a sermon preached by the Rev. Linda Kuhn, supply preacher
First Presbyterian Church, Pardeeville, WI 2-16-2020
About 17 years ago, I was in agony. I was desperate. About a week before Christmas, I woke up with the worst headache I have ever experienced. The pain was excruciating. A few hours later, I couldn't close my right eye. My mouth began to droop on my right side; I was unable to keep myself from drooling. I tried to walk a straight line and I couldn't. I got into urgent care later that day. An MRI ruled out a stroke. Instead, I was diagnosed with Bell's Palsy -- its cause is still unknown, but it may be due to a virus that attacks a major cranial nerve and causes paralysis in the face. The treatment was to take antiviral and anti-inflammatory drugs and wait it out -- the nerve fibers might heal, or not. The prognosis was that I could recover in full, or in part, or not at all. I was serving as the interim pastor of a UCC church 40 miles away. Without the use of the muscles in half my face, I couldn't speak very well. Gratefully, one of the members stepped in to lead Christmas Eve worship. I pulled back and planned to rest over the holidays.
Then, a few days later, I developed a pain in my left shoulder. My doctor thought I had come down with shingles, but it didn't follow the usual pattern. There wasn't much in the way of redness or blisters on my skin, but felt intense pain under the surface. As the weeks went on, the pain began to move around to different parts of my body. My nerve endings felt frayed; they were misfiring. This went on week after week, month after month. I was in misery. I struggled to keep on functioning at the church and at home the best I could, but when my doctor told me that opioid painkillers were the next step, I knew I wouldn't be safe on the road to make the 40 mile commute to the church. I felt I had no choice but to resign. I felt I let this congregation down. I had come to them to help them as their interim pastor to help them heal from a distressing situation. I felt I was letting God down. I was letting my family down. I felt worthless. I began to withdraw and isolate myself.
I was wearing down. The pain sensitized my skin so much I could hardly stand to be touched, and the feel of clothing, or a bed sheet, would drive me up a wall. Analgesics, topical anesthetics, anticonvulsants, narcotics -- I was prescribed all these drugs and they didn't touch the pain. I can't remember how many times Dave took me to urgent care or the ER as the pain moved to different parts of my body and organs and I was in agony. I was spiraling out of control. My nervous system was going haywire; my endocrine system went out of balance; my emotional state was desperate. I began to have panic attacks. I was prescribed anti-depressants, a whole string of them, and they either caused worse side effects or more anxiety. When the panic attacks came, I thought I was going to die. Or, I wished I could die. At least then I could find relief, release.
I was referred to the Mayo Clinic, where I was run through all sorts of tests and exams by specialists, but even they couldn't come up with a diagnosis or much of a treatment plan. I was desperate. And probably more suicidal that I've ever been in my life. I didn't think I had the will to learn how to live with this pain. I was beaten down.
My prayer life and relationship with God was a mess. When you are very sick, it is sometimes very tempting to wonder where God is in relation to you. Has God turned away from you? Is God out to get you? Is this pain, this sickness, this disability, this condition, this cancer, this tumor, this whatever, God's judgment, a curse? Why is God letting this happen to you? What did you do to deserve this? At that point, God's absence is more real than God's presence. It is easier to see only the darkness rather than the light, feel the despair rather than comfort and assurance of faith.
One day, a package came in the mail from a member from the church I had resigned from. Inside was this shawl -- this one I'm wearing today. Along with this shawl came a note to remind me that every time I wrapped myself with it, and felt its warmth and comfort, I could remember that others were lifting me to God in prayer, and praying for my healing and wholeness.
This shawl was not magic, but this gesture of the gift and the prayers -- made a world of difference to me. There were times when all I could do was to wrap it around me and curl up and just rock myself in the midst of the pain and the despair and the hopelessness, and give in to my tears and fears. But I could remember the purpose of this shawl, to remind me that others could pray when I could not, others could lift me up to God when I hadn't the strength, others believed when my own faith wavered. It was tangible, when God was too elusive for me, too far beyond my reach. This shawl, along with the love of my family and friends and the prayers of church members who had heard what I was going through, served as my lifeline at a time when I was trying to draw from a well of faith but coming up with only dust.
Almost a year to the day, the pain that had taken over my life for so long gradually began to subside. I could hardly believe it; in fact I did not believe or trust it for weeks. I feared it was a cruel joke and that the pain would return in full force. But the relief and release were real. I am pain free to this day. I felt, and feel, gratitude. My life has been given back to me.
My doctor thinks it may have been the shingles virus and an atypical "postherpetic neuralgia" at the root, when damaged nerve fibers send confused and exaggerated messages of pain from your skin to your brain. What triggered the healing? Maybe just time and letting the virus run its course. Maybe the healing came from alternatives that I had started to try outside of the Western medicine with its focus on disease and cures and drugs and interventions. I tried alternatives like acupuncture and Reiki and cranial sacral treatments that enlist the person in their own healing process. It taught me about our body's natural energies for healing and wholeness. It taught me the importance of mere breath and simple breathing. Maybe I had come to the point of such exhaustion, gotten so beaten down, that I gave into it all, stopped fighting, let go -- stripped bare, brought so low to the point where I could be physically, emotionally and spiritually renewed. Healing can come in so many different ways, and take so many different forms. It doesn't always come in the way we expect.
In the story we heard from Mark's gospel this morning, one day a woman with a chronic hemorrhage was healed after 12 long years of pain and distress and debilitation. She was no doubt exhausted and beaten down by her condition. Anemic with so much loss of blood. Bankrupt after spending all her money on doctors. Hopeless after all the treatments she had endured that had all failed. With the blood taboos of her society and time, she would have been considered unclean, not to be touched, contaminated. Everyone kept their distance from someone who was unclean; they were to be shunned, which only must have made her feel all the lonelier and abandoned. Persons who were ill were often treated as cursed. And what was worse, people who were ill often believed this to be true about themselves, that they were cursed - rejected, condemned by God.
In this story in Mark's gospel, the woman did something incredible. The unthinkable. She risked further rejection and judgment by reaching toward Jesus to touch and be touched, even if only by the clothing he was wearing. She couldn't make substantial contact, but came close enough. She found herself not rejected by Jesus, not cast aside, but instead restored to health and wholeness.
Rabbinic scholars suggest that what this woman was able to reach and touch that day was a prayer shawl which rabbis and orthodox Jewish men wear to this day-- a "talit". (accent on final syllable) A talit has fringe on the edge which is called the "tzitzit" in Yiddish. In some traditions, the fringe - especially when it's knotted or formed into tassels -- functions as a mnemonic device to help someone remember the commandments, much like rosary beads function to help someone who is Roman Catholic remember their prayers. In rabbinic commentary, the fringe of a prayer shawl is an extension of the holy into the human realm, the point where the holy and human touch, where power is transferred from God to humanity. If you've seen Michelangelo's painting of the creation story on the Sistine Chapel, God reaches out a finger toward Adam to give him life. There's this tiny space, a gap, in between God's finger and Adam's finger and you can almost see this transfer of life and energy and power and spirit. Celtic theology speaks of the "thin spaces" where the holy and the human meet, where the divine and secular meet, where the wall between heaven and earth collapses. The fringe of a prayer shawl is a similar metaphor for that place where the holy reaches out to touch us in our human condition, where connection is made. We know that God takes the initiative to reach out to us in love, and the fringe of a prayer shawl is like that extra bit of reach of love across the span, the divide, the separation, the wall, like fingers reaching to touch us.
Today we recognize the ministry of the deacons of this church. How they serve as a channel through which our compassion and love and support can flow to those near and fear. The deacons and their work remind us of that witness we can all offer -- a witness to those in need of warmth and comfort, nurture and sustenance, helping others know they are touchable and loveable by God and by us, that they are not alone. Through the deacons and their projects, we can remind others that despite whatever distress or dis-ease or debilitation or scarcity they are dealing, it is not a rejection by God. We have with the ability as a community of faith to lift up those in need to God in prayer, especially when they do not have the strength or energy to do it themselves. We can be their lifeline. We do this every time we pray for those by name and pray for those whose names we will never know.
We do not always know who will be touched by our witness, or our compassion or outreach. That is in God's hands. Sometimes our role is just to get someone close enough to touch the fringe of Jesus' cloak and there find healing and wholeness and restoration in some way. Thanks be to God.
Share would share with you a "breath prayer" I learned during this time of pain and recovery. Prayer as deep breathing. Words in scripture translated as God's Spirit are "ruach" (Hebrew), meaning wind, breath; and "pneuma" (Greek) meaning breath (think pneumonia, or a pneumatic pump). God is as close as our breath. The gift of breath that is life-giving. When in midst of panic attack, when felt I couldn't get enough air, I was gasping. But I realized actually had too much air, trying to take in more when there wasn't any room in my lungs. I was holding onto "old breath" that I needed to let go of in order to clear my lungs enough to draw in the fresh. To do, this, however, required trust. Letting go and trusting enough to draw in fresh breath was a discipline I could use in my relationship with God.
Use verse from Psalm 46: 10 "Be still and know/ that I am God." Let out as much as you take it - 4 counts in, pause for a count of 1, 5 counts out.