May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
As part of my ordination process, we were required to complete one unit of a chaplaincy placement, called Clinical Pastoral Education. I did my placement at Scarborough General in Toronto, a hospital with a diverse staff and patient population. My CPE group was no exception.
There was a female black Kenyan Presbyerian minister, a male South Indian Franciscan Catholic priest, a male white Canadian candidate for ordination in the United Church, a female white Canadian Plymouth brethren Sunday school teacher, and me. Over that time, there was a lot of cultural and social translation that took place!
CPE involves an initially awkward, but ultimately powerful practice, known as IPR - interpersonal relation group. It was 75 minutes of the day with no agenda; members of the group were invited to share what was on their hearts or minds. It might have been an interaction with a patient or hospital staff member that stirred something up, or an interaction with another group member (that is where things could get really hairy!). One afternoon, our supervisor opened up our IPR session asking if anyone had anything they wanted to share with the group. Abraham volunteered; he wanted to talk about an incident that had taken place the previous morning.
Here’s what happened. The morning before, on my way into our classroom, I passed by my supervisor’s office. My supervisor gave me a bag of granola bars to share with my classmates, while he gathered his stuff to start our day. I sauntered into our classroom. Abraham and a couple of my other colleagues were already sitting at their chairs. I playfully said: “Heads up!” and threw a granola bar to Abraham and my other colleagues. I thought nothing of it.
Shaking with emotion, Abraham said that he was deeply offended by my behaviour, a sign of grave disrespect. He said that for him, the classroom was a sacred place, a place of learning, and that food too is something to be treated with respect. So when I threw the granola bars to my colleagues, I was acting disrespectfully towards the space and towards the food. I felt my heart stop in my throat. I was completely taken aback. It had never occurred to me that the space could be seen in that way.
Our CPE supervisor was skilled and guided us through the conversation, which ultimately deepened my relationship with Abraham. It helped us acknowledge the mystery of our inner lives, helped us check our assumptions about each other, and helped us build new appreciation and respect for each other.
Each week we had to submit a self-evaluation on a variety of dimensions, one of which was cultural competence. That week I rated myself a 2 out of 5. In our weekly personal supervision meeting, my supervisor asked me why I had rated myself so poorly. I shared my disappointment in myself at having caused Abraham to feel so upset. My supervisor told me that there is no way I could have known what the space represented to Abraham. He said that the skill is in being open to conversation, able to share my experience and curiosity to learn about someone else's experience. Throughout our program, he frequently reminded us that listening is only listening when we’re actually open to changing our minds.
While Christian tradition and our sacred texts often seem to pit Jesus against the Pharisees, they actually had a lot in common. One commonality was their oppression under Roman rule. In Jesus’ time there were a variety of Judaisms each with their own beliefs on how to bring about liberation. There were zealots who believed that violent rebellion was the way to achieve freedom. There were Saduccees, the wealthy elite, who generally had good relations with the Roman rulers of Palestine and believed that cooperation made the best out of a bad situation. There were Essenes, some of whom removed themselves from the wider society and lived in isolated communities in the desert praying, studying scriptures and waiting for the messiah. There were Pharisees who shared with Jesus the belief in resurrection; they resisted assimilation to the ruling powers; ignored the Romans as much as they could and focused on adhering closely to the laws of God which would lead to God’s favour and liberation.
As we continue to emerge from a prolonged period of collective crisis and living in survival mode, there’s a heightened sense of brittleness. It seems like it doesn’t take much to trigger anxiety, anger, criticism or defensiveness. We are reminded of that everytime we see a sign on a bus that tells passengers that abuse of the drivers will not be tolerated, or at the airport, or even on calls with government staff.
It seems that for many of us, our emotional capacity is more stretched, our grace and patience with each other a bit harder to access.
I wonder if living under the constant threat of violence might have been part of the Pharisees’ reaction to Jesus healing the woman on the Sabbath. The spiritual atmosphere of the air they were breathing was saturated with the stress of living under Roman rule and the fractures within Jewish society. It made people within the community wary of each other and had them feeling on edge. Layer on Jesus’ actions that violated the narrow path the Pharisees were striving to follow for salvation. So much so that it was hard for them to be curious or even appreciative of the healing miracle that the woman experienced.
I wonder what could have happened in this story if the Pharisees had reacted differently than they did. I wonder what could have happened if they had seen Jesus as an integral and valued member of their community, rather than a threat. I wonder what could have unfolded if they had seen him as working towards the same goal, being part of the same team, all seeking to live by God’s laws, in the hopes of liberation.
Jesus’ words to the woman he heals are: “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” For 18 years, a spirit had bound her, bending her over unable to stand up straight. In addition to being painful and uncomfortable, this posture potentially also created emotional, relational and spiritual pain. And now, Jesus was setting her free, free from gazing at the dust, free from the poking and prodding of healers, free from the weight of shame, struggle and pain. And through his healing, he also offered the Pharisees another lens through which to look at the Sabbath commandment. Perhaps rest looks like the ability to look at the sky, perhaps the unbounded praise and unabashed delight of a person whose life has been transformed by God has an important place on the sabbath too (kerriclark.blogspot.com).
Unlike most other healing stories, the woman doesn’t ask Jesus for healing. Maybe the ways in which God works our healing and liberation don’t look the way we expect either. Maybe our healing and liberation takes place at times that we don’t expect or haven’t planned for.
Martin Buber, Jewish mystic and philosopher, described God’s kingdom like this: “This is the kingdom of God, the kingdom of danger and of risk, of eternal beginning and eternal becoming, of opened spirit and of deep realization, the kingdom of holy insecurity.” (Read in Barbara Brown Taylor's Holy Envy).
Here is my prayer for us today: in this kingdom of holy insecurity, may God bless us with trust in God’s eternal and unchanging nature of healing and love, and in God’s promise of freedom and salvation. Amen.