22 Jan 2012 06:11 PM

Intervention: Risk, Folly, and Inner Healing

A sermon preached by Deacon Sue Mosher on January 22, 2012

My topic today is intervention, usually considered the stuff of sitcoms and war, but a surprisingly common visitor to our everyday lives. If we subscribe to the ethical imperative to "Love thy neighbor as thyself", we can hardly avoid intervening when we see our neighbor has a problem. Yet we find ourselves faced with many difficult questions: When is it right to caution or criticize someone or inject our opinions into their lives? By what authority? By what measure of effectiveness?

Intervention in our personal lives

Practical experience should tell us that intervention carries with it the risk of disappointment and estrangement. Perhaps the chief reason for such rifts is that our intrusion is almost always accompanied by a subtle -- or not so subtle -- judgment that the target of the intervention is incompetent to manage their own affairs -- or is too stupid or too lazy to bring about whatever change we think is necessary, often to protect our own interests. Even with the best of intentions, incompetence is the subtext -- no matter whether it's an intervention into another country's affairs or a friend's bad habits or poor relationship choice.

We may not be able to avoid judging the other. Humans, after all, have moved out of the wilderness aided by our exquisite ability to sort and categorize - good from bad, edible from poisonous, friend from foe. Discernment is at the root of our intelligence. But perhaps we can learn to act on our judging in a way that makes it less emotionally blunt.

On the surface, the parable of the Good Samaritan, which we heard as a lesson last week, seems to give us a good example to follow - the story of a passerby who rescued a man who had been beaten by robbers. This passerby would have been judged in his time as "not Jewish enough", because his religious group viewed only the first five books of the Hebrew Bible as holy scripture. Yet, he intervened when high-ranking Jews turned away. His action involved personal expense and personal risk, for how was he to know that the beaten man was not himself a robber, waiting for a soft-hearted person to stop and investigate.

But I don't think the Good Samaritan story gives us enough for the small challenges of everyday life. It was a life-or-death matter, and I think - at least I hope - that we would all choose life if confronted with such a clear life-or-death situation. I also hope we would make the right choice if we heard screams coming from the store next door or saw a child being abused in the gymnasium shower.

However, even life-or-death situations are not always painted in black-and-white. We can't always see the internal injuries and private demons that might lead a friend to flirt with suicide or parents to put their children at risk in a filthy apartment. Even when we sense that something is wrong, we may feel powerless to make it right, and so we withdraw and put as much distance as possible between ourselves and the trouble - often filling that distance with the distractions that are at our fingertips: media, games, and general busy-ness.

Or, we think that it is a problem that we know how to fix, and so we devote all our energy to getting the distressed friend to accept our solution. In our communion liturgy earlier this month, we confessed to "the folly of trying to fix a friend" - and foolish it often is to try to persuade someone to do what we judge is best for them - as many wars and many broken relationships can confirm.

Even the simplest intervention-holding up a mirror to an obvious problem in another individual-can be ineffective and distressing. A woman bluntly told her hairdresser after the recent holidays, "You've put on some extra pounds." Did she really think he hadn't noticed that himself?

Here we find the painful barb at the core of almost every intervention-a judgment that the target of the intervention is incompetent to manage their own affairs. This is the judgment made when:

  • One person in a relationship berates the other over personal appearance or habits.
  • A social services agency takes a child away from his parents or finds a new home for an elderly person who can no longer manage on her own.
  • One country sends its troops to straighten things out in another.

I'm sure you have plenty of examples of your own, when you've offered what you thought was a simple caution or a critical word and got your head bitten off. This raises a key question for anyone who wants to do the right thing when a friend is in need: Is it possible to be helpful without passing judgment?

Two models of health care

I think that an understanding of the two basic types of health care can point us in the right direction. And to do that, I want to draw attention to the distinction that many healers and spiritual guides make between pain and suffering.

The International Association for the Study of Pain describes pain as "an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage". Suffering, on the other hand, according to physician Eric Cassell, is "the state of severe distress associated with events which threaten the intactness of the person". Dr. Michael Kearney, who provided our first reading, boils that down to pain as a threat to a body part (or parts) and suffering as a threat to the whole person.

It just so happens that, in the ancient world, there was a clear distinction between the two types of healing that could be directed at these two types of health complaint. One, which corresponds to medical intervention found in our clinics and hospitals, diagnosed the symptoms, prescribed treatments, evaluated the results, and repeated the process as needed. This is the Hippocratic model, after the great Greek physician Hippocrates, whose oath still informs the ethical practice of medicine, even though it is no longer repeated at medical school graduations.

Getty_3394But Hippocrates himself not only was a diagnostician but also claimed the heritage of another healing tradition, that of the god Asklepios, one of several deities invoked in the original Hippocratic oath. In Asklepian centers, supplicants would be prescribed purification regimens, not medicines, and after sufficient preparation, would spend the night in a special temple hoping for a dream with curative instructions or power. The pool of Bethesda, depicted in our second reading, has been located by archaeologists outside the ancient walls of Jerusalem, and may have been associated with an Asklepian temple, perhaps one supported by the Roman military garrison nearby.

The Asklepian temples were among the last bastions of paganism in a Christianizing Europe, and many churches adopted similar healing dream practices in the names of various saints. Contemporary Jewish pilgrims to Mount Meron in Israel sleep in the tomb of Rabbi Shimeon Bar Yochai in hopes that he will visit them in their dreams, and similar pilgrimages take place among Muslims in Morocco.

But it is not the practice of dreaming itself that is the key to the healing offered at Asklepian sites and their later equivalents. Dr. Kearney explains, "In the Asklepian mode our task is not to 'make it better'. It is to help to create the space where the one who suffers is held in trust." - in other words, to create the space where they are not judged to be incompetent or stupid or lazy, a place where the natural power of healing inside each individual can be called forth.

Viewed through this classical lens, Jesus was definitely a healer in the Asklepian lineage. In the passage from John that we heard today, his question to the paralytic was, "Do you want to be made well?", a holistic suggestion, not a diagnostic interview. The King James Bible even translates it holistically as, "Wilt thou be made whole?" And many of Jesus' healing pronouncements - "Your sins are forgiven" and even "Take up your bed and walk" -- strongly echo the statements heard by dreamers and recorded in the Asklepian temple records.

Intervention for inner healing

Jesus promised that his disciples would be effective healers, so why shouldn't we try to discern where we can bring healing into the world? The first step is to recognize that we may not be able directly to cure the pain of a broken bone or a broken heart, but we can, through our presence, create the space for another's inner healing.

One way we do this is by being good companions. Think of the poor paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda, with no friend to help him enter the pool, and contrast that with the paralytic in the second chapter of Mark's gospel, whose four friends carried him up to the roof of the house where Jesus was staying, uncovered a hole in the roof, and lowered him down to Jesus' presence. Those companions couldn't provide a cure, but they could get their friend into the space of healing.

Attention to the outer environment can thus help create the inner space for healing. It is not enough to say to an aching friend, "Let me know what I can do to help". Look. See what can be done, make an offer, or just do it. What matters most is your attitude. Convey readiness, willingness, and security. Take the risk of being seen as foolish, of having your offers regarded as empty and meaningless by the hurting friend who thinks all is lost.

With your readiness, convey openness. But openness to what? Here is where Jesus goes one step beyond the Asklepian model - either fulfilling it or contradicting it, depending on your view of the value of pagan attitudes. Before telling each paralytic to take up his bed and walk, Jesus asks a question or makes a statement about the man's inner life: "Your sins are forgiven." "Wilt thou be whole?" The healing is not just of paralyzed limbs, but it starts with the inner being. If there is a miracle in these stories, it is that Jesus touches - and awakens -- something inside each person that allows that person to stand and walk. That capacity to receive healing is present in each of us, but we can bury it so deeply sometimes that even our friends cannot find it.

Jesus in these miracle stories points the way to the work of grace, that unexpected and mysterious compassion that does not depend on the worthiness of the recipient but rather invites the recipient into renewed relationship with the giver. In the words of theologian Belden Lane, "God's grace seldom comes in a form they might welcome; it demands the abandonment of every security to which they've clung. Only in accepting the vulnerability that grace demands do they find themselves invited back to wholeness."

We may not be able to take on another's burden or sickness, but we can share their vulnerability and, in doing so, open wider the door to grace and healing. We become vulnerable every time we take on the risk of looking foolish, of being ineffective, of bringing unwanted gifts, of being laughed at, of having our caring be misunderstood, of being an ally rather than an all-knowing critic and bystander. Our simple presence with the stricken family, the aching friend, or even the chubby, aging hairdresser can give hope without the dreary weight of judgment. Rather than imply incompetence, laziness, or stupidity, we can reach toward that pool of inner healing, cooperating with grace as we - yes, we! -- become the angel who stirs the waters.

We can also ripple the waters of healing by bringing beauty into the lives of those who suffer - the beauty of images and color, of sound and music, of simple and wholesome food, of dreams and memory, of quiet companionship. Nature, too, can be our offering. The value of natural experiences to healing is now widely recognized, something to think about when you debate whether to bring flowers to a friend or share some stones that you gathered at the shore.

Returning to our example of the hairdresser, if the client really cares about him putting on the pounds, she might skip the accusation and suggest that they take a walk together or share a salad, thus affirming that the power to do better already lies within her friend and may just need a little coaxing from its hiding place. We cannot predict what effect our presence may have on a friend's needs - but we can trust that if we are willing to take the risk, our companionship usually will do more than our absence from their lives.

Beyond individual interventions

In summary, we cannot always fix the things that we perceive as needing correction in other people and, by wider application, in our institutions and organizations. Such a cure often requires technical expertise for diagnosis and treatment, the equivalent of the medical or Hippocratic model of health care.

But where we cannot cure, we may be able to accompany another on their journey to the pool of inner healing or to the rooftop whose tiles need only be rearranged a bit to provide an opening where the sufferer's bed can be lowered into the presence of the Great Physician. Our own loving presence can help create that holy space where the other's inner, natural competence and receptiveness to grace can say yes to the question, "Wilt thou be made whole?"

And in the spirit of Asklepius, not only can we offer beauty and stories and open hearts, but we also can listen to what is being dreamed and to what is being voiced out of the dream, past the gates of shyness and risk and folly. This is where I believe we can offer each other healing for the sake of the wholeness of this congregation, balancing the good, hard, technical work that is being done to shore up the building and the budget with an invitation to the angel to come and stir up the waters and to the spirit of God to move over those waters as at the creation of the world to bring into being a new light for this city. "Do you want to be made well?" "Wilt thou be whole?" May we, as spiritual friends, carry each other into those waters that can wash away all that keeps us from answering "Yes!" Amen.


O kind and merciful God, make our folly wise. Convert our arrogant judgment into loving companionship. Deliver us from our insecurity by your healing grace. And grant us the power and courage to say Yes! Amen.


A Place of Healing: Working with Nature and Soul at the End of Life by Dr. Michael Kearney

John 5:2-9 - Note that many modern translations omit the description of the angel that stirs the waters. The King James and New King James versions are two that include it.

Posted by Sue Mosher at January 22, 2012 06:11 PM
Posted to Sermons