What Shall We Heal?


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

February 11, 2018


Texts: Psalm 6; 2 Kings 5:1-19

       The family had been called to the hospital. It was clear that Fritz was dying. His wife and three sons were there with their wives and the grandchildren. They kept telling Fritz that they loved him; his wife tried her best to hold it together as she sat next to his bed, stroking his hand. Although he didn’t open his eyes, his hand responded to hers. I could see that it gave her some comfort, that even in dying, he still responded to her.

        The nurse dimmed the lights a bit and then stepped back out to her station. Nothing else was to be done. After what seemed to be an eternity but may have been only an hour or two, the monitor went flat; there was no heartbeat. We recited the 23rd Psalm and then called in the nurse who was already by the door.

        Dying hadn’t come easy to Fritz in spite of his advanced age. On his 90th birthday he told me he would last to 100; he did not make it through the year due an aggressive form of cancer. Like David, he cried to God; he did not want to die. And like many people facing impending death, he tried bargaining with God. I don’t know whether he drenched his couch with tears, but it would not have surprised me. He said that he was not afraid of death but that before his illness he was a robust and hearty man who loved a good story and his German beer.

         David’s cries to God reflected in the last several psalms we have read were primarily about external foes, including his son Absalom. This psalm, however, is about David’s physical ailment, possibly some form of wasting disease. That term was used in Scripture for a variety of ailments and conditions; most scholars can only guess at the nature of the illness or condition.

         In his cry to God in this psalm, David takes an interesting twist in his approach to God: “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?” The image of God as a deity not happy unless constantly praised is a really primitive vision of God. Fortunately, we have moved beyond that view of God although some people have not moved beyond that view of themselves.

        Illness makes us vulnerable, vulnerable to our physical limitations. It’s a feeling we don’t really like. I know I keep telling myself, “Come on, move it! You’re a Finn! Where’s your sisu?” But when I get sick, really sick – which, I am glad to say, does not happen very often – I feel incredibly vulnerable. It’s really an awful feeling to struggle with the limitations illness can bring.

        But a bout with a stomach virus or any short-term illness is really nothing compared to serious medical conditions, such as heart disease or cancer. Back in David’s time, the world knew about those serious conditions but had little medical knowledge to either heal or mitigate their affects. Some scholars think that the scriptural references to “wasting disease” meant cancer, but we cannot be sure.

       When we are at our most vulnerable physically, it affects our psyches and our spirits. Vulnerability affects our souls. A recent book by Kate Bowler, a 35-year old assistant professor of Christian history at Duke Divinity School, entitled Everything Happens for a Reason (And Other Lies I’ve Loved) gets to the heart of the matter. She lays out her anger at her diagnosis, stage 4 colon cancer, and at the fact that God is not “fair,” to use her word, and that she cannot imagine a world for her husband and young son without her.

“Be gracious to me, O Lord, for I am languishing; O Lord, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror,” David cries out. Bowler is more than startled when the doctor, after her first surgery, tells her that she has a 30 to 50 percent chance of survival and the term survival meant two more years. She also cries out that the God she was taught to believe in is not “fair.”  

       She writes, “I used to think that grief was about looking backward, old men saddled with regrets … I see now that it is about eyes squinting through tears into an unbearable future. The world cannot be remade by the sheer force of love.”  But she also notes that one cannot let the illness be one’s life; it may constrict what can be done, it may take you over from time to time, but it should not be your life.

        Just as David’s Psalm shifts from darkness into hope, so does Bowler’s book. She continues to struggle with her cancer, her teaching, and her family and, like us, does not know when the end will come only that it will, possibly soon.

        Illness almost in any form makes us feel vulnerable and vulnerable is not how we want to feel. We associate the word with weakness, an inability to protect ourselves or others we love. We use the word to describe victims of assault of all kinds. We use the word to describe being emotionally weak; vulnerability means the possibility of loss. No wonder no one wants to be vulnerable.

         Now there are some people, mainly TED talkers, who push vulnerability as the ability and willingness to take risks, usually business ones and either solve some great problem or make a lot of money, usually the latter. But in spite of a prosperity gospel way of looking at vulnerability, I think we need to recognize what vulnerability can or does to us spiritually.

        Vulnerability is about limitations – ours, for the most part. It’s those very limitations that make us human. Recognizing our limitations is an important factor in spiritual development. Vulnerability also means moving from the images of God we were taught as children into a more expansive and open way of relating to God. It means taking a risk with God.

        The Psalm this morning and several of the others we have read reflect that risk. We hear everything from “you are a shield around me” to “Give ear to my words, O Lord!” This morning’s psalm cries out in despair. To despair before God is a risk, not because we are afraid that God will come down on us with plagues and thunderbolts but because calling out in despair is also a demand.

       We want the universe to be fair, whatever that word means. We are troubled by the world around us and we keep thinking, hoping, “everything will work out.” But often it doesn’t. Being vulnerable before God means recognizing that although we have our limitations, we also have our strengths. And one major strength we have is the realization that God can work through our vulnerabilities to create communities of change which then can become communities of power for good.

       Being open to our vulnerabilities as a tool for change in ourselves and the world may not be easy but it is necessary. First, we should think about what we fear if we become vulnerable and open to taking risks. For me, I admit it’s a fear of failure, of looking really stupid if I do something that is risk-taking and exposes my own vulnerabilities. So, perhaps overcoming a fear of failure is necessary.

The question then becomes how do we move ahead if we are afraid of failure, of being seen as less than what we want others to think we are. Talking it out with others, using our concerns to help create a bond with others are ways to overcome the fear of failure.

        The other night I agreed to meet with immigrant students at a local college about their concerns for their futures here in America. There were several DACA recipients, two citizens who were worried about their spouses, a few wondering about their parents, a young woman who has a student visa but is afraid of returning to her country; it was a hodge-podge of concerns. Little by little, they began to talk in the group, opening up here and there to share their fears and to ask questions. There weren’t answers for all of them but after the evening, most had met people they had not known before and decided to meet to build a community committed to change.

        Each one had to expose some vulnerability, some fear, take some risk. No one had ever met anyone else in the group before that night. One of them darkly commented whether there was an ICE plant in the group since the evening program had been widely advertised. They were vulnerable and took risks to speak. Out of the evening will come a new community ready to work for change.

         In many ways, we are also a community that has developed out of our common commitment to the Gospel. Many of us have shared our vulnerabilities with each other. As a community, we know some of our vulnerabilities, such as size, but we can use our vulnerabilities in a positive way to take risks for the Gospel we preach and believe.

        We will have opportunities this year to take risks. Some will be small; others may be large, but we need to consider how those risks will increase our strength as a community committed to the Gospel. At the end of the Psalm, it is written: “The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord accepts my prayer.” The Psalm doesn’t imply that the weeping, the grief, and the fear have all disappeared as if by magic, not even in the case of a terminal cancer as in Kate Bowler’s case.

        Vulnerability opens us to a new way of approaching our lives and the Gospel. As we participate in the expansion of God’s Kingdom in the world, we will be called to take risks and open ourselves to all kinds of responses to the risks we take. Then with the Psalmist, we can note that the forces of darkness will be turned back and through our efforts we can put them to shame.

         Let us pray: You, O God, know our fears, our weaknesses, our griefs and our pain. Help us to use those things that would weaken us and turn them into anvils of strength so we may continue to build your kingdom of justice and mercy in this world. In the name of him who came to show us the way, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.