“The biggest disease today is not leprosy or tuberculosis, but rather the feeling of being unwanted, uncared for, and deserted by everybody. The greatest evil is the lack of love and charity, the terrible indifference towards one’s neighbor…”
~~ St. Theresa (Mother Theresa)
The biggest disease today isn’t covered by any medical plan–it is the lack of concern for the weak and vulnerable among us. The only medicine for this is a change of heart, so we begin to consider the needs of the poor, the disabled, and the ill as equal to the healthy, the rich, and those who can work.
This medicine is a living faith, not a dead assent to beliefs! Can we look on the face of our brothers and sisters and see the face of God!?! Can we see the wounds of Christ needing to be healed!?! If we see only the money and the tax ramifications of the plans currently proposed by congress, we have a dead faith, for we aren’t working to care for the “least of these, my brothers and sisters, who are the Christ” we meet daily as we go about our journey.
If our Sunday words are only for ourselves and not for the world also, if our Sunday words are only for our lives and not for the lives of others, and if our Sunday words are only for our lives, but don’t translate to our politics, we cannot say that we are living a fully Christian life.
What is the medicine for this? Repentance and restitution. We must make a change in the way we live, the way we think, and in all the ways we act: our uses of money, our treatment of people, and our lifestyle choices. All must be governed by God’s all encompassing love. If God’s love flows into our hearts, let this same generous love flow out unimpeded.
“Love one another, as I have loved you.” –John 15:12
My night class on World Religions at seminary with Ruben Habito began with silent breathing. Centering, he called it. Some of us called it falling asleep. A long day of work or classes, or both, with a short night of sleep before an early morning wake up alarm marked our days back then. We were fueled by liquid caffeine and too many carbs. We ran on the adrenaline of excitement and the necessity to cram two lives into one day. We were crazy people, but we didn’t know it.
We didn’t realize the gift of silence and quiet our zen master was offering to us. We were doers, not accustomed to being. To be silent, still, and to breathe in and out as we sought an unmoving center after the hubbub of our day was our bedtime ritual, not a preparation for learning. More than a few of us crossed over into LaLa Land.
Some time during the class, we would return to this world, much refreshed from our power nap. We could get any notes we missed from a less sleep deprived classmate. Our zen master was also a priest, who knew our needs and offered this gift of ministry for his congregation. He wasn’t bothered by our sleeping through his lectures, for if we needed to rest, God would take care of our learning elsewhere.
When I went out as a pastor in the church, I remembered this lesson of grace. When people fell asleep in church, I knew God would bring the message to them later from the ones who stayed awake. If their lives were so out of whack they needed to sleep in church, I needed to pray for them. After all, it’s not about me, it’s about God.
“I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world! — John 16:33
Cornelia DeLee: Christ Overcoming the World, acrylic on canvas, 2015. (36″ X 36″)
Most of us have grown up on the teaching that Jesus is “The Lamb that takes away the sins of the world,” this is known as the Substitution or Atonement of Christ. He is the sacrifice instead of us, that sets us free from the bondage to sin and death.
What if instead, Jesus were “The Bread of Life?” If he were the ancient scythe harvesting the weeds from our fields so that our grains could grow strong and provide us with the food for our rolls, our muffins, our flat breads and our pizzas, then he would be our provider of nourishment and strength.
He would be feeding us, making us stronger day by day and building us up to be protectors of the weak, the needy, and the defeated of this world. If we hold to the substitution theory, we stay on the weak position always.
We will always need God, for it is in Christ that we have our victories. As Romans 8:37 reads, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Because we have the victories, we are called to go out in power to defend the cause of the marginalized, the ones who have not found the power of God for themselves. We aren’t given this power to build our own mansions, enlarge our own kingdoms, or build up our own wealth.
God gives us this victory to secure food for the hungry, shelter for the homeless, and care for the lonely. When we meet their needs, we meet the needs of the Christ who said,
“This is my body broken for you.”
Sometimes we bind our wounds with bandages that don’t quite cover the scars. Then these scrapes and cuts don’t heal properly, but stay open and never mend. The doctors among us may be concerned that these wounds are sites for a new infection, but the healers know that suchwounds are given to us for the healing of others. Our visible scars make us accessible to the woundedness of others. If we hide our woundedness and weakness under the bandages of strength, then they may be afraid to seek us out for comfort or support.
if we hide ourselves behind our well placed bandages, then we have missed the opportunity to pour out our experience of God’s love and hope in our lives into their lives. Perhaps that is why the wounds of Christ’s crucifixion were visible on his resurrection body. Most people think after they die, they will have a perfect body, but if we get a body like our Lord’s, surely we will have the evidence of the scars of this world, even if we no longer feel the pain.
Those of us who are bearing the pains of the world in our hearts, minds, and bodies will show those scars on our outer selves. We can’t wrap ourselves up like an Egyptian mummy! Even if we did, these bandages would fall away and expose our woundedness. Only then can we be best used by God.
Psalms 147:3–He heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds.
Recently a male acquaintance of mine had the temerity to suggest that perhaps I might need one of those buttons that calls for help to a distant monitoring site. I had told him I’d been sick and he knew I lived alone. I was feeling much better by then and retorted, “As long as I can walk the around the 1.5 miles of Mercy Hospital, I don’t need a button that says I’ve fallen and can’t get up!” He escaped my wrath by a quick exit into the elevator. Indeed!
“I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” Paul said of Christ to the Philippians (4:13). Isaiah reminds us that God “gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young fall exhausted; but those that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint.” (40:29-31).
With verses like these ringing in our ears, well meaning people of faith do great harm to God’s gift, which is God’s own image, whether male or female (Genesis1:27). We run our precious images into the ground until they are flat exhausted, burnt out, overwhelmed, physically sick or plain old addicted to either the work, the adulation, or some other less desirable habit. We forget that the one person who is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Colossians 1:15) is also the same one of whom was said, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). John’s gospel alone mentions that “Jesus, tired out by his journey, was sitting by the well” (4:6). No other gospel author speaks of the Lord’s humanness as does John. If Jesus can get tired and need rest, why is it we who follow him cannot do the same thing?
We think we are being good shepherds by being always at work, always on call, always at work. I have clergy pals who feel they have to justify their exercise time as “prayer time or sermon preparation.” I have other friends that have worked themselves into the hospital with exhaustion, yet tried to leave against medical advice just to do someone’s funeral because they were jealous of another pastor coming into their church. The stress of disaster relief efforts in addition to all our other responsibilities can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Hurricane Gustave in 2008 put several of us in lower Arkansas into the hospital with stress related heart events. Fainting into your spaghetti at the community meal gets you a free ride to the local hospital, even if you go under protest!
I won’t begin to list the side effects of all this stress on our precious bodies, other than to say that when we put ourselves under this much stress, we eat more comfort foods, we exercise less and we sleep less. All these acts cause us to eat more comfort foods. If we really want to live a Jesus lifestyle, start walking! Give up your need to be a Ken or Barbie doll perfect person and tell your people you are going out to find the lost sheep.
The lost sheep is your identity as a child of God, not your calling as a pastor or your ministry in the church or the world. It isn’t how you make your money as a banker, a mechanic, a coder, or a salesperson. This isn’t you as a mom or a dad, but you as God’s own child. If you are feeling lost in the role of what you do, you are a lost sheep. This icon (image) of the Good Shepherd should point you to the only one who can find you and bring you home safely from the wilderness. If you are with him, you stand under the tree of life, whose leaves are used for healing. Your wounds will be healed and you will heal the wounds of others also.
For further reading, a classic spiritual text is Henri Nouwen’s THE WOUNDED HEALER
I dilly dallied, as is my usual habit. I have some inner compunction that forbids me to turn up too early. It’s a learned behavior from early childhood: showing up too soon meant additional chores, whereas I’d rather be playing or reading or doing my art. However, Bon Jovi was coming to Verizon arena and that meant 18,000 people and possibly 6,000 vehicles were going to descend upon the twenty acres just across the river from downtown Little Rock. Late wasn’t an option. You can arrive late for church, walk in and find your seat while the congregation sings the first hymn or praise songs, but late for football or a rock concert means hoofing it from the far parking lots. Your seat may be reserved, but your parking space is a crapshoot.
I left my hotel at 5:30, arrived at the arena 15 minutes later, saw that the Burger King directly across the street was offering $10 off street parking, and I bagged this along with a Whopper Jr. with cheese and no pickles to go. About the time I’d finished my walking picnic (do calories eaten while exercising count?), I was at the entry. There a man asked me, “Will you be needing to drink tonight?” Do I need to or want to, I asked him. “Want to,” he said laughing. Oh no, I’m good to go as I am. I’ll be driving afterwards, so nothing for me. He wished me well and went about his work. He was checking the IDs and placing the orange bands on folks so the beverage people wouldn’t be slowed down for the inside sales. I thought of all the church greeters who miss an opportunity to engage in some type of meaningful conversation with the folks that are passing through their contact zone. If a church is a community, our first line greeters initiate that experience.
Once inside the door, I had two hours to kill or fill. Killing time is a long tedious process, but filling time is pleasant and refreshing. First I stopped to shop. Yes, I sacrificed at the altar of all things Bon Jovi to buy a $45 T-shirt with the logo on it. It’s a witness shirt. Of course, most people don’t read your clothes because they don’t see anything past the border of their personal space. We have been taught not to stare from an early age, so reading someone’s chest/breast is impolite. Only artists, children, and other rude people defy this social convention.
I sat next to a young couple from near Pine Bluff. The boy clearly loves this gal, but she’s had a hard life and can’t really believe it. When I showed her my shirt, I said I really wanted the hot red one with gold bling, but it didn’t come in “full mature womanly figure” size. “Oh I love red and gold, but I’d be afraid someone would take it.” Her boyfriend looks at her and says, “Come on honey, I think you’d look hot in that shirt!” Both these kids have had tough lives, but they have found each other and are making the days better for each other. I learned all this in less than an hour at a rock concert. How long do we take before we ever open up at church? Many of us never will, except for our physical illnesses, for we hold the mistaken belief that God rewards our silent suffering or worse, if we admit to suffering, we also admit to being an imperfect person. God already knows we are imperfect, so it won’t come as a surprise to the Almighty. It might only surprise the others who labor under the same delusion.
As I sat, I took photos of other folks killing time by checking facebook. Pretty soon, nothing would post and Instagram couldn’t refresh its feed, since too many bored people were online at once. I gave up and began to take photos only. It was as if we were all dressed up with no place to go, yet we were all here and being held in check, like racehorses behind the starting gate. Some found their way to the foot tall margarita stand, others to the beerita stand (half beer/half margarita), and others to the food and drink stands. I chatted with my other seat mates for a bit and realized I knew them from one of my appointments during my ministry. There may be six degrees of Kevin Bacon, but only one degree of Bon Jovi or Methodist ministers. I heard of the woes of their recent pastor and the trouble in their town. But it’s a broken and fallen world we live in, and we pastors can’t take responsibility for other peoples’ actions. This is why a God gave us Jesus to fall back upon when we fall down or the world falls apart.
At 7:30, I realized that the concert was no where near starting, no matter what my ticket said, so I went in search of the ladies’ room. On my way back, I chatted up the aisle folks. Some of them seemed surprised that a stranger was speaking to them, but then we do tend to live in our own little bubbles. This experience was the most like church, for I realized that while folks had come in groups or pairs to the concert, they came to experience it in their own private universe. They may have been part of the crowd, but their experience was much smaller and more intimate. I had come alone, however, and was seeking unity within the whole. Therefore, I was reaching out to connect with as many as possible to feel a part of the group. This is why a “friendly church” can seem cold to a stranger, but welcoming to the in crowd.
On my way back down to the floor, this handsome silver haired gentleman performed the requisite ticket check on me. He asked, “Do you like Bon Jovi?” Oh yes, I said. How about you? “Not so much, but I do get to say hello to very pretty ladies.” Aren’t you sweet, I smiled and said as I left for my seat. He probably had ear plugs for the evening. This was a nice moment to keep as a memory. I’m glad I’ve taken to wearing my hair up in braids. It makes me look approachable, young, fresh, and not all bound up. Uptight isn’t alright anymore. That was ok for the professional look, but now I want go look like me. My Sunday go to meeting clothes are now my dress casual clothes. I’m deep into retirement and not much on dressing up anymore. Once I had 47 pair of shoes, now I’m down to 12. I actually wear just 2 pair most of the time. Maybe we should simplify our lives, our dress, and our behavior: just be the same wherever we are. No one could call us a hypocrite then.
Finally the lights went dim and a roar rose from the crowd! Our anticipation wasn’t for naught. Bon Jovi and the band were taking the stage. The spotlights flashed brightly, strobing the darkened amphitheater. Blue lights burst into the stage that was just 17 rows and an orchestra pit away from my seat. Then oranges and reds quavered across this field and the sounds of “That’s What the Water Made Me,” “You Give Love a Bad Name,” “Runaway,” and the “Lost Highway” rolled out over the excited crowd. We sang along, at the top of our voices. Some of us sang the whole song, others sang just the choruses, but we all shared in the experience. A rock concert differs from a classical performance in that the latter is done by the artist for the audience to appreciate the artist’s abilities and talent, whereas the rock concert is a communal or participatory event in which both the artist and the crowd share the creation.
This experience alone reminded me the most of why church ain’t bringing IT like Bon Jovi. How many of our congregations have the moniker “the frozen chosen?” For this group, worship is done to them and they merely observe the performance. After church they may intellectually discuss the merits of the sermon or the song selections, but preaching to this crowd is difficult, for encouragement isn’t their long suit. They are well trained in stillness, silence, and the flat aspect of their faces while in the sanctuary. It’s as if God might strike them dead if they so much as bat an eyelash. Get them around a potluck table afterwards, especially the deserts, and they are quite lively. Perhaps we should serve chocolate brownies instead of communion wafers and 5-Hour energy shots instead of the communion wine or grape juice.
A song that surprised me was “Whole Lot of Leavin’.” because it had never been released in the USA. Fresh to our ears, we applauded even louder, but when Jon rolled into “It’s My Life” the screaming broke loose! It wasn’t the nice church ladies on my left (who I periodically checked on to make sure they were still alive), but the gal who couldn’t believe this was her birthday dream come true. She was on her first syllable of the nonstop scream that was her entire commentary of the evening. When the Spirit takes over, some are wont to speak in strange tongues or languages. Others break out in laughter, barking, or whooping, while some twirl or dance in place. All that was happening all over the stadium as Bon Jovi sang “Because We Can,” “What About Now,” “We Got It Goin’ On,” and “Keep the Faith.”
This was one of the high points of the concert, for which we’d been standing, singing and clapping all the way through so far. We were probably 45 minutes into the concert and I noticed the young couple in front of me were plum worn out. I said, He’s 55, working it for all he’s got & you’re tired? Stand up and honor this! (I checked my fitbit after the concert when I got to the hotel. My steps/activity counter posted over three miles just from the aerobic workout dancing and clapping in my foot and a half of floor space.) I thought, I’m as bad as all those judgmental church folks who think this younger generation doesn’t have what it takes to “do IT the right way.” In truth, they are probably just worn out from a long week at work and hassles with the kids. I should give them a break. There may be more than one way to skin an IT, after all.
Just as preachers can’t bring the same sermon every week, rock stars don’t play the same set at every venue. Life would get old. For us Arkies, Bon Jovi played a set that related to our history and our connections. Just as there are the six degrees of Kevin Bacon, almost everyone in Arkansas is an FOB or an FOH, the Clinton’s of course. We heard “It’s Only Make Believe,” (Conway Twitty cover) and “Someday I’ll Be Saturday Night” as part of that recollection and connecting. As the mood slowed, we heard “Diamond Ring,” and “(You Want to) Make a Memory.” All the young and old lovers took this moment in time to hug and kiss, to make their own memory of the night they shared with Bon Jovi.
But enough of all that smooching, the band had come to rock! “Born to Be My Baby,” “We Weren’t Born to Follow,” “Who Says You Can’t Go Home,” “I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” (with snippets of Jumpin’ Jack … more), and “Bad Medicine” (with snippet of Shout) rounded out the main program.
The old preaching saw is strike fire & sit down. Leave them crying for more. Cry we did. More they had! “I’ll Be There for You,” “Wanted Dead or Alive,” “Have a Nice Day,” and “Livin’ on a Prayer” wound up the best night in twenty years in Arkansas. Don’t wait so long, BJ, you have friends here.
When I checked out of my hotel the next morning, the clerk was just in awe that I had gone to see Bon Jovi. I thought, no one ever says that about church. Is that because it happens every Sunday? If we held church once every twenty years, or asked people to pay steep admission prices, would that encourage us to attend? What if we had songs that we played over and over, like the top 40 and country hit stations play their lists, would that engage our participation? What if the seats cost more depending on their location (in church, the back row would cost the same as the concert orchestra pit)! We might have a better, if not rowdier, crowd down front. The preaching might get more exciting too. Then again, these two worlds aren’t meeting for the most part, for the same reason that the screaming fans and the prim church gals don’t run in the same crowd. They need a person who walks in both worlds to either be the church for them or to bring the church to them. The walls of the church itself are the barrier, even when the church ladies go out into the rock world, and the world can’t come into the church itself. This is why the church ain’t bringing the message of healing for the hungry and the hopeless like Bon Jovi is bringing IT. This is why the concert felt like the church ought to be, but each of us needs to bring our true heart to into true concert with the God who can rock our world, and not just our arena.