I was blessed this Sunday to be a vessel for the Word, for the Holy. I am not bragging, I am humbled. And I am only certain of this because of the response I received from people in the congregation. Of course I hope and indeed I pray to be a vessel every Sunday, but what ministers know about worship is we are only human, and sometimes we get in God’s way of speaking what needs to be heard. So I name it as a blessing that I was ready and open to speak a word of truth and hope in the face of pain, brokenness, anger, hopelessness, fear, negative attitudes, and the like.
Sunday I preached on the text in John 5:2-9, the story about the man who laid ill for 38 years waiting to be healed by a spiritual pool, and when Jesus saw the man, Jesus asked, “Do you want to be made well?” This text has been tugging at my heart for a few weeks now because I was finishing a book study with the Elders at our church that ended with this text, and it touched me. “Do you want to be made well?”
There is a certain amount of ourselves that must go into healing. Whether the pain is physical, mental, emotional, or otherwise, our healing requires our participation. Do we want to be made well? If our pain is physical and we go to a doctor for care the Doctor will want to do two things, manage the pain and find the source, likely in that order, unless the source is obvious. One of the things I mentioned in my sermon came from a blog, by Rev. Carey Nieuwhof, about great leaders and their emotional health. He said, “…pain is selfish,” and he used the example of what happens when you stub your toe and how you can’t really think of anything until the pain begins to dissipate. In fact, in that moment, even sitting down is an involuntary response to help ease the pain. So, pain causes us to be self-focused and to turn inward. Physical pain does this to us, but so does mental pain, and emotional pain, and spiritual pain. When we are in pain, we become focused on ending the pain, and that is about the individual experiencing the pain, not those around them. People in pain cause more pain; pointing fingers and blame at others, making everything personal and painful, because pain makes us more focused on what is good for us than what is good for others or all.
My sermon continued by asking when we are in pain, do we want to be made well? Then we have to participate in our healing. We have to acknowledge, and name our pain, that it is real and find its source. And then we have to stop participating in the behaviors that keep us in pain. Self-medicating does not heal the problem, it only masks the symptoms…temporarily. When the pain is emotional, or spiritual, when it is related to relationships, especially unhealthy relationships there is still self-medication it just looks like creating coping mechanisms. Building emotional walls so no one can ever hurt us again. Masking the symptoms of pain by keeping pain at a distance, but this also keeps love at a distance. When the pain is emotional self-medication comes in forms of (self-)destructive behavior to stop feeling so low and start feeling superior to others. This high is just as fleeting as drug can be. It wears off, and tolerance builds up and it takes more destructive behavior with worse consequences to feel superior. Now it is necessary to find ways to justify the destructive behavior and feel righteous about it and ignore the broken relationships created by it. Then begins the blame game. It’s everyone else’s fault that things are so bad.
Pain causes us to become self-focused. Healing requires acknowledging the pain, not numbing it. Healing requires accepting the pain is real, and then wanting to be made well. We cannot simultaneously heal from pain and continue our abusive behavior. We cannot be made well when we are participating in gossip, and rumors. We cannot be made well when we are participating in continuous negative behavior, holding people at arms length while expecting them to come to us for help. We cannot heal if we refuse to forgive and further refuse to work with others. Now. please hear me…I am not suggesting we need to be vulnerable to abuse (verbal, emotional, spiritual, or physical), but I am saying we also cannot heal while we are holding onto anger and hostility. We keep ourselves imprisoned by our own anger. We have to find healthy ways to let go.
Now here is the good news… In Exodus 3:7-8 God is speaking to Moses through the burning bush and he says, “Then the Lord said, ‘I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.” You see, those of us who believe in God, worship a God who KNOWS OUR SUFFERING. God, knows our suffering. God knows our pain. And God has come down to deliver us. Do we want to be made well?
In the passage from John the man is made well in his faithful act of standing up, taking his mat and walking. Sometimes it takes faith to actually make the first move. And in the moment between Jesus’ instruction to “take up your mat and walk,” and the man’s compliance it took faith for him to try. Sometimes we don’t have the faith to try.
After preaching that message (Well, a lot of that was in my sermon, but not all of it.) I had a man ask if he could talk to me about re-dedicating his life to Christ next Sunday. He has been a long time member of our church but he had fallen away from regular worship because life got in the way for a little while. Since Easter he has been coming back. And this Sunday he wanted to talk to me. He shared that he was originally from Lybia and survived the civil war there. He proceeded to share with me about terrifying pain on all levels, and pain related to fear, in all aspects of life. I simply listened. I received his story. Then he told me that he listened to my sermon and it touched him. He now works as a counselor for mental health and addiction issues. He is trained in cognitive behavioral therapy and he helps people deal with their pain. He told me my sermon touched him. I am humbled.
God did that.
God took my willing spirit, God took my open heart, God took my broken heart, and God used me as a vessel through which the Holy Spirit could flow. And pain was touched in a way that healing could begin, again, and continue.
Thank you, Jesus for your story and your challenge to us to participate in our healing with you. Help us to be a willing participant in that faithful work. Amen.