Thirty-one years ago, while watching a news program, I was shocked and saddened to learn of a car accident on a Connecticut Interstate. The tragedy resulted in the death of a colleague and his two-year-old child; his pregnant wife Paula survived and six months later gave birth to a healthy baby. Along with a new mother’s joy and love, Paula grieved profoundly. I can only imagine her painful time of loss, emptiness, disillusionment, rage, loneliness, hopelessness, bitterness, helplessness, and confusion as she journeyed on her unchosen, dark road.
I am sure that many of us gathered here this evening at one time or another experienced acute loss and grief caused by circumstances beyond our control. Possibly someone dear to you has died and left a gnawing void in your life; perhaps you have been betrayed by someone trusted and loved; maybe an irresponsible daughter, son or parent has manipulated or rejected your affection; possibly you have been unjustly fired from a job or forced into an unwanted retirement; perhaps you have received alarming medical information; maybe you have been subjected to continuous oppression or ridicule for being gay or whatever. Frightening intrusions and losses visit and wound many of us! We respond frequently, as did Paula, with mixed and awful emotions that paralyze our lives.
During an early 1990s conversation with Paula (video recorded for a biomedical ethics course I was teaching), I asked whether she recalled a time when her life again seemed to have possibilities other than an overwhelming sense of embittered gloom. Listen to her own words from that interview:
“It was kind of a small moment. I had moved back with my parents (because they told me to), and in the initial stages it didn’t occur to me to refute that or to make a different decision; whatever anyone told me to do, I did. I came back to Connecticut for a visit and went to my gynecologist; he checked me because I was still in the middle of a pregnancy. He said to me, when I requested that he take all my files and send them to my doctor in Massachusetts, ‘Why don’t I just send copies and then if you choose to come back, I’11 have your records still here.’ It was that one small comment that I turned over in my mind all that evening; he just had given me the suggestion ‘IF I CHOOSE,’ and that’s when it occurred to me that it would be up to me. Then I started to read stories and to really get into the lives of people who had overcome any kind of tragedy (it didn’t have to be a death), and I saw a common theme in them: it was never that they had overcome the circumstances per se; it was themselves that they had had the victory over. They had believed that they could rise above it, and it was a will to do it that was the common victory, and I started to really feed on that… One comment I read was that ‘life breaks everybody at some point, but that some can become strong at the broken places.’ That one insight led me to really look at a lot of lives, not only lives that had an obvious tragedy, and to realize that life does break everybody at some point . …. Still and all, like others, I’d made the decision to heal – which I feel is always a choice; it doesn’t happen to people; youdecide to heal ….”
Reports on various healings of the spirit and cures of the body are found in both the Bible and elsewhere. Paula’s healing is about a mending of the spirit; in tonight’s reading from Mark’s Gospel we hear a physical transformation. We need not become bogged down in a discussion of whether this biblical story actually happened or is purely figurative. Our focus with both Paula and Mark is precisely this: what do such accounts mean for us? What does the Creator say to us through such testimonials?
As to their significance for us, consider how many ills of our world are brought about by the willing deafness of those who will not hear new information, cries of injustice – indeed, the Word of God itself. Those who cannot, or will not, hear God’s Word cling at best to half truths and ignorant notions; they deafen themselves to unfairness suffered by others; they tune out others; they fashion a spirituality that may have the forms of Christianity, but little of its substance. Furthermore, in the Gospel story the man was also cured of not being able to speak; spiritual speech barriers call for the afflicted to be silent, not to allow God’s Word to flow through them unambiguously. Often selfishly preoccupied, they choose to be voiceless – silenced by cowardice, caution, and prejudice. Healed, the man’s heart was softened, his mind was opened, and his tongue released to speak plainly. Is this not what God wants of you and of me – for us to be free and open to hear, speak, and be doers of the Word?
Back to Paula: her chosen road to healing began in the small moment of a physician’s suggestion. She could have decided to focus on her pain and remain entombed indefinitely. Instead, she chose to respond to a “small moment” provided by a graceful healer and then walk the difficult path from the darkness of a tomb toward the light of Resurrection.
You and I will have our sorrows, afflictions, anguishes, heartaches, and tragedies. At such times we might seem to travel roads of sadness, apparently going nowhere; life will appear dark and imprisoning, and our vision will be clouded. However, we may be encouraged by Paula and biblical wisdom that there will be perceptible, small moments providing us with graceful opportunities to choose, not merely to endure, but to move toward healing. We may be moved toward choosing a passage toward Light by advice from a doctor, a meal with a beloved friend, something read, a chance conversation, words heard anew from a caring voice, or indeed, by God’s gently nudging Spirit.
Moreover, we might find ourselves, similar to Paula’s doctor, unintentionally ministering to someone with our own supportive insights. Or, not unlike Jesus in the Gospel reading, by our affection we might become a transforming agent of someone who has neither heard sufficiently nor confirmed straightforwardly the Good News of Christ.
At this very hour in this church all is not well with everyone present. Some of us carry varying degrees of grief in response to unwelcome circumstances beyond our control. Some of us may find it difficult to be open in heart and mind. Some of us may be reluctant to be doers, to speak up when we encounter true wrongdoing. However, this Eucharistic Breaking of the Bread can be one of those perceptible, small moments wherein we discover strength and vision to choose not merely to survive the day, but to heal – however slowly, however scarred we might remain. Additionally, our very individual presence, perhaps in a word or a smile, with a hand or a hug, even our sharing of bread and wine in the name of Christ, might be an occasion of ministry, such that some may choose to begin, or continue the journey toward, their own resurrected spirit, more hopeful, with a clearer vision of what might yet be, and just a bit stronger at their broken places.
Copyright 2008, Richard T. Nolan. Used by permission.