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Bent Over Backward

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A couple of weeks before Christmas, I threw my back out. When I say “out,” I mean O.U.T. Sitting still was a struggle and an unintentional turn of my torso had my body writhing in pain. I blame it on too many church committee meetings and the endless onslaught of emails that keep me hunched over my computer for more hours than I care to count. An avid athlete and only 25 years old, the first time this treacherous pain struck, my initial response was denial—this can’t be happening, I am too young, I exercise, and most importantly, it’s almost Christmas—doesn’t God know how bad the timing is?

Perhaps it was because of my physical ailments that when I was asked to develop a bible study on women in the Gospel of Luke that the story of Jesus healing a woman who was bent over for 18 years (Luke 13:10-17) stood out to me like a sore thumb or rather, a bad back.

This story has enough meat that it will preach, but it’s also familiar enough that our eyes can glaze over when we rush it rather than read it. That’s what had happened to me in the past; but this time, with my back out and a bible study to facilitate, I was forced to slow down and reread this story of healing, wholeness, and holiness with new eyes and newfound empathy.

The women’s bible study group I facilitate has been meeting for over 10 years, long before I arrived at the church. Facilitating the bible study is one of my favorite parts of my job because it is a place where the vertical and horizontal aspects of our faith so clearly intersect. Through reading, reflection, and lively discussion, the words on the page become the Living Word as the group’s collective energy, questions, and reflections, combined with the presence of God’s Spirit, shed new light on how we are to love God and live in the world.

With questions about healing, wholeness, and holiness at the forefront of the discussion and feeling the literal ache of being bent over (we read the story while standing bent over to get a feel of what life must have been like for the woman in the text), our discussion began.

If you haven’t read this story in a while, do. It’s one that bears rereading. First of all, a miraculous healing occurs. Second of all, far from this healing being a miracle that only Jesus, God incarnate, could perform, when it’s broken down, it becomes clear that this miracle is more possible and probable than any of us could have ever imagined.

The story begins with Jesus teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath. In the synagogue is a woman who is disabled by a spirit, which has left her unable to stand up straight for 18 years. Whereas others may have passed her by, Jesus notices and engages her.

Jesus was a pro at seeing people as they were—people with gifts and goodness as well as with struggles, problems, sickness, and deep pain. If this story teaches us one thing about miraculous healing, it is that healing happens through relationships and community, through acknowledging and engaging with one another.

The next thing that happens is that Jesus speaks to the woman. In our bible study, women talked about caring for young children and aging parents and the power of talking to rather than about their loved ones. What does it mean to speak to people who are in pain or experiencing illness, to pray with rather than for them?

I don’t know why this woman was bent over and I don’t know why I threw my back out (although moving boxes of Christmas decorations may have had something to do with it). What I do know is that there is a deep connection between the physical, spiritual, and emotional and that Jesus makes this connection. He doesn’t try to diagnose the women’s psychophysical issues; he simply speaks to her and says that she is free from whatever it is that’s holding her back and keeping her down.

Finally, Jesus touches her. This woman experiences the touch of another human being, perhaps for the first time in 18 years. Can you imagine what it must have felt like for her to be touched? It’s no wonder she stood up and shouted for joy!

When I read about this woman’s response, I imagine her standing up straight, raising her hands with spirit fingers, and beginning the first-century equivalent of “the wave,” or at least a dance party. How could she have done any less?!

Yes, and I imagine this woman’s community being able to see, perhaps for the first time in a long time, this woman as she was, a daughter of Abraham, rather than someone to be ignored or discarded. The crowd rejoices at what’s happened for by one person being healed, greater healing and wholeness is brought to them all. It must have been quite the par-tayyy!

At the end of our bible study, the women and I stood and engaged in a body prayer. My back was still aching, but my spirit felt renewed. The rich discussion reminded me that healing, wholeness, and holiness are deeply intertwined and healing—even miraculous healing—is possible when we take time to see, to speak to, and to touch one another. When healing happens, we have no choice but to shout with joy and give thanks, as we realize that each time one of us is healed, greater wholeness and holiness is brought to us all.

Moments of Silence

At the time, my husband and I were each new pastors serving little rural congregations 13 miles apart. I was vehement about keeping this news from our congregations. I already felt like I was living on display. To be that vulnerable with our parishioners (and, subsequently, two small towns) was unthinkable for me. I didn’t want our painful situation to be some entertaining news for the early morning coffee group at the local café. I protected myself fiercely, and soon found myself feeling increasingly isolated and alone (at a time when I was already feeling isolated and alone).

The next Sunday morning I presided over a baptism. It was for a beautiful, plump, pink little baby girl. Her parents hadn’t gotten around to scheduling the baptism until she was a few months old, so she felt heavier and more solid than the infants I had previously baptized. In my arms, she felt so alive and real.  I felt the physical symptoms of the miscarriage while I baptized her in front of the congregation.  I knew life was leaving my body at the same time I blessed this new life given to another family. Read more

Do You Want to Be Made Well?

“Do you want to be made well?”

What an Ash Wednesday question.
On a day where we traditionally hear about our own sinfulness
and are faced with our own mortality,
“to dust you shall return,”
what a question to consider.

Of course we want to be made well. Of course we do. Duh.

Why did Jesus even have to ask?
He’s at the pool by the Sheep Gate,
the one rumored to be stirred up by an angel of the Lord from time to time,
the one where the first person to get into the moving water gets healed.
A site of miracles? Perhaps.
Rumors of miracles, at least. And for some of these folks…well, a rumor was enough.
A neighbor’s cousin’s friend stepped into the stirred-up waters and was blind but now can see!
And when you’ve been ill for, say, thirty-eight years…well, there aren’t many options left.
A miracle pool looks pretty good.

Except, this man, who’s been ill for thirty-eight years,
isn’t physically able to get himself into the pool.
He’s alone, for whatever reason.
His family has all died,
or left him, unable to deal with his sickness.
Or maybe he left them, out of shame, or out of a sense of duty.
We don’t know.
So like Blanche, he’s “always relied on the kindness of strangers.”
Apparently, and unfortunately,
in the throng of miracle-seekers pushing toward the seldom moving waters,
the kindness of strangers is hard to come by.

So when Jesus asks him,
“Do you want to be made well…?”
I want to scream at him, “Of course he does! Why else would he be there, at that place?!” Read more