Our questions about healing are complicated. How does it happen? Who is responsible for it? What does it really mean to be well? For as long as humans have gathered in communities, we’ve wondered: “Doctor, will I walk again? Will my baby die?” Or this: “Will I ever stop drinking or drugging? Will I ever not be afraid, or angry, or sad? Can my relationships be sound and loving again? Can I be less anxious? Where can I find purpose and meaning or hope?” The words “God save me” are an ancient plea for wellbeing.
We can’t dictate what happens to us in life; we can’t magically protect ourselves or those we love from harm. But if we can nourish our capacity to choose what is life-giving over what is death-dealing, and remember that we are created in the image of God, then we can practice how we interpret and respond to both opportunity and adversity. However tired or wounded we may be, we can be well. Wellbeing is a habit—of the heart, and mind, and body.
Jesus was once in Jerusalem, John tells us, and he happens by the pool of Bethesda. On occasion the waters there would begin to bubble and stir, troubled by an angel or some underground volcanic activity or both, not unlike what happens periodically at Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park… and legend had it that the first person in the pool after it had stirred to life would be healed. So structures were built around the spring over the centuries to shelter pilgrims, and generations of people gathered there, waiting for the water and some movement and some luck.
And there was a man there who had been out of luck for 38 years, waiting to be healed, unable to get himself to the pool fast enough to be first. And I don’t know whether to feel sorry for him or frustrated or both. 38 years… are you kidding me? “Get up and start walking,” demands my most adolescent voice, the part of me least comfortable with weakness in myself or anyone else.
But instead of judging him, Jesus asks the man a question. “Do you want to be made well?” “I see you,” says the living God, in other words. “I see you. Not what you can’t do. Not what you don’t have. Not how you haven’t measured up, but who you are and what you can be.”
“Do you want to be whole?” Jesus asks him, and the man first answers with his own childish plea. “I can’t win. I have no one to help me. Someone always beats me to the finish. I can’t do it,” he says, in a voice that every one of us can recognize as our own, at least at some point in our struggle.
When my daughter was two, she and I spent a lot of time on a playground near our house. We would swing and dig in the sandbox and chase each other on a little path. And at some point on every visit, she would begin to circle around the slide, and then scramble up the steps alone. “All by self, Daddy,” she would tell me, and I knew I was supposed to stay on the ground below. Step by step, singing the whole way up, she would get herself all the way to the top. Once there, she’d sit down, get settled, look around, and then yell out, “Too big!” For months. And I would say, “You can do it,” and she would respond, “Too big!” For months. And eventually I’d go up and give her a hand.
I get it. Sometimes we need a witness to hear us say that the mountain is too high, that the healing pool I really want to get to is just out of my reach, that nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. So maybe Jesus is honoring this man’s endurance and his ability to hang in there all those years. Average life expectancy for a male in the Roman empire was 35 years, so this individual has literally been sick for a lifetime, and some of what Jesus offers here is validation. He holds up a mirror to this man’s difficult experience—including his shame and exclusion from society—and Jesus says, “I see you and the fact that for 38 years you haven’t given up.”
But there’s got to be more, so Jesus goes on: “Now, do you want to be well? Because you can stand up and walk, if you want to. Get started. Critics might point out that the way you stand and walk is pitiful or comical, but your steps are your steps, and once you rise, no one can take that away from you. Your movement changes everything: for you, your family, even the community. If you want to be well, says the living God, then all the living water you need is welling up inside you.”
Do you see what is happening? Can you see yourself, the way this story of healing sees you and the man at the pool? We don’t have to be stuck or doomed to being always late to the party, and neither does Baltimore.
18 months ago, Caroline Stewart and I began to talk about the role a parish church in general and Redeemer in particular might play in the field of wellness. What are folks truly longing for? What is the role of Spirit in healing? What is the role of education, group work, silence… the arts, movement, faith… mutual respect, consistent nutrition, affordable housing? How can we de-stigmatize mental illness in individuals and address the trauma of poverty, of racism, of meanness or violence of any kind?
Early steps were to create a lay ministry of healing prayers, offered regularly at our weekly services. Then 166 people were trained in Mental Health First Aid. (We knew we were onto something…) And now we are creating The Center for Wellbeing.
The Center will offer educational programs, on a regular rotation of Sundays at Redeemer, as well as in the broader community. It will offer individual and group spiritual direction. (n.b. Group spiritual direction is a process in which a small group of people gather on a regular basis to assist one another in an ongoing awareness of God in their lives.) In time, it will offer ways to explore how music and movement and meditation sponsor health, consider the wellbeing of our environment, and provide articles and links to websites that bolster our wholeness.
Beginning a new chapter in her life, Caroline will be the executive director of The Center, no longer a member of the parish clergy, but in the community offering education, spiritual direction, and overall management of The Center.
Do you want to be well? The Spirit is moving in you, asking you to get up, leading you toward some healing for yourself and for the whole. And that will change everything.
I am very excited to announce the creation of The Center for Wellbeing at Redeemer. The mission of this new and innovative initiative is to provide:
- An interfaith, holistic approach to human wellness
- A resource of connection, direction, and education for individuals and the broader ecumenical community;
- A spiritual framework for healing body, mind, and soul.
Our vision is for every person to be given the hope to be made whole and well; for communities and relationships to be reconciled; for broken spirits, minds, and bodies to be mended.
Specifically, The Center for Wellbeing at Redeemer will offer educational programs and opportunities for the parish, including the Parish Day School, as well as the greater Baltimore community throughout the year. Examples of upcoming topics include:
- Group and individual Spiritual Direction
- Mental Health First Aid Training
- Movement and music and meditation
- Regular Book Selections and Discussions
- Mindful Eating
- Weekly links in e-Redeemer to articles and websites that promote health.
As you know, Caroline Stewart completed her time with us as a member of the clergy staff in January. Since then she has been on sabbatical. However, I have invited her to return to Redeemer in a brand new role as the Executive Director of the Center for Wellbeing. Her responsibilities will include coordinating the various opportunities and programs for the Center. Cristina, Freda Marie and I will be leading some of the offerings along with Caroline and outside speakers. While this initiative is in the early stages, I have asked Caroline to preach at all 3 services on September 21 and 22 to give a more comprehensive overview of what lies ahead for this very exciting new mission. She is anxious to have your input as well.
This is an energizing time in the life of this parish! We look forward to all that is ahead as we seek to bring a sense of wellbeing to one another and our city.
As I say “Hello again!” having been away on sabbatical for the last 3 months (and it feels soooo good to be back!!!), I find myself reflecting on significant “goodbyes” I’ve experienced this summer. How do you say goodbye to a person or a place that you have come to love deeply?
After several weeks of rest and “stay-cation” at home, in mid-July, I spent a week at PuraVida eco retreat and wellness center in Yelapa, Mexico (a boat ride from Puerto Vallarta) on a retreat for healers. The retreat was organized by a colleague of a dear friend, who invited me and participated herself, along with several of their other colleagues, all trained therapists in alternative healing modalities. Our week was spent eating locally grown and home-cooked vegetarian meals, practicing kundalini yoga and meditation in an outdoor yoga studio overlooking the ocean, experiencing several healing modalities and therapies including circular/conscious breathwork and family constellations for healing intergenerational trauma. Each afternoon I swam laps in the outdoor infinity pool filled with ocean water. Annie’s and my “palapa” (open-air thatched hut) also overlooked the ocean; each night we fell asleep to the lullaby of the waves meeting the shore. And by the end of the week, our group of 10 women had become sisters, having shared and bared the intimate landscape of our souls to one another in the sacred space we had built together. A hard place to say goodbye to.
In August, David, Grace, Ben and I spent 12 days in Southport, ME, where I was invited to preach for two consecutive Sundays at a summer chapel called All-Saints-by-the-Sea. We lived in a sweet cottage that had originally been the workshop of a jack-of-all-trades in town, who was both a lobsterman and upholsterer. Again I found myself surrounded by water and sunlight (most days!), with day outings to the beach or visiting friends and family, and evenings spent playing Scrabble with the kids or getting ice cream in town. Another hard place to say goodbye to!
Then a few days after returning from Southport, we drove Grace to College Park and moved her and her new rug from Target into her freshman dorm at the University of Maryland. I spent that evening at an AirBnB close by, finishing putting together an album of photographs that I gave her the following morning before driving away. Such a bittersweet mix of emotions, endings and beginnings, memories and future dreams, tears, hugs and smiles, and simply being present amidst it all.
A song is playing in my head from decades ago by The Byrds that put music to ancient wisdom from the Book of Ecclesiastes:
“To everything, turn, turn, turn
There is a season, turn, turn, turn
And a time to every purpose under Heaven”
Each of us knows what it is, to say “hello” and “goodbye.” As I turn away from summer and look towards the fall, it has been helpful for me to remember that “goodbye” comes from and means “God Be With You.” God be with all of us, indeed, as we together turn away from one season, having been enriched by it, to a new one, full of hope, new life, and new possibilities. Amen.
“The biggest LIE that has ever been told is that somehow and in someway we are separated from God!”
I recently listened to an Oprah’s SuperSoul Sunday podcast featuring Sister Joan Chittister and the conversation gave me serious food for thought about this one, precious life we all get to live. In her latest book, THE TIME IS NOW, Sr. Joan laments the passing of our national moral compass—our loss of civility, inability to discuss rather than debate, and general inability to be-for-an-other (i.e. the “common good”) Basically, she lamented the loss of LOVE in America, because that’s what LOVE is—being-for-an-other to be in solidarity with the other. But, did LOVE ever really exist in America…or for that matter in any system of the world?
“What you have done for the least of my brothers and sisters you have done for me,” Jesus said.
This passage from the Gospel of Matthew marks clearly the how and in what way, the love of God and neighbor is made manifest. Yet it seems to me that our moral compass, as a society, has always been in flux. For example, there was a time early on when the Declaration of Independence was penned and signed by men who enslaved other men while declaring their own right to be free from the sovereignty of the British Crown. This did not seem immoral or dissonant to them in any way. And, there was also a time when American citizens who happened to be of Japanese descent were legally sent to internment camps. In short, we have never been free from a lack of love, not in America and not in the entire global world in which we live. This is no fault of America or of any other nation. It simply IS.
Our current plight is the perpetuation, on what may be a larger and more dangerous scale, of what has always been: people who live their lives in a self-centered versus other-centered universe. This is the way “natural human nature” operates. In fact, we can’t help but make it all about us, can we? And when our “us” bumps up again “the other” all bets are off. Right?
Ahh, but redeemed and restored human nature is a different story. The story of the Good News of God in Jesus the Christ forms the basis for transformation no longer isolated from GOD, but in fact, ONE with GOD. This is the human journey. It is the story of true reconciliation and union with the Divine to become divinized humanity. Such a human being is living LOVE as LOVE. LOVE is our true north. The entire conversation of the lack of a moral compass then becomes moot.
In her book, Sr. Joan sets a prescription for how we can begin to resolve the quagmire of our life together as a society. To me, though, the first and foremost prescription is that we know ourselves and know that we do not have the power to fix ourselves. Nevertheless, that power is freely available to us– within us—if we can receive it. It is the power of LOVE; of death and resurrection; of old life and new; of what has been and what can be. Being transformed is both a process and a journey. We are in Christ and this phase of human transformation we are all undergoing will hurt and be uncomfortable at times. But, we are the Beloved so just trust the process. Just trust GOD.
Last evening we took a walk with the dogs to Patterson Park, and stumbled upon a re-scheduled concert that had been rained out earlier in the summer. A five-piece swing band backed up a singer who crooned naughty lyrics from the 1940’s like “You call everyone darling” and “You can have my husband but you better stay away from my man,” while couples twirled and toddlers bounced to the beat. The crowd was large and diverse and interested in making connections—dance partners changed with every song, children asked if our dogs liked sticks and then brought some to offer them, neighbors we know stopped by to say “Hello,” and strangers introduced themselves. It felt impromptu and intentional at the same time.
I’ve lived in a number of cities and small towns, but I’ve never known a place like Baltimore. A free concert in a public setting here feels more like a gift than it does in other places, like a package offered at a surprise party that it would be rude not to open and engage with on the spot. We had dinner to cook and some phone calls to attend to as we encountered yesterday’s music, but given all the ways that our city is wounded and struggling, we knew we had to stop and sway and say “Thank you.”
That morning my wife and I had run into a young mom who we know a little bit, who worried aloud about something going on with her son. Sarah offered a similar way that we had stumbled as young parents, and the woman immediately smiled and relaxed. “I hadn’t wanted to come home to Baltimore after a couple of weeks away,” the woman admitted, “but I think it’s going to be O.K.” It’s not always easy to live here, we admitted, but it is consistently meaningful. We need each other.
Zeke Cohen, the City Council representative for my district, wrote an op-ed in July about Baltimore becoming a trauma-responsive city. He said, “There is a cruelly predictable rhythm to Baltimore’s violence. After a shooting, local media show up on the scene for a few hours. Elected officials and police promise to redouble efforts and catch the bad guys. The school system sends in a couple of counselors. Eventually, public attention wanes a gunfire erupts somewhere else (and) communities are left to grieve alone.” Middle class families and neighborhoods have the resources to process the trauma, while poor people are often left to muscle through, and the impact of violence can have devastating effects, especially for children. Left unaddressed, traumatic events can “lead to increased risk of addiction, incarceration, and other risky behaviors,” Cohen writes. To respond, Cohen has written legislation that, if passed, would equip city agencies to rewrite policies with an eye toward reducing harm, fund the health department to train frontline staff, and convene a diverse community workgroup to promote healing.
What can you do to help our neighbors and our families and ourselves to be well? Build relationships. Listen. Offer our stories. Tell the truth. Discover resources. Share what we have. Foster resilience. Make amends. Respect our differences. Love each other. Stop and hear the music. Ask someone to dance.
There is a role for each of us to play in Baltimore’s well-being, as individuals and as a community of faith.