Monday, July 02, 2007

Casts, Crutches and Cancer

We concluded a ten-week sermon series yesterday on "Why Does the Bible Include That?" This series has been a blessing to me as I have wrestled with so many issues and verses that raise more questions than they do answers. In the last two and one-half months, we have talked about divorce, homosexuality, money, abortion, the Holy Spirit, the Trinity, submission, and God's chosen people. And while I look forward to the next series, I am a little sad to see this one come to an end.

Yesterday's sermon received several comments and provoked many people to share their thoughts with me. Here it is:

Casts, Crutches and Cancer: Living with Illness and Disabilities:

On a Sunday in January I asked for prayers for my stepfather. It was a Sunday morning on which I had received a call from my sister letting me know that Red (as we affectionately call him) was not doing well and was being taken by ambulance to the nearest city. I asked you to pray, and we prayed for him during the worship service. I later learned that the time at which we prayed was the exact moment that the doctors thought they were losing him -- as his heart rate had escalated, while his blood pressure had dropped, leaving him in a very sick state. While it looked like death was on the horizon, he rallied that day.

When Monday morning arrived, I was tied into a conference call with my entire family and the pastor of my parents’ church. During that call, the pastor prayed a profound prayer, one invoking several of the scriptures that specifically mention healing. He then said, “God, we ask that you do a miraculous thing this day. At the end of this day, we expect for the doctors to come in and say, ‘We’re not sure what happened. We cannot explain it. But this man is fine.’”

At the end of the day on Monday, this prayer was answered. The doctors came in and said, “He is fine.” One moment it seemed as though we were about to lose this beloved member of our family and several moments later, he was fine – more than fine, in fact.

As followers of Jesus, we believe in the power of prayer. We believe that our God is a healing God – that God has the power to touch the sick and make them healthy and whole. Still, not all sickness and disease goes away. Not everyone is healed of their ailments.

While in Missouri last week, I reconnected with some friends from college and high school, in addition to an aunt with whom I have not spoken in a while. Each one of these conversations revealed an utter sense of pain, as my friends and my aunt spoke of a need for healing – a healing that has not yet happened.

Aunt Doris and Uncle Howard live in Gastonia, North Carolina. They are beautiful people with accents to match. They have been married for some 60 years and have enjoyed a wonderful life with their three sons and extended family. Uncle Howard is not doing well, however. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s a year or so ago and is rapidly deteriorating. He does not always recognize his wife or his sons. He does not want to change his clothes or take a bath. His favorite thing is to sit in front of the television set with his eyes glued to whatever is on the screen. Meanwhile, Aunt Doris does her best to care for this once incredibly competent person. She shared with me on the phone how tired she is. “I’m exhausted,” she said. “Please keep us in your prayers.”

I do not understand Alzheimer’s. In my mind, it is the cruelest infliction anyone can experience. Still, we all know someone whose life or whose family is affected by this horrible disease. In fact, a recent Newsweek article states how there are more than 5 million people living in this country today who have been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, and the number could skyrocket to 15 million by 2050.

Why is there not a cure for Alzheimer’s? Where are you, Jesus, when we need to experience your healing instead of watching our family members befriending anyone at the grocery store while failing to remember the names of their spouse, children and grandchildren?

Last Sunday night, I had dinner with my friends, Scott and Mandy, in Kansas City. Mandy’s best friend is going through a living hell right now. Two years ago, her now eight-year-old son was hit in the head with a football. The injury to his eye soon revealed a greater sickness within his small head. A tumor was growing behind his eye – a fast growing, cancerous tumor.

The family has been all over the country in the last two years, visiting the best doctors in the nation. The tumor has responded to medicine at times, shrinking to the point where they believe that it might be gone - only to reappear a couple months later. Ben’s eye has been removed, and the tumor now grows out of the empty socket.

Ben’s mother questions where God is in times like this. In these final days, she is angry with God, asking why she has to say goodbye to a son who is only eight. If we hear of so many stories of healing in the Bible, then why has Jesus not touched Ben’s body, allowing him to do the things eight-year-olds do like playing ball and running through the sprinkler and picking on their little sisters instead of lying in a bed, no longer wanting to eat or drink?

Our Bible is filled with accounts of how God is a healer. In fact, if you look up the word “healed” in a Bible concordance, you’ll find that it appears over seventy times in the Old and New Testaments.

The litany of proclamation that we read earlier today mentions God’s faithfulness time and again. God heals the Israelites who keep the commandments of the Lord. The Psalmist worships the Lord who forgives our iniquity and heals our diseases. Jeremiah speaks of a Balm in Gilead that heals the sick soul. Jesus is constantly going out and healing people in the gospel accounts – blind men, bleeding women, lame people and mute individuals. He even raises his friend, Lazarus, from the grave after he has been dead for four days. We know that Jesus is the master healer, but where is Jesus when we or our family members are suffering? Why do we have so many accounts of Jesus healing people while our loved ones suffer, some die much too soon?

When I mentioned to a friend yesterday what I was preaching on, he said “Please shoot me if I ever get Alzheimer’s.” We cannot stand the thought of causing so much affliction and pain on our family members. We do not like to watch people suffer. Being around people who are ill, old, dying or disabled sometimes makes us uncomfortable. When we see the suffering of another person we realize two things: 1) we have bodies that do not last forever – bodies with the capacity to become sick and deteriorate and 2) we cannot always make the suffering go away. Watching others grow old reminds us that from dust we all came and from dust we all shall return – that the only certainty in this life is that we will all one day die.

Our Gospel lesson tells of a man who has been blind since birth. As was the customary Jewish belief at this time, the disciples conclude that the man is blind because of the sins of his parents – because of something his parents did that they should not have done. Jesus’ response, however, is to tell the disciples that the man is not blind because of sin. In fact, sin has nothing to do with morals but instead everything to do with how one will respond to Jesus – to the revelation of God. And then we get a verse that is troubling – a sentence that makes me ask the question, “Why does the Bible have to include that?” Jesus says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

What exactly does this verse mean? Did God cause this man to be blind in order to prove something? Why would a man have to endure the inability to see for years in order that God’s glory might be revealed? How exactly does God work when it comes to healing?

If we continue to read this passage, we see how this miracle creates quite a stir in his community. No one can understand how this man who was blind from birth now has the power to see. The man tells the Pharisees over and over that it was Jesus who healed his eyes but no one will believe him. The Pharisees even drive the man out of the temple. And then Jesus says, “’I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’” Fred Craddock explains, “We learn that the blind see and the seeing are blind – no small matter both for life and theology.”

The blind see and the seeing are blind. Those who have enabled their lives to be touched by God are allowed to see – to experience the light that shines in the darkness with the darkness never overcoming it. While those who believe that they can see – those who have concluded that they can manage life on their own, without Jesus, are blind.

How easy it is to be a seeing person! It is so much easier to see than it is to be blind.

While I have never had to use crutches or a cast before, I know that in most cases, these tools are used to heal something that is broken in our bodies. Most people who use crutches and casts will have their bodies fully restored. The broken bone in the arm will come together again. The ankle that was sprained will be repaired. Bodies that rely upon crutches or are braced by a cast are in the process of restoration. The tool needed for healing has been found.

Cancer is not as easy to cope with, however. When a person has cancer she or he almost always has to live with some uncertainty regarding whether a full restoration will occur. A life with cancer often comes with someone having to give up a great deal as a cure is sought. Lunch hours are spent at the radiation lab. Breasts are removed. Hair is lost. And yet, the people in my life who have battled cancer are the ones who have taught me what it looks like to be a blind person who now sees – to know that a cure may not be found and that healing may not happen on this earth – but that God is faithful and just. The crutch enables us to rely upon the device of man, while cancer forces us to rely upon one who is greater than ourselves. The crutch allows us to keep our eyes closed to the one light that really matters, while the cancer forces us to know that the only light that can shine into the darkness of death is Christ.

A pastor told me a story this week of a tragedy that occurred in the life of his congregation. One of the teenagers in his congregation was brutally murdered. Pastor Adam was spending time with the parents of the teenager after the funeral was over and the child had been buried when the pastor asked the father how he was enduring the painful loss. The father looked at his pastor and said, “There is only one thing holding me together right now. I keep saying it over and over again.” The pastor looked at his grieving parishioner as the silence filling the room was interrupted by the father speaking familiar words.

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried.” The father said these words with tears in his eyes but then the tone of his voice began to change. He discovered strength when he continued to recite the historic creed. “The third day he rose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit; the holy Catholic Church; the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body; and the life everlasting. This is where my strength comes from,” the father explained.

We will not all be healed on this earth. While some of our aches and pains, disappointments and fears will be healed miraculously, others of us will continue to suffer or watch others suffer. But I believe that the words repeated over and over again by this father are true. And I believe that the ultimate healing – the healing that removes the crutches, the casts and the cancer – is coming. It was made possible on the day Jesus rose from the grave, and the healing will be fulfilled on the day he comes again – on the day we find ourselves resurrected and made whole.

Thanks be to God!

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