Sustaining and Sharing a Faithful Relationship with God
Good morning, I hope my words this morning will be a helpful weaving together of thoughts about our Gospel reading, some reflections on my work during the week, and some sharing of my own spiritual journey.
So in the Gospel passage, Jesus has traveled away from his Israelite community to a surrounding region of Palestine, most likely for respite from the crowds of his fellow Jews, and from his contentious encounters with the Pharisees. And now comes this courageous person, who finds Jesus in his hiding place, and challenges him to go beyond where he says his ministry is aimed and invested. Her daughter is suffering. She is suffering. She recognizes the bread of heaven, and she is determined to receive the healing of it for her daughter and for herself. And the first response she receives is pretty much, “No, you are too far outside the demographic of this campaign of mine.” In fact, Steve let us know last week after worship that being a Syrophoenician Gentile woman puts her outside of outside: truly a dog under the table. But in her rebuttal to Jesus, she stands her ground, takes hold of his demeaning metaphor, and reminds him that even dogs deserve and can make good use of bread that falls to them. For her courage, her humility, her faith, she receives the healing that she sought for her daughter.
My work as an occupational therapist is with individuals who are themselves, suffering with the demons of pain, anxiety, and sleeplessness, often as a consequence of some serious medical condition such as fibromyalgia and other muscle disorders, or failed back surgery, cardio-vascular disease, or constant headache. They struggle with the inability to work, to sleep, to do chores, to care for their families as they have in the past. They have heard the words, “There’s nothing more we can do for you.” They often feel that they live their lives outside of “normal” experience, and that they are somehow failing, and are ‘less than’ their neighbors. And most are afraid that they will never regain their previous health. Even so, they are often already doing many helpful things to manage their pain or other symptoms, showing immense courage in response to the burden of their suffering. They arrive, willing to do some really hard work on changing how they move through their days, in order to help themselves feel better. Living on the margins, like the Gentile woman, they continue to carry with them some hope and some faith.
So does Jesus’ first response to this woman mean that he initially wanted to limit the scope of his ministry? In his humanity, was he wondering how to possibly respond adequately to the wider world of deep suffering and alienation? Did this woman inspire him to move beyond his identity as a Jew, toward the call of his divine nature to reach out to hold all people in relationship to himself, in love and compassion, regardless of their identity or circumstances? After his initial protest, he grants her request, and he goes on to heal a Gentile man of that foreign territory, and the campaign does change.
I had to sit with this idea of Jesus himself being transformed by such an encounter. I don’t hold in my mind the reality of Jesus’ humanity very securely. His divinity trumps that for me most of the time. But I think it’s an amazing idea, that in response to one of us, he could have changed his mind and heart in that moment.
It would confirm for me my experience that any of us in our flesh can respond to encounters with each other in ways that change our world view, incrementally or abruptly, and move us along heart-opening, mind-opening paths to new understandings of who we are and what we are capable of doing.
For my patients, figuring out how to cope with deep and ongoing physical or mental pain and disability often requires such a change in their worldview, and a redefinition of what health, work, and success mean for them within the new boundaries that have been drawn around their capabilities. I am privileged to see such transformations. What is more difficult, and what is beyond the scope of my partnership with them, is dealing with the deep questions: Why this affliction? Why this demon? Why me?
I listened just this week to the song, from Iris Dement that Chris and Klara recently offered us, entitled “Let the Mystery Be.” It’s a song about encountering the reality of death. And as I listened to it, I could rest in that idea of just letting the mystery of death be. With death there is at least an end to suffering. What’s harder to rest in, is when pain and disability have persisted for months or years in a person’s life. Any of us who accompany friends or family members, or patients, or ourselves, through that kind of suffering may find it harder to let that mystery be.
I am sometimes asked how I have managed over 42 years of practice to partner with thousands of individuals who carry these burdens without collapsing in a heap myself. It helps to feel that I have something to offer as a contribution to lifting those burdens. The challenge is to be present to my patients without a shield. To be present instead, with an unspoken sense of hope and confidence that God is working in his relationship with them—that their circumstances to the contrary, they are not outsiders to God. They are God’s precious ones.
I have no solution to the mystery of suffering in a world created by a God who is Love–that contradiction that turns some people away from God. I have no answer to the questions of why this, and why me? By God’s grace alone, I begin my OT work from a place of faith that God is real and God loves us and healing is always possible. Somehow, faith is the floor I do sometimes collapse onto in a heap, and it’s faith that helps me stand back up again with renewed hope, over and over.
God’s grace in this comes by way of the following gifts: I have had the support of spiritual directors for about 12 years. Two wonderful women whose companionship and support I have treasured. Most mornings I try to begin the day by praying with the Book of Common Prayer. Father Steve’s invitation to us last Advent to strengthen our spiritual disciplines led me to the pages of morning devotions in that wonderful book. The words offered there call out to God for support, for relationship, and for help–help to do the right thing, and to keep going. And in many variations, they ask God to come close, to stay close, to bring us close. They remind me that life is a transcendent experience, and that God is in every moment of it.
On my best days with patients in my office, without speaking religion, I try to bring the echo of those morning devotional words into the room. On my best days, I call silently to God to be intimately present in that room, to guide me in what to say, how to say it, so that the new ideas about how to navigate a day full of pain can make sense, so that the hard work ahead to soften that pain feels doable and worth a try to the patient. And some days, I do feel God’s guidance, because I’m actually surprised by what words come to me, and how the session unfolds. In those moments, the gift of the Holy Spirit is palpable.
Some healing does come for most of the patients I see: sometimes small amounts of progress, sometimes more. It’s an honor and a privilege to watch. God is at work, through the person’s own agency, through the assistance of their caregivers and of their loved ones. And their bodies, all our bodies have amazing powers of recovery just in how they operate on their own, which is a gift of how we are created. And so often, the first miracle of recovery is the courage people find to keep going, and to make the difficult changes of heart and mind and action that make things manageable. God is surely their partner as they embrace the gift of hope.
Now despite those Holy Spirit moments I’ve described, I’m not sure I have yet felt what others have described as the intimate presence of God in my heart. I imagine that Gentile woman stepping so close to Jesus, as close as she could come, in order to help her daughter. Or the deaf man with Jesus’ fingers in his mouth and in his ears. In my brave moments, I yearn to really feel that kind of intimacy with God. I do believe that we are participants in the love and joy of God in at least two kinds of incarnation: one way in which we are not bounded by our skin but joined to all creation. And one in which we are skin-bounded vessels, inhabited by God, for the accomplishment of God’s purposes. I yearn to be somehow more and more aware of both my “vesselness” and my oneness with all that is God. So I’m on what will be a very long journey to deepen a practice of mindfulness meditation, a gift to help me be still, and wake up to God’s intimate presence in me and beyond me in every moment. Five years into trying to sit for 20 minutes every day, and regularly falling away from that commitment, I hold fast to what many meditation teachers say reassuringly, “We can always begin again. That is the practice.
Finally, the gift of worshiping here at Trinity, is the spiritual anchor of my week. Stepping into this beautiful space, into ancient words, soulful music, and the message of the Gospel, I get recharged with the joy of being on this road and meeting Christ with all of you. That joy is the gift of a loving God, the bread of heaven.
Being part of the Body of Christ helps me to abide in the mysteries of life. It feels sometimes like together we are actually able to celebrate those mysteries, even as we struggle with them, which is amazing. It is life giving and life preserving, that we support one another in our faith and in our doubts, in the face of suffering when it comes, with no one left outside. It convinces me, over and over, in the midst of all the contradictions of this world, that God is real and God is here. Thanks be to God. Amen.