In Sickness and in Health (WWHS)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the Day Centre act of worship at Kaniva Hospital (West Wimmera Health Service) for Tuesday 2nd July 2019.  I had been ill all of the previous week with Manflu.

Psalm 13; Luke 9:11; Psalm 27:14

 Illness is one of those things that strikes each of us at times, and because of this it is a common theme in Biblical writing.  I was at a youth conference twenty years ago, (indeed it’s thirty years ago since I was a youth, but that’s beside the point) and one of the speakers there was asked what her favourite Bible story was.  She said she didn’t have one favourite above all others, but she’d have to say her favourite stories, plural, were any place where Jesus does healing.

I have lived with illness in some form or another for all of my adult life.  At age eighteen I contracted what was then called Chronic Fatigue Immunodeficiency Syndrome, and it has gone by other names since.  I had a rough year completing my HSC, and dropped out of Uni after one semester to take half a year off before returning to try again.  At some point that CFIDS became a series of mental health conditions and I have lived with Anxiety and Depression, but not fatigue, since my early thirties.  I’m now forty-seven if anyone is keeping count.  So I like those stories where Jesus does healing too, and I like even more so that Jesus defines the big-picture work of ministry as having healing at its core.

In Luke 4:18-19 in Jesus first recorded episode of him teaching he reads from the prophet in the local synagogue meeting.  In paraphrase we can say that Jesus says of himself “I have come to bring healing and to heal”.  Later, in Luke 9:11, in a verse that can be overlooked as we rush into the bigger story of the Feeding of 5000 we read that Jesus welcomed the crowd, and spoke to them about the Kingdom of God, and healed those who needed healing.  I like that neat phrase, “healed those who needed healing”; there’s nothing worthy or deserving about them, just that they needed healing for whatever ailed them, and Jesus healed them.  And there’s the work of ministry again; teaching the Kingdom and aiding the weak.

Jesus did four things in his ministry as an itinerant rabbi: he healed the sick, he raised the dead, he cast out demons (which is to say he freed the oppressed), and he proclaimed the coming of the Kingdom of Heaven, the time when the Father would come to Earth to reign as king in the New Jerusalem.  This is what the Church is supposed to do now, and to be honest and fair this is what the Church is doing.  It’s easy to be hard on the Church and disappointed in our local congregations and ministries, and perhaps more so in our structures and hierarchy, but across the majority of the planet in the majority of the faith communities Jesus’ work is being gone about quietly and in Holy Spirit’s power.

So, in the past few weeks I’ve been especially sick.  Not mortally wounded, but in addition to my ongoing struggles with Anxiety and Sleep Apnoea I’ve had a cold.  I would love it if Jesus would walk up Commercial Street East so that I could rush out and touch the hem of his cloak, or that he would turn up at Shared Ministry on Sunday and heal those who need healing, but that’s not the reality of Australia in 2019.  So I have had to rely on my own immune system, (remembering that my body and its systems were ravaged by an Immunodeficiency Syndrome for thirteen years), my own common sense, (remembering that my mind and its systems have been ravaged by a mental illness for the past sixteen years), and the best efforts of the local health care practitioners.  I’m not sleeping well, I’m coughing like an Australian (everything is coming out green and gold), my head aches, my ears buzz, and I need it all to stop.  But in all of this I know that God is good, that Jesus is Lord, and that I am a long way from death’s door.

Not so much a Bible story, but a Bible verse which leads into my own story, (but a story for another time perhaps) is Psalm 27:13-14.  This passage was my anchor in my dark and mad days of a decade ago: I am confident of this; I will see the goodness of The LORD while I am alive; be strong, take heart, and wait for The LORD.  My hope in all things, be it the depth of suicidal madness, or the triviality of a snotty nose, or even the best of physical health available to this ravaged jar of clay, is that God has promised an end to suffering: and that end is not a quick death and then a harp on a cloud, but it is the restoration of the complete and sovereign rule of The LORD Almighty upon the renewed Earth for all of the ages to come.  That’s a happy ending, and that’s worth waiting out a cold for.

Amen.

Adventures in Loss (Blue Christmas)

Haggai 2:1-9; Psalm 27:13-14; John 1:5

A little over one hundred years ago, on the morning of Monday 4th November 1918 2nd Lieutenant Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, MC, 5th Battalion Manchester Regiment, was shot and killed whilst attempting to cross the Sambre-Oise canal near the village of Ors in France.  The news of his death reached his mother at Birkenhead exactly one week later; on Monday 11th November when churches’ bells were ringing out the Armistice.  A day of international celebration was for Susan Owen a day of personal pain.  Sometimes Christmas can feel like that for those of us who have experienced profound and devastating loss: so many lights, so much laughter and song, so many tinselated shops and family-friendly propaganda it can feel very alienating for the ones like us who are crying and trying to hide it from shame or good citizenship.  Peace and goodwill to all men can be hard to muster when you are breaking inside and no one wants to know.

Life can be hard at times, and the message of God can seem puzzling.  When Jesus told the crowds in the days before his death that the great temple would be torn down and not one stone would remain upon another they thought he had lost the plot.  Yet in the smugness of hindsight we know that Herod’s temple was razed to the ground less than a generation later, and fifty generations after that it still hasn’t been restored.  I’m sure Susan Owen felt the same way, no matter how well meaning the praises of King and Country for “the glorious fallen” nothing could rebuild what was torn down when her Wilfred was dropped by a German’s bullet.  Jesus said you will hear of wars, yet do not be terrified for they must happen, but the end will not follow immediately.  Perhaps not,but for Mrs Owen, even for a short time, the end of the war was the end of the world.  It was the end of her world anyway.

So what hope do we have today?  Where can we look when the bells are ringing out on Christmas Day and we just want to cry for what has been lost.  The assurance of Jesus’ teaching is that God is with us; indeed the assurance of Jesus’ life is that God is with us.  Stuff happens, pretty nasty stuff, but God has it all in hand and when the end comes God will be there to bring it and God will remain with us while we work the end through.  Charlie Brown once said that “the answers to the book of life are not written in the back”, but for Christians they are.  I invite you to read Revelation 22 some time, on the last page of the Bible the Christians win! God is with us, and we do not labour in vain.  Perhaps the death of 2nd Lt Owen was in vain, the war had only a week to go after all, but the life of young Wilfred was not in vain.  The gospel reminds us in John 1:5 that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.  Perhaps the light has yet to overcome the darkness for you at this point, and there is much more dark than light.  Or perhaps the candle is somewhat bright, but the room is still so very cold in this bleak midwinter of the soul,a further-reaching blackness than one dark night.  The LORD speaking through the Hebrew tradition of Haggai 2 reminds us to not fear because my Spirit abides with you….Once again I will fill this house with splendour, and the latter splendour of this house will be greater than the former...in this place I will give prosperity.   

December 21st is the shortest day of the year in Birkenhead, Northern France, Persia and Jerusalem, so it’s a good time to pause and reflect away from the flashing lights and the ringing tills.  God’s word to all who mourn is to take courage and be assured; but there is no call to rush in the Christmas rush.  The promise of God is assured, but the character of God is patience and love. Wait for God and you will see the restoration of good things while you are still alive (Psalm 27:14).

Amen.

In the Shadows

This is the text of my minister’s message for the June 2017 newssheet at Lakes Parish Uniting Church.

Several weeks ago, I became part of a conversation on the topic of “getting over” trauma.  The man with whom I was speaking has had a rough life, rougher at some points in his life than others, and he has a few memories that he is struggling to move past.  My life’s story is similar, not that I have experienced what this man has experienced, but that I have memories which needed healing, and troubling relationships with organisations and people in my past which proved difficult to move beyond.

In Psalm 23:4 David writes of the truest source of security in his life, a steadfast knowledge which gives him the confidence to walk through the darkest valley without fear of evil: the confidence that the LORD is with him and that the LORD carries all that is needed to keep David safe.  In Psalm 27:13-14 David declares his steadfast belief that he will see the LORD’s goodness while he lives, if only he takes heart in the wisdom that the LORD will come through for him.  David is not expecting vindication of his faith after his death, as if Heaven is the answer and reward to all of life’s problems.  That might be true, but for David the sure promise of God is that David will not die until David has seen God act for David’s benefit and God’s own Glory.

Experience has taught me, and then my studies in theology have supported this understanding, that God does not expect or require us to “get over” anything.  If the life and songs of David tells us anything it is that God takes the faithful woman or man “through”, not “over”.  We are to walk through the valleys of shadows, we are to continue through life with patient confidence, and we are to do so in the company of the shepherd who walks beside us or sometimes a step ahead of us with his crook and staff.

I have a book mark which reads “Patience is not to sit with folded hands but to learn to do as we are told.” There was a time in my life when what I was told was to sit and wait for God, and I obeyed and sat.  But much of the time the call to trust and obey requires that we continue moving forward, even when it is dark and even when the shadows creep towards us.  His presence, assured to us in scripture, is Christ’s blessing upon all Christians in the world.