What is healing? How does it happen? Where does it come from? One of the things I love about this congregation is that if I got you all in a circle and asked you this question – what is healing? – you would tell me. You would tell me stories – sacred stories – about ways and times in your life you experience healing. I think healing is a mysterious, subterranean process. Like forgiveness, it’s a gift from God, something that comes in its own time, in its own way, and we’re not in control of how or when it happens.
There’s a lovely prayer in a Frederich Buechner novel about the healing of forgiveness. “The almighty and merciful God pardon and deliver you, forgive you every face you cannot look upon with joy.” Every face we cannot look upon with joy. It’s true! One day we wake up and realize we can, again, look upon someone’s face with joy. Someone who wounded us; but it doesn’t hurt anymore. Maybe it’s our own face, our own self we finally forgive.
On this Refreshment Sunday, the promise of joy; a taste of Easter in the midst of Lent. We are on a quest for signs of transformation, this season. God’s healing is happening – all the time – just below the surface of our awareness, and suddenly we realize that a recent bruise or an ancient break may still be there, but it isn’t as tender. The scars don’t always go away, but they serve as reminders to us that life can burn us and bite us but healing IS possible. Wholeness happens.
What is healing? My years in Hospice taught me that healing can happen even when the body can’t be repaired. Healing of relationships, of the mind, of the spirit. Healing is when we realize that our brokenness is teaching us something, giving us something we wouldn’t have had otherwise. This takes time, of course; it’s not something we can see in the midst of a trauma or tragedy. But in God’s time, we can say, with the poet Rumi: “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” In God’s time, we can sing along with cool old Leonard Cohen, in his song “Anthem:” “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
There is the ancient Japanese art of mending broken pottery. It’s called Kintsugi. To repair with gold. The artist repairs broken pottery with gold laquer, understanding that the piece is now more beautiful for having been broken. The brokenness becomes part of the bowl’s history, not something to hide or disguise. There is an image in your bulletin, for you to take home, and remember. You are this piece of art. The cracks are where you have been broken. The gold is God, God’s healing. You are more beautiful now, and you are whole, once again, ready to be filled, with joy.
Psychologist Carl Jung, who studied archetypes in human narratives, coined the term “wounded healer.” And Christian writer Henri Nouwen wrote a spiritual book by that title. There are whole fields of research into post-traumatic growth and resilience. As human beings, we are vulnerable. But we are also capable of healing, and rising above that which hurts us. There is a sacred dimension to the process of healing. Jewish poet Pesha Gertler explores”The Healing Time:”
Finally on my way to yes
I bump into
all the places
where I said no
to my life
all the untended wounds
the red and purple scars
those hieroglyphs of pain
carved into my skin, my bones,
those coded messages
that send me down
the wrong street
again and again
where I find them
the old wounds
the old mis-directions
and I lift them
one by one
close to my heart
and I say holy
When Rev. Amy asked me to preach today, she said, casually, oh, it’s a great passage! I went and read this strange and archaic story from Numbers about snakes biting wandering nomads and snakes up on poles healing the same, bitten nomads. And I thought: Ugh-oh! What have I gotten myself into?? An Indiana Jones movie? Did you hear he walked away from a plane crash the other day? To quote that intrepid archaeologist: ”Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?” “I hate snakes!” It is a deeply weird story. But instead of turning away, I decided, with the ancient Israelites, to turn my gaze onto the snake itself. And I learned some very interesting things about vipers and venom.
Venom is one of the most efficient and dangerous substances in all of creation. And snakebite is debilitating and deadly. But it’s not all bad. NOVA and National Geographic articles informed me of fascinating research into the healing properties of snake venom. In 2013, the Geographic says: “Ironically, the properties that make venom deadly are also what make it so valuable for medicine. … It’s huge. Venom has opened up whole new avenues of pharmacology.” Snake venom is already used to treat diabetes and heart disease, and treatments for autoimmune disease, cancer, and chronic pain are on the way.
In the book of Numbers, the bronze serpent Moses mounts on a pole is called Nehushtan. The people are complaining, in the wilderness. An angry God sends snakes as punishment for their whining, but later relents, and those who look upon Nehushtan no longer succumb to the deadly venom. Snake-on-a-pole was a symbol for the Israelites for almost 1,000 years. It appears later in the book of 2 Kings, when King Hezekiah has it destroyed, because the people had taken to worshipping it, as an idol. This is a hard story. For we cannot always understand God’s ways, or why we suffer. There is paradox here, and mystery; that which bites us can also be that which heals us.
The snake is one of the oldest mythological symbols. Snake cults were common in Canaan in the Bronze age. In ancient Greece, Asclepius, god of medicine and healing, carried a staff with a snake wrapped around it. This is today the symbol of modern medicine. The original Hippocratic Oath invoked Asclepius. The snake sheds its skin, an archetypal symbol of regeneration, rebirth; resurrection.
Later, writing his Gospel, John connects Nehushtan, the bronze snake on a pole, to the symbol of the cross. The cross, which crucifies, is also our redemption. Jesus must be lifted up, that we may have light, and life. The cross is a Roman instrument of torture, and death. We now see it as a symbol of new life, turning the meaning of the image upside down. We are capable of doing this this, of appropriating a negative and turning it into an affirmation. We live paradox. The source of our pain is also the source of our strength!
This Lent, we look for signs of transformation. What is your snakebite, and how have you faced into it? Where are you mended, by God, with gold? How are you now more complex, more beautiful because you were broken? Where are the edges, perhaps, still ragged, the bruise still tender to the touch? How can we be for each other that healing? Are you ready to be filled, again, with joy? Amen.