Click on the play button above to hear audio of this Sermon.
1 Kings 17:17-22, excerpt
2 Kings 4:32-35
Matthew 9:18-19, 23-25, from The Message
Matthew 15:29-31, from The Message
Acts 5:12-16, an excerpt from The Message
Acts 20:7, 9-12, excerpt
Mark Nepo tells a story of a doctor and her 21-year-old patient, who was dying of cancer:
On a sun-filled September day near the end, the young woman was curled in her bed in a fetal position, her family around her, the blinds closed, the room dark and silent. Entering the room, her doctor felt their despair. She could see her patient staring into all the years she wouldn’t have. It was heartbreaking. Moved beyond all the standard protocols, her doctor felt compelled to climb in bed and hold her. …
After a time, the young woman sat up and asked for the blinds to be lifted. Light came flooding in, and her family began to speak and listen. They brought her juice. They all began to live again. …
Of course, this moment of grace and connection did not prevent the young woman from dying, Nepo says. But it powerfully affirms the power of holding. To hold another, he says, is the oldest form of heart-to-heart resuscitation. 1
Nepo’s article is called “The Power of Holding” and, at first, I, too, thought that’s where at least some of the power was. In these days when we’re still shaken by and grieving the mass killing in Orlando, in these days when the future feels more uncertain than ever, in these days when any number of us are struggling with one thing or another, I thought we could use the power of holding, that some of us might need to be held, or to at least have someone hold space for us. And so I put together a series of stories from our scriptures in which rituals of holding and touch are central to healing and revival.
But the more time I spent with the readings and the stories they come from, the more I considered them in light of what is happening in our world and in our lives, the more I saw something underneath the holding, something critical that preceded the healing touch. Yes, touch is powerful, and holding someone who is in pain, or“just” holding space for them to be in their grief, can, as Nepo says, “allow the life-force to return” to them.
But there is much more to it than that. The physical holding, the touching itself, is the outward manifestation, a tactile representation, of a more fundamental healing element: human connection and loving, life-affirming community.
In her Stillspeaking Daily Devotional the other day, Mary Luti put it like this:
“The truth about human beings is that we’re broken. The larger truth is that we heal. The even larger truth is that we heal each other. We have the power, often by the simplest of acts, to help each other heal. …
“The miracle isn’t the healing,” Mary says. “The miracle is that one person decides not to stand aloof from another person’s pain. The wonder isn’t that people are healed, it’s that they’re loved like that. The greatest need we have is to be treated with care, treated like human beings, but because that’s so rare, when it happens it seems miraculous.” 2
How true that is.
And yet it seemed to me there was something more to it than even that. Something more than love, even; something more than the willingness to stand with another, to care for them, and to share their pain.
It is the thing that had struck me about so many biblical stories of healing and restoration: that faced with death, grief, illness, injustice, and more kinds of suffering than we can count, the healers and the would-be-healed had not given in or given up. I thought about the woman with the issue of blood, unhealed and unclean for 12 long years, fighting through the crowds and their cruelty for the chance to touch the hem of Jesus’ garment.
And I noticed that other people in the stories—parents, friends, family members, church members—had this same approach or attitude to their situations. I remembered the friends of the paralyzed man, carrying him to where Jesus was teaching and then, when they couldn’t get in the house, hauling him up a ladder and lowering him down through the roof.
Call it what you will: Trust. Faith. Resistance. Insistence. Persistence. Stubbornness. Determination. Open-heartedness. Willingness. Death-defeating defiance. Life-liberating hope.
Call it whatever you want: It is an attitude, a way of seeing, a manner of approaching tough situations. It is the power of the Spirit operating in and through willing, often broken, hearts to heal, to restore life, to raise the seemingly dead.
Call it what you will but what matters is this: Faced with unspeakable loss, persistent pain, disabling doubt, the overwhelming power of the system, and the finality of death, these broken people stood firm. They continued to choose life. They refused to write people off—even people who looked dead. “Do something!” they demanded. They asked for help. They chose to put their hope in the God of Love. They decided to follow the Lord of Lost Causes.
They held on. Like the doctor in Mark Nepo’s story, they held each other. And they assaulted the gates of heaven, calling God to account. They chose to believe that, as bleak as things were, the place they were was not a dead end. They refused to walk away. They decided to trust that somehow, some way, somewhere, God was doing a new thing—even if they couldn’t see it, even if they could hardly imagine it. And they kept their broken hearts open, trusting that some kind of help was on the way, believing against all the evidence that things would get better.
This is not to say that they didn’t also feel unbearable pain, deep discouragement, holy anger, bone-weary fatigue, the lure of cynicism, or the draw of life-draining despair.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t feel any of those things. How can we not, given all the scary and heartbreaking things happening in our world? How can we not, given our personal wounds, disabling doubts and ongoing struggles? How can we not, given the disasters that come out of nowhere and the crises that keep coming around again and again and again? How can we not, given all the social pressure and spiritual temptation to settle for something less than life, to cop an attitude less hokey than hope, to leave all the world’s problems to the young people?
I was 18 years old, editor of the school paper, and, in a rare moment of openness with my mother, told her of the passionate editorial I was writing against some injustice at school. I still remember the sting of her response: “That’s just how it is, Vicki. That’s just the way it is.”
At 18, I didn’t believe that for a second. But at 28 or 35 or 57 or 72, it can be harder to imagine things as other than—better than—they are. The older we get, the more likely some of us are to wonder what difference our resistance would make. The longer things don’t change, the harder it is to imagine that some day we will stop living out our past hurts. The more disappointment we meet the more unwilling we can grow to make ourselves vulnerable. With every new failure, it becomes easier to say “what good would it do to try again?”
And so it is all the more important that we take one another in our arms. That we breathe the breath of life into one another. That we remind each another to stay open, of how hearts can change, that transformation happens. That we encourage one another to keep the faith, nurture the hope, to pray and to trust. That we promise to hope and to hold. That we heal one another.
It’s all the more important that we tell each other the stories—not only the old, old ones but the new accounts of healing and transformation and hope that happen almost every day, right alongside the narrative of death and defeat.
Last week, for example, we saw the Republican-led Senate soundly reject all efforts to even consider the mildest gun-control measures. It was clear to everyone: The issue was dead; even after another mass shooting, gun control would go nowhere in this Congress.
Well, the issue certainly looked dead, and the activists and mourners were keening their typical op-eds, letters to the editor, and social media posts. The grave had already been dug; surely it was just a matter of days until another natural disaster, celebrity circus, or political scandal would distract us, and the public outrage over gun violence would be forgotten.
But like Jesus striding into a house full of mourners and declaring that a dead girl was not dead, like Jesus taking the girl by the hand and pulling her to her feet—alive—, some Democratic members of the House chose to ignore all the “gun control is dead” talk. Led by civil rights icon John Lewis, they decided to make a stand by sitting in on the House floor. For the sake of every parent who has ever lost a child to gun violence, they held the House floor and one another for 25 hours and, in so doing, raised dead hopes, inspired tens of millions, and revived their own sense of purpose. They healed us—for a little while at least.
“Jesus didn’t heal everyone,” says Mary Luti, “but he showed us the new kind of life that can be ours when we don’t retreat into one-person worlds. And he gathered the church as a circle of care to give that life away, hand to hand, heart to heart. It’s how we heal—by the company we keep.”
So let us hope, let us hold, and let us heal. Let us change lives. Together.
The piece is an excerpt from Nepo’s forthcoming book, The One Life We’re Given. You can find the article here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/fieldnotesonliving/2016/06/20/the-power-of-holding/
2 You can find the entire devotional here: http://www.ucc.org/daily_devotional_how_we_heal