Sunday, February 12, 2012

Magical Thinking
February 12, 2012
6th Sunday after Epiphany, Year B

Sometimes I think my job on Sunday morning is just to repeat what Garrison Keillor said on the radio the night before. Which is okay with me - why try to improve on perfection?

Last night Garrison told the story of the man who, in his early 40’s went to his doctor and the doctor told him he was very sorry to have to say this but he only had a year to live. So the man quit his job to pursue his life-long dream, which was to become a guide in the wilderness. And so he moved up to the Boundary Waters wilderness and bought this little cabin in the woods, and taught himself everything he always wanted to learn about hunting and fishing and surviving. This was something he had always wanted to do and now he was doing it and he couldn’t have been happier.

And he lived for 40 more years.

In fact he outlived the doctor who diagnosed him. He actually went to the funeral of his old doctor; where he met the doctor’s wife; and so he introduced himself as one of her husband’s former patients, and the wife said, “I’m so sorry; he really wasn’t a very good doctor.” But the man said, “No, no, that’s not true: he was the best doctor in the world, for me.”

Sometimes I wish there were more stories like that in the Bible, don’t you?

I was thinking about this all week while I was reading this Gospel story about healing. It’s one of those stories we’re heard so often: Jesus meets a leper; the leper asks to be healed; Jesus says, “Make it so,” like Jean-Luc Picard of the Starship Enterprise, the healing happens, end of story.

And it’s a lovely story – but I have to confess – and I say this with great respect - there are days when I wonder if stories like this don’t do as much harm as good.
I mean, don’t get me wrong: I believe Jesus was a healer; and my God is a God who heals in all kinds of ways. But It’s just for most of us, our healing doesn’t very often happen the way it happens in the Bible.

I mean, just once I would like to find a story in the Bible that describes healing the way I encounter it in my world. In my world, someone gets sick; if they’re lucky, they have a loved-one who is able to care for them – in which case, the care-giver often times gives up whatever life they had going on in order to take care of their loved one. That’s all good; it’s a beautiful thing to see, even if these days it’s looking more and more to look like people in their 60’s and 70’s and 80’s starting a new career as skilled nurses.

And let’s say this person who gets sick has been a faithful Christian all her life – she’s gone to church and read her Bible and done her prayers. And she’s heard these stories about Jesus coming along and healing people with a wave of his hand, and so of course now she starts praying for healing, and her care-giver is praying for healing, and everyone at church is praying for healing, but there is no instant miracle to be found, and meanwhile the couple spends out their life savings on medical treatments that only prolong the agony; and they travel hither and yon looking for miracle cures; and still the miracle doesn’t come, and after many agonizing months and years, death comes, as it does to all of us.

And then eventually, the question is put to me: where was God? Where was the miracle? We were praying without ceasing; we were praying with all our hearts; we were begging Jesus by name. Why didn’t he come? Why did he abandon us?

Sometimes, I think if it were up to me I would be like Thomas Jefferson and create my own very own Bible, made up only of the parts that I liked. And maybe some parts that I'd add.

Just once I’d like to read a story in the Bible about how someone got sick, and Jesus came along, and held her hand, and spoke wise and loving and comforting words to her, and helped her let go of her bitterness and find her gratitude; and gathered her children around her to say goodbye, and then blessed her, and kissed her on her cold forehead, and stayed with her while she died.

Because that’s actually what happens – at least in my world. I think it would be helpful to have a story like that in the Bible.

Again, listen, don’t get me wrong, sometimes there are miracles. Some of us have witnessed them with our own eyes. I myself have witnessed one or two. But what is so confusing is how in the Bible, every time Jesus shows up, a miracle happens – when, in reality, healings like that are so very much the exception to the rule.

Even now, I’m sure there are people right here in this room who are resisting my words with all their heart, because when any of us are up against the wall, when death is breathing down our necks, we need to believe in that miracle.

And when the miracle doesn’t happen, of course what I hear about is how God abandoned them.

When my brother got brain cancer, some of us were so determined to believe in a miracle that we weren’t able to talk directly about the fact that he was dying. To talk about him dying was to give up; to show a lack of faith; possibly even to contribute to his decline. No! We had to buck up, believe in God and expect miracles.

This is what they call “magical thinking.”

Where do we find God in all this? Where is Jesus when we need him most?

Well, all I can talk about is what I’ve seen with my own eyes. When my brother was dying, I found Jesus in the love that poured out from us to him and him to us. I found Jesus when I held my sister’s hand and we prayed together – something we had never done before. I found Jesus in the pastor, who came by faithfully, and stayed in touch, and helped us to pray. I found Jesus in my brother’s eyes, as he told me he loved me and that I was the best little brother a guy could ever have.

I found Jesus on the last day I saw my brother alive. There were about a dozen of us packed into the hospital room; and the pastor came by to celebrate communion, and in the Eucharistic Prayer we all traveled back in time to the night before he died for us, when Jesus looked death in the face, and did not run away, and did not resort to violence, and did not escape into magical thinking, but instead pronounced blessing, and forgiveness, and absolute, unconditional, undying love for us.

As we ate that bread and received that wine, Jesus was as present to us as you are to me now. I found the presence of Jesus as we became more and more fully present to one another.

I was going to say, I wish there were more stories like that in the Bible – but then I realized there are. I just told one – about the night before he died for us.

At our Vestry retreat yesterday, we pulled out that old reading from Ecclesiastes, about how “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” I asked the Vestry what “season” they thought we were in as a congregation. And I was not surprised that several of us said it’s a “time to mourn, and a time to dance.”

I agreed with this. This is going to be a difficult year for many of us. There are several folks in our congregation right now who are staring death directly in the face. My prayer is that we will all be there for our beloved brothers and sisters, according to their wishes; and that when the time comes for us to let go of our hope in miracles, we will do so with serenity and gratitude for the incredible miracle of life itself. My prayer is that we never stop praising God for the many ways in which God’s love comes alive for us, as we are present to one another and to the truth of our lives in this all-too real world, where blessing and joy are so deeply mixed with suffering and pain.

God’s love is so much bigger than us; God’s love is infinitely greater than anything we can control or command. God’s love expands to the very edge of the universe and beyond; infinitely bigger than what we want, infinitely more than what we deserve. One day we will all be absorbed into that vast field of light; and when that time comes for us, I pray that we will all face it, not with bitterness over what we have lost, but with gratitude over what we have gained – which is everything.
We’re going to go through this year together. We’re going to pray together, and break bread together, and find Jesus together. Because we are the Body of Christ – and this is where we find him, here, in this real world.

Jesus shows up for us when we show up for God and for one another. That won’t necessarily heal us of cancer –though it might - but it will heal us of our deeper disease, which is our alienation from one another, and from the source of all life. For that, I give thanks and praise..



Anonymous said...


I think I also heard the same story (about the man outliving his doctor) told by Garrision Keillor on the same day you heard. I think. I'm trying to find that story in written form, or audio form, but couldn't seem to able to. I wonder if you still remember the title of that story.

K. Bui

K. Bui said...

Marilyn Tolenroug started to tell a story of her grandfather, who, on a cold winter day went to a doctor and got a bad news that he had an inoperable brain tumorand he had a year to live, which you would expect to be a terrible blow but actually it was kind of liberating to you because you see he'd been a terrible hypochondria and he worried everyday about something being wrong and he expected to die next week or the week after this, and now he had a whole year, a whole year stretched out in front of him and it just made him happy; it's like that cold day of winter, it was a stimulant, you see. what do you have to lose now, you have a year in which to live, so your finances don't matter, and what people think doesn't matter anymore so why not just do as your heart leads you to do. what do you have to lose, you are naked in the world, so, he quits the post office and he went to become a wilderness guy up in the north woods of minnesota which he had always wanted to do. he'd always read national geographic and he just loved those pictures he didn't know much about the woods or canoeing or anything but you know the way to learn something is to teach it, yes, so he learned about trees and about birds and the weather and so forth so he could teach people who were paying him to take them out in the north woods, and finally fall came along and his death was not far ahead. He'd seen this beautiful log cabin that was for sale, there was this little for sale sign on the front door because the people who owned it did not want to sell it. it had been built by their grandfather who had come over from sweden in 1917, and it was built in a swedish style it had squared off the lodge not just lay them on each other round but they squared them off only swedes do that for reasons they alone would know and he'd come over to escape from the war, the violence, the politics of Europe. He came to this country in 1917 and they wanted him to put on a uniform and go back to Europe and fight in the war and he did not want to do that so he went off to the north woods and he built himself a cabin and he lived out there in the woods, free from politics and mobs of people shouting slogans and angry men making speeches on the radio. he lived there. so the man with a year to live looked at this cabin and he thought of living there. but why would you buy a house when you had no time to live in it. still he was in love with this house. and so he bought it. and he moved into it. that winter, bitterly cold winter, he lived for 40 more years. he outlived the doctor who had told him he had a year to live. he was 42 and he lived into his mid 80s and went to the doctor's memorial service down in saint paul. the doctor died at the age of 47. friends of the doctor stood up and talked about how hard he'd worked. he worked terribly terribly hard. the man who had outlived his prognosis went to the doctor's widow and said i was a patient of your late husband i'm sorry that he di- "oh" she said, "he really wasn't a very good doctor." NO for me he WAS. For ME he was the best. the world is available to you, it is out there waiting for you. privilege, power means so little. go out and enjoy your life. do what your heart tells you. that was the lesson of the COLD winter day.