“Let The Healing Begin”
August 16, 2015
Dr. David Carlough was a very diminutive figure with snowy white hair and he could walk into a room and make you feel better just by being there. When I was a little kid he came to the house when I was sick. He would thump and bump and probe and listen – – grunt softly and come to a conclusion. He would reach into his black bag and take out just the right medicine and give me the first dose right then and there. Then he would have a cup of tea with my mom and catch up on the family happenings before he moved on to his next visit. It is hard to find doctors like Dr. David anymore. He was more than a physician. He was a healer. Often he was not able to cure his patients, but what happened in his relationship with his patients was as important to the healing process as the pills he dispensed from his medical bag.
As a little kid, I was fascinated by that black bag. The leather handles were kind of cracked and worn. There was a stethoscope inside it and lots of bottles of pills and little white envelopes. He would put the pills in an envelopes and write instructions on it for my mom to follow. On the side of the bag was silver stick with a silver snake wrapped around it.
That serpent wreathed staff, the caduceus, has always been a reminder to me of the capacity to heal. But snakes get mixed reviews in human history and experience. On the one hand, in the Garden of Eden, the serpent is a mischief maker – enticing the woman in the garden to do something she has been forbidden to do. On the other hand, when Moses throws down his staff in front of Pharaoh, it turns into a snake that is a symbol of God’s power and authority.
Throughout history, the snake has been viewed as symbol death and of the power of evil. It has also been understood as a symbol of creation and regeneration and resurrection and healing. We see this duality in the story we are reading today.
In the passage we read from the Book of Numbers, the Hebrew people were tired of their sojourn in the wilderness. Tradition puts them at about the 38th year of their journey. They complained against God and against Moses. They were tired of wandering, tired of having no place to call home, tired of not having enough food and water – and they hated the manna that God provided for them every day. They harangued Moses: “Why have you brought us out of Egypt to die in this wilderness?” This mantra is repeated over and over again in the books of Exodus and Numbers and Deuteronomy
Long story short, God gets tired of their complaining and sends a plague of poisonous serpents among the people. The snakes bite the people and the people die. The people panic. They repent. They ask Moses to speak with God in their behalf to get rid of the snakes. Moses prays. God says make a bronze serpent – hold it up where the people can see it. If they get bitten and look at it, they will live.
The story raises a few questions. Didn’t God originally tell Israel not to make any graven images? Isn’t God breaking God’s own rules here? What do we do with a story about God’s impatience and loss of temper? How does God transform what was a punishment into something that heals?
At one time or another as we move through life, we experience the same kind of weariness and frustration that happened to Israel in the wilderness. Just when we think things can’t get any worse- -they do. A young mother is sick and doesn’t feel well enough to do the laundry and pack the school lunches– and the kids all come down with the flu. We’re at the outermost limit of our finances and the furnace needs to be replaced or the pipes freeze and cost a fortune to repair. We look to modern medicine and technology to help us get through an illness and the treatment makes us sicker than we were when we started – – and maybe we discover too late that our insurance doesn’t cover it all anyway.
Sometimes our lives are an exercise in wandering in the wilderness.
The story presents a bit of a paradox. God’s answer to the complaints of the people is a plague of poisonous snakes. They sicken and die. The thing that will save them is an image of the exact same thing that is causing their death.
In God’s paradoxical economy, the image of the serpent – the thing that caused them to sicken and die, becomes an instrument of their healing.
A close reading of the story reveals that the bronze serpent does not cure them, however. The last line of the episode reads this way: “So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.”
The story does not tell us that God removed the snakes. The story reads : Moses made a bronze serpent and mounted it on a standard; and when anyone was bitten by a serpent, he would look at the bronze serpent and recover. In the very next verse, The Israelites march on to their next campsite.
It is part of life that we hit the dark valleys from time to time – – pain, sickness, a diagnosis of cancer or Alzheimer’s Disease, the sudden death of a loved one – -these are things that happen to us on our human journey. Our most heartfelt prayers are for relief, for a cure – – we want the sickness and the pain and the sadness and the disability to go away. God – please get rid of these snakes. But death and dementia and, often cancer, and so many other conditions that afflict us can’t be reversed. Strained and broken relationships can be very resistant to any efforts at reconciliation Often, we have to come to terms with knowing that as much as we yearn for a cure there is no cure to be had. A cure means that the disease or the trouble or the snakes go away. We know that in real life, a lot of times that just doesn’t happen. Healing does not necessarily mean there is a cure for what ails us. And yet, time and time again, we are witness to the healing that may take place in the midst of the devastation.
By the time we have reached a certain age, most of us have had the experience, either in our own lives or in the life of someone we know, of witnessing a process of healing and transformation that can happen in the midst of suffering.
We may witness people becoming reconciled with each other and with God when the ultimate concerns of life are met openly and honestly. Suffering through a life threatening illness often gives people an opportunity to be clear with friends and loved ones about what is precious and important. Sometimes there is opportunity for addressing old wounds – – to give and receive forgiveness – – to set right broken and estranged relationships. In the midst of a crisis of physical or emotional dis-ease, healing happens – -even when there is no cure in sight.
God does not always cure us in the ways we want to be cured – – but God is always at work healing us in the ways we need to be healed. Our bodies are temporary vessels for the transportation of the life that God has poured into us. Our bodies fail at times. Sometimes they cannot be cured. But our souls are eternal and indestructible – – when we are wounded, we can be healed.
Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the desert for the healing of the people so that they might live – even though they weren’t finished suffering and struggling and wandering. John’s gospel draws on the wilderness story. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” Our tradition affirms that Jesus’ death and resurrection have the power to transform and heal human experience. At the end of his life, Jesus was literally lifted up in a public place so that people could see him. His Roman executioners made an example of him – – to frighten Jews into submission and obedience to Roman oppression. It was the worst that Rome could do. But out of that violent reality something else emerged – something Rome didn’t count on. A small community of Jews witnessed what happened. They lived through the terrible events and had a totally different experience of what death could mean for a new and transformed life.
This is the Divine Paradox…. The things that we fear the most and that cause us the most suffering – – loss, illness, disability, aging, dying – – all have hidden within them the ultimate healing and transformation we need in the service of our own wholeness. The death of Jesus as a healing event remains a mystery. Paul talks about Jesus emptying himself on the cross. The mystics say that this radical emptying is required of us so that the only thing that remains alive in us is the presence of God –and that is the ultimate healing – – when we are no longer living in a state of feeling separate from God – – when we are, indeed, in eternal life – – now in the present moment. Any major life crisis has the potential for emptying us – bringing us to the point where there is nothing else we can do – -to a point where the only possibility left is the graceful healing power of God.
From a composite of the stories of the crucifixion we hear some of Jesus’ words at the end: My God – why have you forsaken me? The human cry of all who suffer when there is no cure in sight . I am thirsty. Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. It is finished. From there he undergoes a most radical transformation moving from suffering through death to life in the resurrection. We go through this same process when we are emptied through the suffering and disappointment and frustration and doubt that we encounter as we move through life.
It takes a radical trust to let go of our own expectations of how life should unfold. It takes a major investment of courage to let ourselves be transformed and healed in the midst of suffering. But the principle is there. Snakes happen. Crucifixion happens. Hidden within the worst of the worst is the healing, transformative power of God. May we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear and the heart to understand the truth revealed in these words : And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that whoever trusts in him may have eternal life.