more likely thing for a group of people to do with someone in a similar plight would have been to avoid him for fear or getting struck by God’s judgement, themselves.)
Jesus is moved by the group’s care and the man’s plight. Not unlike the woman in last week’s text, these are foreigners who are doing and saying the faithful thing. What Jesus is moved enough to do is care about this one person. This is the doctor who gets out that magnifying glass and goes to work. This is the teacher who identifies the needs of a student and dials her attention in. This is the friend who sees the friend who is hanging on for dear life…and says, “I’m am in this with you…no matter what!” In short, this is where things get personal, and a little uncomfortable and kind of messy.
Think about this man’s trust. He can’t hear. He can’t speak. At least, the faces in that group are familiar. He allows the group to take him somewhere to do something. Then, he feels a new hand take his. What he sees is a stranger. However, he allows that stranger to lead him away from the group. Again, what enters the picture is discomfort and disorientation. Everyone I’ve ever known who has gone to their first AA meeting or their first therapy session or, if you’re over fifty, your first colonoscopy, will tell you that the AA meeting had too many drunks there or the therapist was awfully quiet or that the gastroenterologist actually expected you to drink all this awful stuff! Healing almost always requires trust. Healing almost always requires you to do the weirdest things.
What healing also requires, though, is a healer who is willing to jump into the mess of brokenness with you. There may be no more honest place than that AA meeting. There may be no more focused act of compassion than the active, caring, listening presence of a really good but mostly silent therapist. And, let’s be honest here…that gastroenterologist who does that work, well, don’t they deserve some sort of prize, after all?
Almost as soon as Jesus and the man are alone, the mess begins. Jesus puts his fingers in the man’s ears. Now, I have to be honest and tell you that when I read this text, I kept thinking about the “wet willies” that were the bane of the grade school playground. You remember…you waited until your friend was looking the other way. Then, you licked your finger and held it out just so, so that when you called his name and he turned his head, your wet finger went right in there. (Not that I would ever have done that!) I would like to say, that Jesus was not giving this man a “wet willie.”
Instead, I envision him in this incredibly intimate position—standing directly in front of the man with his hands on either side of the man’s face and his fingers on the man’s ears. You see, the real mess of being a healing part in someone else’s life is that we have to draw close. Healing is almost always hands on. It is a huge risk to get that close to someone. It is also a huge risk to let someone get that close.
This, of course, is the terrible truth of the abuse of what might have been healing relationships by clergy and by doctors and by all sorts of other people in power. Someone comes to such a person and they are in pain. In that incredibly vulnerable place, they offer up a childlike trust (or, in fact, they might even be a child). And in a nightmarish encapsulation of everything that can be broken about a human being, the person whom they trust takes advantage of them. That is one of the biggest betrayals that a human being can ever perpetrate. This kind of betrayal destroys lives and leads people to hate caring institutions. Such betrayal tends to make every healer a suspect and makes everyone seeking healing think twice.
With his hands on the man’s face and ears, Mark tells us that Jesus spits on the man’s tongue. (Seriously!) That’s how gritty and down to earth healing can be. And, having seemingly scraped the barrel of grittiness, Jesus’ very next action is transcendent: he prays. And, if you have cared for someone—really cared for them—you get this. You have emptied a bed pan. You have seen more or your friend than you ever wanted to see. You have walked in and found a loved one sprawled on the floor and discovered just how hard it can be to get them back up again. And in that instant, just when you were ready to break, you shocked yourself and prayed instead. Jesus prays and then he speaks: “Ephphatha! Open up!” The man’s ears are opened and he speaks.
Here’s the thing to consider, though. In the midst of that prayer, Jesus groans mightily. There is real pain in that moment. The pain of another has become his own. In order to heal this broken man, he is breaking in the process. Know this…the next time in Mark’s Gospel that Jesus will groan like that will be as he is dying on the cross, being broken once again so that people who have ears but can’t hear (like us) and people who have mouths but refuse to speak up (like us) can be healed.