Sunday, March 18, 2012

Healing and Forgiveness

If you have ever wondered where the medical profession gets the symbol of the serpent wrapped around the pole, go to your local Episcopal Church and listen to the lesson out of the Book of Numbers and you'll get your answer! 

The readings on tap for this Sunday speak to the powers of healing.  Complaining Israelites, out in the desert kvetching that they don't want to be there and what they have been given to eat doesn't taste good, find themselves battling poisonous snakes that bite and kill them.  This recalls for me the collect from this past week,

Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all
adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul...

In this case, the inward thoughts of raging against God over the less-than-ideal conditions out in the desert lead to the outward attack on the body by the poisonous snakes.  And, as is the wont of our Almighty, God shows mercy and forgiveness to the complainers.  After they acknowledged their wrongs against God and Moses, God tells Moses to make a snake and set it on a pole.  So Moses makes a snake out of bronze, and all who gaze upon it regain their health and live.  

This is the image that Jesus will invoke during his intense dialogue with Nicodemus, the Pharisee who wants to find out just who is this new rabbi named Jesus.  Jesus describes his own impeding crucifixion as being akin to this moment with Moses:

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 

Not just "life".  Not just "health".   Jesus is promising that whoever looks upon the crucified Son of Man and believes in him may have eternal life.  Like Moses' bronze serpent, Christ becomes the means to people being restored and brought to a life that can stand up to any attempts to assault the person and bring them down.  

Is this through Christ only?  As Christians, yes it is through Christ.  Does that mean that such saving grace of God is limited only to us?  I would say no.   

Because just as Moses' bronze serpent alone doesn't restore the griping and dying Israelites,  the power that comes from the belief in Christ is much more than just the Son of Man hanging on the cross.  Because Christ is not doing these actions on his own accord; it is through him that God is reaching out in love to us.  Nothing about Jesus is an act of the one man, but it is the actions of God who abides in him and moves through him to reach out to us.  Just like with the bronze serpent, which was a product of Moses' hands, it gains its power through God to deliver the healing necessary.   Because God is about mercy and love, not destruction and hate.  God is Love.

At a recent talk at St. John's, Fr. William Meninger, one of the leaders of the Centering Prayer movement, said that the only language God knows and the only action God does is love.  And forgiveness is the other side of the coin of Love.  As Meninger says, forgiveness is love repaired.    God is forgiving us before, during and after the times that we have sinned and the reason God does that for Love and relationship.  If God didn't forgive, but instead held a grudge against us, then God would suffer because the relationship would be out-of-balance.   When God forgives, then God is free to love us.  

If all of this is good for God, imagine what it would be for us?  We are commanded to love one another as God loved us.  This would mean that we would also need to flip over the coin and be ready to forgive.  This sounds easy enough, but it never is.  We may not want to forgive someone who did something to us, or we may not be ready to forgive.  

Meninger gave an example of a woman who was gang-raped as a teenager and could not find it in herself to forgive the boys who did that to her.  And she was now in her forties!  What did her lack of forgiveness do to those who assaulted her?  Nothing.  They served their time and then got their records wiped clean when they were released from reform school.  Meanwhile, this woman's life was turned upside down.  She became a prostitute and she stayed stuck in her anger.  Even so, she, a good Roman Catholic, was still attending mass every Sunday, but she didn't receive communion because she couldn't bring herself to the altar while harboring such anger at her assailants.   Meninger offered that maybe she could pray for them.  She scowled at that suggestion, saying she couldn't pray for them and wished they were in hell.  This was an impasse, and Meninger says he turned to the Holy Spirit for something, anything to offer to this woman who he acknowledged was rightfully angry, but needed to move out of that place.

"Do you ever pray for yourself?" he asked her.  She did not.  And instead of having her say 10 Hail Marys and four Our Fathers, Meninger instructed her to take one minute every day to pray for herself and then at the next Sunday, go to the rail to receive Holy Communion.  

The upshot of this story:  Meninger saw the woman a month later, and she was physically changed.  The anger had lifted, her face wasn't as hardened, and she told him that she was finally able to pray for her rapists.  This, Meninger says, was the beginning of her process of forgiveness.  By her willingness to pray for herself, there was an opening for God to chip away at the hard stone that had become her heart.  And the end result was that the woman was freed from the prison of her own misery.  She was healing and forgiving all at the same time.  Because forgiveness is not so much about the other person or persons; it is about breaking us free from the shackles of what holds our spirit down and makes us live in pain and not Love. 

I believe it is this kind of healing through forgiveness that is captured in the epistle reading from Ephesians:

But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ --by grace you have been saved--  and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,  so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God--  not the result of works, so that no one may boast.  For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.

Even the person so hurt and angry can experience the saving grace of God because it is God's sole desire to be living in Love with us.  If we allow ourselves to open to that grace, we can feel the "immeasurable riches of his grace."   If we fix the eyes of our heart on what God is freely offering, we can have a chance at experiencing the restoration and the resetting of our internal well-being that allows us to live fully, boldly, and more completely in Love.   Can we believe in that?


Anonymous said...

The snake is the symbol of the Greek god Asculapios. The snake, because of its skin-shedding, was thought to renew itself and so became a symbol of healing.

SCG said...

Anonymous Asculapios: Please use a name.