I heard it at least twenty years ago but I have never forgotten the story told by a missionary from Ethiopia one Sunday in church. He told about the love and care of the Ethiopian people he had observed when his six-month-old son died. He described how they came every morning, before he and his wife were awake, and made coffee for them and then sat with them throughout the day. The Ethiopians didn’t necessarily talk a lot with them, but they were present, every day, and their presence gave the missionary and his wife comfort and hope until, in his words, “They knew somehow that we would make it and they stopped coming.”
Every culture and community has its own mores or rules when it comes to relating to one another in the midst of tragedy or loss or when you’re just having a plain old hard time. One night during a chaplaincy training program at Evanston Hospital I rotated between two hospital rooms to be with patients who were dying. In one room family members sat in silence on either side of the patient’s bed. In contrast the patient in the other room, the grandmother and matriarch of a large Greek family, was surrounded by at least twentyfive people talking and laughing and crying. Her children and grandchildren and greatgrandchildren were living out age-long Greek traditions of mourning. We learn in our families and our communities to be silent and stoical, polite and formal or loud and messy when confronted by emotional or physical pain. One of my mother’s favorite sayings was one she taught me as a child, “A girl worthwhile is a girl with a smile when everything goes dead wrong.” It’s not hard to guess what the rules were in my family about sharing your sadness or grief.
So what happens when a stoical griever and an emotional, loud griever face a difficult situation together? Miscommunication usually happens as well as feelings of loneliness and isolation. Sharing deep feelings in the midst of hard times presents all kinds of challenges to families, communities and churches. There has to be some compromise and change, and change can cripple us. But change can also push us to reach out and grow and learn new ways of being vehicles of healing for one another.
In a recent study of mainline congregations called Christianity for the Rest of Us, Diane Butler Bass has shown that there are churches that, contrary to the national trend, are growing. She says that these churches are neither Presbyterian nor Methodist, folksy nor formal, red or blue. When asked by a reporter if she could say what these thriving congregations do that is new and different she said what they do is as old as Christian faith itself and as central as Jesus himself: they practice hospitality and healing. (Story from John Buchanan, Fourth Presbyterian Church.)
Most churches are good with hospitality or have the image of themselves as an hospitable church. If you were to look at descriptions churches write about themselves when they are looking for a new pastor, I would imagine that nine out of ten would say, “We are a friendly church.” Churches have coffee hour, new member classes, youth groups, Sunday school for children and adults, nursery schools, choirs, men’s groups, Bible study – all to welcome people and to say, “We have something just for you.” To be a healing church is much more of a challenge. However, if we are to be the church of Jesus Christ, we exist to live out Jesus’ mandate that we love one another, sharing each other’s joys and pain and offering healing not only for the broken and needy of Chicago but those who are who are in need of healing here among us.
In her book, The Price of Privilege, Madeline Levine describes the blue-collar community where she grew up as a community where, “support and involvement was essential to the successful management of its children. Adults acted as a group in not tolerating kids who were ‘fresh,’ and if your parent was not clear on this point, then your neighbor or teacher usually was….These same kinds of cohesive communities,” she continued, “banded together in times of trouble, sharing resources and providing support. Then she goes on to describe affluent communities. “One of the reasons that life in an affluent community can feel so lonely is because affluent people have the resources to buy their way out of many types of trouble and are reluctant to turn to neighbors for fear of being rejected or humiliated. This is not idle worry. In many affluent communities, the tremendous emphasis on individual accomplishment can make attempts at community unsuccessful….The antidote for isolation is involvement. We make our job [as parents] easier and fortify ourselves against abuse and manipulation when we reach out and develop relationships with like-minded people.” (p. 190-191)
In May of 2005 Indiana University baseball player Ryan Parker was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. His baseball team decided to become something more than a baseball team – they pulled together to offer comfort and healing and to bear Ryan’s burden with him. When we heard about Ryan, we were pretty devastated,” senior pitcher Josh Lewis said. “It’s always tough to hear when bad things happen to good people. That’s definitely the case here.” Lewis and senior outfielder Jay Brant decided to organize a show of support for his teammate. Parker had joked that his hair falling out because of the chemotherapy was the worst part of the disease, so Brant and Lewis convinced all of their teammates to shave their heads. “It started with a couple of us, and one day in the locker room I invited everyone to do it,” Brant said. “I wasn’t expecting everyone to go with it, but every single guy on the team did. It was really cool to see that kind of support for Ryan.” Parker said the gesture was greatly appreciated and came at a good time. “When they shaved their heads, that was just a great boost because it was at the time of my relapse,” Parker said. “I was taking a different treatment and wondering if it would work. Then another scan revealed most of my tumors showed almost no activity at all. Later that week, these guys all shaved their heads. This all came at a time when I needed good news and support the most, and I got it from them.” (from the University of Indiana Website.) Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, says that, “when Christians meet for worship they gather to be told who they are in the story and song that is the Bible.” So, when we gather here at Kenilworth Union, we listen to the stories that help us to be formed as an interdependent community that lives in the power of God’s spirit. We meet to be, in the words of John Buchanan, “a community bound together by a common faith in Jesus Christ and the bonds of affection that are part of his love,” and, “to be a place of welcome and hospitality where hunger can be filled and brokenness healed.” We meet to hear Jesus’ stories of healing from isolation caused by fear, pride, insecurity, shame and sadness as well as disease. We meet together to counteract the messages of our affluent society that emphasize competition over mutual support, personal accomplishment over the needs of the group, freedom over service, hierarchy over equality and perfection over vulnerability.
Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians as they tried to live lives faithful to the message of Jesus in the midst of a culture that presented very different options for faithful living. Reading between the lines it seems that there were Jewish Christians in Galatia who were insisting that the non-Jewish Christians live by the Jewish law – even to the extent of being circumcised. These Jewish Christians considered themselves superior and kept themselves apart from the gentile Christians. Paul’s letter is based on his understanding of the law in relation to faith, and in the letter he criticizes those who would keep themselves separate from Gentiles as a sign that they were loyal to God. He presents a whole different understanding of what it means to be like-minded to the Galatians. For Paul, the mark of the Christian was not a physical outward sign but a willingness to submit to the law of Christ – a law of love.
Living under the law of love, for Paul, was not a heavy load but was an expression of true freedom. Christ tells the crowd in Matthew 11: 28, “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble of heart and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Living under the law of love, for Paul, meant having a realistic self evaluation which allows us to see each other, not as rivals, but as brothers and sisters supporting one another. We are to bear one another’s burdens – whether they are good, bad or ugly – and to lighten each other’s load because all of us in the end, as it says in verse 5, will be accountable to God for our own behavior.
In a recent sermon John Buchanan referred to an essay, “Cell Phone Theology,” by Brent Smith, “in which he remembers that the great Paul Tillich observed that you can see the deepest longings and ultimate concerns of a culture by looking at its particularities and peculiarities. Smith said the cell phone is one form of the eternal human struggle to overcome isolation and to be in relationship. He cites the television ad that promises that
when you buy the company’s cell phone you become part of a large crowd of people, a community, a national network who are always there, ready to be helpful. Smith said the message of that commercial is that, ‘you are not alone,’ a message that speaks powerfully ‘to the desire for stronger communal bonds in a time of increasing individual isolation.’”
Is it possible to feel a sense of isolation at church, a fear of turning to our neighbor, a fear of being rejected and humiliated? Many of us might answer yes. How easy it is to judge our insides by everyone else’s outsides and turn away from seeking help. Ken Haugk, the founder of Stephen Ministries writes in his book, Christian Caregiving: A Way of Life, that when we know a fellow church member is going through pain or loss it is easy to find yourself “asking questions like, “What right do I have to involve myself in another person’s life?’ or “what right do I have to pry into another person’s affairs?” The question is really: “What right do I have to care for another person?” Ultimately,” Haugk says, “the right to care flows from our responsibility as family members. It is God who created the Christian family. He desires you and me to reach into the lives of our fellow family members with his love. In a certain way, we have a ‘license to care’ closely connected with the bonds of community that God establishes among Christians. We have the responsibility to care based on the needs of people. Frequently I find that people, especially those who are hurting, want to talk about their needs. Although they may flinch when you first ask about what deeply concerns them most, they will later express relief and be grateful that you cared enough to ask, listen and help them to deal with their concerns.”
In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul described the life of a Christian community this way, “if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” Maybe God won’t call us to shave our heads, but God does call us to be a community of love that not only knows how to give help but to ask for help as well. So we pray for one another through the ministry of the prayer chain; we help take care of our need for food and a phone call or care through the ministry of the Care Guild; and we companion one another through times of transition and loss through Stephen Ministry because we are to live by the law of Christ – the law of love.
Saint Teresa of Ávila a major figure of the Catholic Reformation in the sixteenth century and a prominent Spanish mystic and writer summed up Paul’s message to the Galatians best when she wrote:
Christ has no body now on earth
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours.
Yours are the eyes through
which Christ looks
with compassion on the world;
yours are the feet with which
he is to go about doing good;
yours are the hands with which
he is to bless people now.