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Monday, September 28, 2009

Healing Virtues of the Soul: Integrity

Joe Gibbs, the former Head Coach of the Washington Redskins, tells a true story about a friend of his who owned a fine Labrador retriever. The friend, whom we will call John, looked out his window one morning and saw his faithful obedient dog sitting on his haunches near the front porch. John thought he saw something hanging from the dog's jaws. Sure enough, a closer look revealed it was his neighbor's pet rabbit that was now dead.

Well, John was not only stunned, he was scared. Not exactly sure what to do, he worked through several solutions until finally landed on one that he felt would be best for all parties concerned. He gingerly pulled the rabbit from the dog's mouth, brought the thing into the kitchen and washed off all the dirt and the gunk. He then took it into the bathroom, pulled out a hairdryer and spent several minutes blow-drying the dead creature until it was nice and fluffy. That night after it was dark and quiet in the neighborhood, John crawled over the back fence, slipped across the neighbor's backyard, opened the door on the rabbit hutch, placed the dead rabbit back in the cage and snapped the door shut. He then slithered back through the darkness, hopped the fence, went home and said to his dog, "Well, I saved your bacon."

Well, next morning there was a loud knock at his front door. John opened it, and to his surprise there was his neighbor holding that dead rabbit, and he was steaming. He said, "John, we have a real sick person in our neighborhood." John nervously said, "Oh really, why do you say that?" He said, "Well, you see, my rabbit died three days ago and I buried it. Some idiot just dug it up, cleaned it off nice and neat and stuck it back in the hutch. John, we're talking about a real sicko!" (As told by in a sermon entitled If The Confession Doesn’t Fit, You Can’t Acquit, by James Merritt, Collected Sermons, Globe Network, undated).

Who doesn’t have a dead rabbit, somewhere? We are all sinners, the Bible says. So… what do we do next? Don’t we just need to get on with our lives and do the best we can? Well, certainly, we can get on with our lives, even though we are sinners, even though we fail, even though we make mistakes and have weaknesses as humans, but there is a potential problem which could bring “sickness” to our souls, if we don’t handle our vulnerability and weaknesses correctly. The point is this: dead rabbits don’t always stay buried. They have a way of getting dug up and showing up somewhere along the way either in our feelings, habits, personalities or our relationships. This “unresolved uncertainty” about life, or about ourselves, about our weaknesses, and our own struggle to deal with them can make us sick, or at least keep our souls from the true healing we need and the wholeness we desire.

Most of us have been watching with sadness the story about the murder of the young girl at Yale University. This whole tragic story about the murder of the young Annie Le has not yet come out, but the President of Yale, Richard Levin, said something very interesting when he said, “This incident could have happened in any city, in any university, or in any workplace. It says more about the dark side of the human soul than it does about the extent of security measures.”

Of course, the Chancellor wrote this to defend his University, but the question arises, what is this “dark side of the human soul”, Chancellor Levin is referring to?
As most of us have heard in the news, the police do not think Raymond Clark, the suspected murderer to be a stalker, nor was he believed to be romantically involved with Le, though some think he might have had some hidden agendas, perhaps being insulted by her rejection. The only thing that came out early in reports is that the suspected murderer Raymond Clark is said by fellow workers to have been a “control freak.” Either he could not get her to like him, or he could not get her to keep the mice cages clean like he wanted them to be. Whatever turns out to be the truth, it appears Clark had this obsessive need within himself to have to control over certain situations and over particular people.

Where does this need to be a “control freak” come from? Many people deal with similar “control” issues, yet not so extremely and violently as Clark. But how could “the need to control” get to be such a dark part of the soul that someone would commit murder? Of course, we could say this was just a person with a sick mind, but others said he seemed very normal to them. What we need to understand is that the human soul can get sick, just like your body can. And though there are reasons that might be found, mind-sickness and soul-sickness can seem to come out of nowhere.

Scripture rightly says, we’re all sinners, which does not mean we are all bad people, but we all have the potential vulnerability for evil, and all of us, at some time or other will fall short of being good in our lives, and we always fall short of being perfect, like God). Given the right set of circumstances, pressures, problems or disease, we can all develop “dark sides” to our souls. This is exactly why we need to attend to the health of our souls, just like we need to attend to the health of our bodies. If we don’t, disease can get a beach head in our souls, just like in our bodies, and sickness or ‘soul’ darkness can overcome us.

There will probably be all kinds of analysis of what happened to Raymond Clark, but one thing sure to be found is that a person’s need to be “in control” often comes from our inner-most fears of our lives being unpredictable or out of control. It is this “unresolved uncertainty” about life, like the fear that a “buried rabbit” might suddenly appear, which can lead to feelings or misperceptions that your life is so unpredictable, so out of control, or so threatening to you that you can start doing some really sick, stupid and very irrational things to try to hold everything together.

Our Bible text today, speaks directly to the need for healing in both body and soul. I don’t think it is accidental that the opening chapter of James addresses the nature of the “double-minded” person, and that the closing chapter of James speaks of the need for healing. There is a very real connection between a person who has become divided within themselves, who is unpredictable, insecure, or as James says is “double-minded” and is “unstable in every way” and a person who needs healing in soul. The whole book of James is a book about how to heal the heart and overcome instability in both life and faith. James is a book about how to heal your life by having a better kind of religion. It is about having a true faith---faith that not only talks the talk, but walks the walk and really says what it does and does what it says. Thus, you overcome ‘double-mindedness’ by doing the word, not just hearing it. And you begin to “do” the word from the inside out, as you see yourself and you open yourself for God’s cleansing and reshaping.

When you come to the concluding chapter five, James applies everything he’s said about having a more stable faith with by linking physical illness with sick religion and sick behavior. Right in the middle of his discussion, he stops to give this major spiritual prescription for the soul: “Therefore, confess you sins to one another, pray for one another, so that you may be healed.” (James 5: 16). Here, is the ultimate cure for the insecure, unstable, double-minded person: Talk to somebody. If you’re struggling, don’t keep it all inside. Confess your sins, your worries, your fears, your frustrations and failures, even your lack of faith. If you don’t get the fear, worry, and the struggle that is going on the inside out to the outside so it can come to the light, darker things can happen in the soul.
This is how the Christian faith has seen the path to healing life’s hurts from its beginning. If you’ve got a “dead rabbit” that might get dug up, if you’ve got an albatross around your neck (as the poet Coleridge described) you need to deal with it, expose it, confess it, or it can have a negative power over your life that a dead rabbit should never have .

Before we look more closely at the need for transparency, openness and confession in our lives, let me bring up one particular dead rabbit that often appears in churches, just like it can in any of our lives. Several years ago, I attended a seminar about “Church Conflict”, because I knew my church was about to have one. The conflict was not going to be about me, but it was going to involve me—much more than I wanted to be involved.

During the seminar held in Greensboro, the leaders, Dennis Burton and Wayne Oakes described how every minister will sometimes feel a moment like a “pinch” in his ministry. You don’t even have to cause it, but the pinch comes. They said it can happen this way. One day you are standing at the door shaking hands and a church member comes through, saying suddenly out of nowhere, “Preacher, I won’t be coming back to this church.”
“What do you mean,” you (the minister) will say, being very surprised.
“I won’t be coming back because you didn’t come to visit me in the hospital.” ( or you didn’t visit me at home, or you said something I didn’t like….something like this)
Then you will answer, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were in the hospital.”
“It doesn’t matter preacher, you nor this church really care about me. That’s why I’m never coming back.”
As the person walks out the door, you find yourself standing there is total dismay, thinking to yourself: “Where in the world did that come from?” (Based on the Seminar, Surviving Conflict in Ministry, by Dennis Burton and M. Wayne Oaks, 2003)

Even if you’re not a pastor, if you’ve been around a church long enough, or if you’ve been around people long enough, sometimes you see this sudden, very irrational, obsessive and even “controlling” kind of behavior pop-up, seemingly out of nowhere.

Well, the truth is, it doesn’t come out of nowhere. In this person who suddenly lashed out there was a pain that was hidden, un-confessed, un-confronted and un-resolved. Even though the church did not know the person was in the hospital and even though the preacher did not know either, the person, at sometime or other in their life, had experienced some kind of hurt, be it rejection or neglect, from someone---either a loved-one, maybe the church or maybe from another pastor, or maybe even as a child from a parent and maybe they might feel God has rejected them. Even though the person might express their pain in some very concrete form (you did this or that), the truth is they may not really remember or realize where this feeling comes from. But because of person’s old, unresolved, unspoken, and even seemingly buried wound is now touched or some stashed away pain is retriggered by some unmet expectation or another hurt in life, the pain suddenly comes out once again. This person who felt threatened by another hurt did what their soul told them to do: They quick took control of the situation by making the pastor and church look like the bad guy. Because they needed help, but didn’t know how to confess or ask for it, all they knew to do was express the pain as anger, threat, or as an attempt to control. Even though the expectation on the pastor or the church was unrealistic, the person had so much hurt locked up in their soul, “they couldn’t see straight”, as the saying goes and they had to pitch a fight to try and protect their hurting, damaged soul.

One wonders how much “hurt” Raymond Clark must have had locked up in his soul---because the more hurt that is penned up inside, normally the more hurt is aimed at others. This kind of “trading within for hurt without” happens all the time to us humans in our relationships, though of course not always as violent or intentional. But feelings of hurt and pain can seem to come out of nowhere, especially in our close relationships, like with our spouse or our children. Those we love might hurt us or we might hurt them, without ever meaning to or we might suddenly lash out at them or they lash out at us for even the smallest, seemingly insignificant thing. The problem always is, that this small, little insignificant thing is hooked to a larger, very significant issue that is unresolved, unspoken, and has not been not openly confessed. The issue may be something bigger that the person is doing or not doing to us, or it could be some unrealized or unmet need we have within us, but don’t fully realize or understand, or it could that it is something that has never been addressed. In fact, more times that I can “shake a stick at”, I’ve had frustrated married couples come to me about issues where they are upset at their spouse, saying either, “he doesn’t love me like the used to”, or she doesn’t respect me anymore” (and I know because just about every marriage experiences this to some extent) but the real issue goes back to something else, or even before their marriage. In most all the issues that hurt people the most, there is normally something bigger behind what is currently going on, and more than that, the issue is normally connected to something neither has confessed, talked about, expressed, or seen.

A young man who came a counselor frustrated that his wife wanted to leave him. As the counseling sessions started, he described all these things his wife should be doing, but wasn’t. As the discussion went deeper, the counselor tried to help him look less at what his wife was doing—and what he could not control and more at what he was doing, and could control. The truth finally came out that he wanted a wife, but only if he could control her the way he wanted to. He also wanted to have a family, but only if it existed for him, not because he was with there for them. When the young man finally came to realize and confessed that the large part of the problem all along was him---and the weakness he had---which had triggered her coldness and desire to leave---but his confession was too late.

What this husband did not see, was that his irrational need to “control” his wife, came out of his own weakness and failure and lack of control—not our of his rightness or strength. This was the same kind of “control” issue the person exhibited who came out the church door, claiming the preacher and the church didn’t care. It was an attempt to have the “up” on the other, to control how things were perceived, because when you go after the reputation of someone—you wish them harm, don’t you and you try to make yourself feel better? In a more extreme and violent way, Raymond Clark was attempting to get or keep control of his mice and this young woman. Since he was such a big guy compared to this little woman, his need to control was so obviously out of the unexpressed trouble or un-confessed weakness in his own soul, not in any “real” weakness or trouble with her; how could he feel threatened by a girl who was only 4’11 and 90 pounds?
What needs to be understood, here is this: the dark side of the soul is most often developed out of the dark night a soul has experienced and now that hurting soul reaching out to control others because the pain still remains un-confessed, unspoken, and unresolved. In any life, when things happen, especially bad things, and they become secrets that are swept under the rug and not dealt with or resolved properly, there is a great danger of soul sickness---a sickness which doesn’t remain a secret because it eventually brings hurt not only to the one keeping the secret, but also to the one who hasn’t a clue.

What is behind every story of pain out there in the world ---be it seemingly subdued or has become violent, is the need for healing in all the corners of the human soul. Healing is needed both because unresolved pain deep in our souls eventually leads to sickness. No matter how insignificant the hurt, there is no real healing in our hearts until we find a way to deal with those “dead rabbits” that don’t stay dead because some “dog” keeps digging them up.

I personally think we are going to see more acts of incivility in our world, like we’ve seen in recent weeks in the news media. We are going to hear about more about the inner rage and pain in people coming out---be they politicians, singers, athletes---who scream out in rage because, because they are hurting. People are hurting from the outside in from the recession, but they are also hurting from the inside out because of unresolved issues they carry in their hearts—thinking nobody cares because nobody knows. We may read more about people, even seemingly “normal” people who suddenly have this surprising “dark side” which will surface more and more in our culture? Do you know why? I believe it is because we are taking less and less time to attend to the deepest needs of our souls. Who has time for confessing sins? Who takes time to study their hearts or to grow in their spiritual lives? As our culture pays less attention to the needs of the soul, we will see unresolved pains come out as an untamed, spiritual darkness in the soul---which can damage both not only our hearts, but also our bodies.

This, I believe, is why we need to pay closer attention to the practice of biblical confession. The virtue of integrity---this soul-healing virtue--- can be defined as being who we say we are and saying who we really are. Such integrity is an openness of heart in how we speak and live, and it implies not only a singleness of heart and spirit---being who we say we are----but it also points to the virtue being able to do and be the person we know we need to be. Only when we are willing and able to confess our hurts and our sins to each other, can the soul be made healthy, whole, even in the midst of our brokenness. When a culture forgets the importance of dealing with the inner life, and that fails to do the constant work of becoming a healthy in heart and soul, eventually forgets how to be a good.

So, if integrity comes through openness and confession, what does it mean to be a confessing person---a person who is able to be in touch with all their heart and soul, and is willing to open that soul to others? Let me make three concluding observations from our text in James.

The first thing we can see in James’ discussion about confession is that confession is more than about confessing sin. In most of our minds, when we hear the word “confession”, we think of a catholic Christian going to a priest to offer a confession. But that is not exactly the kind of confession this text is talking about.

Notice how James begins his discussion on healing and confession with several acts of worship. He begins, “Is there any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise….” (James 5: 13). As you can clearly see, the implied healing context is a worship service. Now, think about the primary purpose of worship as a time for prayer and music, but also think about what we do with prayers and singing when we worship. This is how we confess our faith, isn’t it? It’s how we get what is deep down in our hearts out into the world---all of worship is a way of confessing. We not only confess our sins, but we also confess our faith, our hopes, our prayers and we get all our need out in the open in what is suppose to be a very safe and sacred public place. When we confess our faith, we are telling ourselves, the church and the world, this is who we really are. We are not pretending to worship, but we are declaring fully and sincerely that we are people who confess to God and to each other, this is the kind of person and people we truly want to be. In worship, confession declares the deepest part of our hearts and is the very foundation of human integrity. When we worship as “confessing” people, we let others see into us, as we also open ourselves fully to God.

One of the reasons Jesus was so adamant about hypocrisy in worship is because insincere worship perverts human integrity and is not true confession of the heart. When religious people pretend to be something they aren’t we are in the deepest kind of trouble. When our confession---the opening of our heart to God and others--- is full of lies, it means we live a lie, and we are not who we really say we are. That is exactly what James meant by a “double-minded” person, who becomes “unstable in all their ways”. When we live this “double” way, we not only lie to others, we end up lying to ourselves, and because the truth is not in us, healing can’t come to us---and hurt goes on and on. In “true religion” our walk must match our words and our words must match our walk. When we worship God fully, truly, sincerely, openly and honestly----confessing what we truly believe, which includes also confessing our sins, our unbelief, our failures, our frustrations and our hurts---when our confession is honest to God and honest to our true, inner self, then confession has the power of healing we need.

A great illustration how confession of our deepest feelings has the integrating and healing power, consider the so called, “Confessing Church” that existed in WWII Germany. Led by the great martyr, Dietrich Bonheoffer, this newly formed church was made up of Christians who pulled away from the State Church that was supporting Hitler in order to maintain its true faith and integrity. It confessed loud and clear: We can’t go along with Hiltler! But listen also to how Boneheoffer described the true nature of confession. He wrote that confession is, “the renewal of the joy of baptism” which means that confession is not intended to be an unhealthy brooding over past sins, but confession is a turning to new life, which is done honestly when there is an acknowledgement of past wrong.” (From John Macquirrie in The Westminister Dictionary of Christian Ethics, 1967, p. 111, “Confession”.).

A couple of years ago in our American culture, there was a renewed interest in confession, but it was not that healthy. As one observer wrote about all the popular people telling about their “sins” and “struggles” in public, and that there was a great “urge to purge” through openness and public confession of flaws, failures, and sins. But what did not often go along with all that openness and urge to purge, was the urge to be changed.

Confession without a desire to change is the kind of short-sighted confession that might be attempted in a private confessional or in a small self-help group, but it cannot go on in a community of faith that is true to its calling and open to truth. True confession is more than feeling guilt, needing to release it, telling it to a priest or friend, and then secretly falling back into the struggle again. Confession of sin is a way to open to others so that the struggle is opened up to others for real help and true healing. Real confession must go beyond telling someone how wrong or how hurt we are. Confession must also included wanting things to be right, to get things right and to be in the right…that is, as Bonhoeffer said, finding the “renewal of the joy of baptism”. When we confess, not only our sins, but also confess our hope and desire to be faithful to God and to others just as we did on the day we were baptize, only then can soul healing come in God’s community. Until confession is the openness of our life to God and to others, the healing powers of confession are limited.

Now comes another important lesson from James. Notice the way confession of sins is made. When James encourages the people to “confess their sins”, they are to confess “to one another”, and they are then to immediately “pray for one another, so that you may be healed” (vs. 16). The point of confession is not placing blame or even setting every things straight, but the point is the healing of the hearts---which puts everything in the healing mode and direction.

In fact, the most powerful healing prayer that is to be prayed has already been mentioned and provides the context for confession of sin. Notice already, in verse 15, how James said, “The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven” It doesn’t say they might be forgiven, nor does it say consideration will be given to forgive, but it says firmly and authoritatively “anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven.”

You can’t be the church of Jesus Christ unless this there is unconditional forgiveness of confessed sin. The church can’t be a place of help and healing, unless it stands ready to forgive “any” and “every” sin that is confessed. There is no healing without confession, and there is no true confession of faith or sin, unless we can have a place where we can be open and honest about our true selves, including our faith and our sins. Only in this kind of healing community of forgiveness, where we know we will be forgiven and accepted, based on our sincere confession, where we don’t have to fear being judged or hurt for exposing our hearts, can we find and give the healing power we all need.

Most of us recall several years ago in Pennsylvania, when a mentally disturbed man when into an Amish school and killed innocent children. It was a horrible, tragic event. No one would be expected to offer any kind of immediate forgiveness in that kind of situation. But what did those hurting Amish families do, but they immediately, went against all their feelings to reach out to the killer’s family and to express their forgiveness of him.

I know that many would say that the offer of forgiveness was premature. Others would say that the families needed time to come to terms with their hurt and pain. This could be true, because there is no real healing in pretending to offer something we can’t offer. But there is also another great truth here. These Amish Christians said they were offering forgiveness, not because they felt it, but because they knew that unless they offered forgiveness there would be no ultimate healing in their own hearts. The greatest healing power for hurt is the power not only to be forgiven, but to forgive. These Amish were being true to what they believed and they knew that being true to their hearts, is what would finally aid the healing of their own broken hearts.

Finally, confession is not just about making us feel better, or just to heal our own hurting souls, but it is about something even bigger than this: It is about becoming a community that is soul saving and soul building.

Look at the end of James’ discussion and what he hopes will happen within the faithful, believing, and confessing congregation: “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” (James 5:20).

There is a great difference in people who “cover up” their sins by denying them and what James means by bringing “back a sinner from wandering, saving the soul from death” and “to cover a multitude of sins.” This is not in any way a covering up of sins, as we might use the word “cover”, but what exactly is James talking about?

It helps to see that James word echoes 1 Peter 4:8-9, where Peter writes a similar word to encourage the church to be the true church it confesses to be: Above all, maintain constant love for one another, for love covers a multitude of sins. 9 Be hospitable to one another without complaining.” What is vital see is how Peter makes James clear that “covering of sin” is a two-way street. A “multitude of sins” is covered because both people are involved in the confessing, forgiving and healing process. As Martin Luther commented years ago, “to turn a sinner from error confers a double benefit. It helps not only the “converted” but it also helps the one bringing them back to be “converted.” (Quoted from The Interpreters Bible Commentary, Vol. 12, Abingdon Press, 1957, p. 73).

What both James and Peter both may be echoing is Proverbs’ wisdom which says Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all offenses (Proverbs 10:12). People who work to bring forgiveness, healing and hope through mutual sharing, worship, and confession of their whole hearts to God, breed love and love covers and heals just about anything that breathes. People who work against forgiveness and confession, who hold things in, who try to go it alone, end up holding on to hurt and getting sick and making the whole community sick as well. The only way healing comes is when we live together and work for each other in a community where healing is invited through mutual confession and unconditional love expressed in the forgiveness of sins.

Can we be that kind of healing place---where we share our true hearts----where we not place blame, but seek to forgive, and more than anything else are we the kind of community where this kind of “confessing” fellowship is the norm, not the exception? I don’t know of any other group of people who can be this but the church. The question remains, however, whether we are the true confessing church Jesus called us to be or do we simply shadow our hurting culture, where people promote themselves, brokenness, strife and competition, and hide their sins and hold on to hurts?

One answer in why hurts are hidden, unconfessed and still hurting us, even at church, is revealed in a story, about a Baptist preacher, a Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi who were having lunch one day. They were talking about the spiritual support they gave the members of their congregation: listening to their confessions, saying words of forgiveness, visiting them when they were ill and comforting them in times of loss. What the preacher, priest and rabbi found they had in common was the sense of having ministered to their congregation, but having no one to minister to them. So they decided to go together for a retreat and provide one another with care. They gathered on the appointed day and decided that they would begin with confession and absolution.

The preacher said that since Jews had been atoning for their sins for thousands of years, the rabbi should go first. The rabbi said, "You know, I love my wife and would never cheat on her, but sometimes in a crowd where no one can tell who did it, I just cannot resist giving the ladies a longer hug than I should." The minister and the priest assured the rabbi that God loves him and forgives him, and that they love him and forgive him.

Then the preacher suggested that the priest go next, because for hundreds of years Catholics have practiced confession. The priest said, "You know I have taken a vow of poverty, but there are days when it is so hard to live on my little stipend. And there are times when I look at all the money we make on bingo, and I just can't help taking just a little of it for myself just to pay the bills." The rabbi and the minister assured the priest that God loves him and forgives him, and that they love him and forgive him.

Then it was the Baptist preacher’s turn. He said, "I know that God loves me and forgives me, but I don't think you will feel that way when I tell you about my besetting sin." The priest and the rabbi sought to comfort him and asked, "What awful sin have you committed?" He said, "I'm a terrible gossip! (Popular story as told by John Terry).

Are we going to be a healing community that seeks to bring healing to many hurts of life or are we going to be a church that only goes around repeating the hurt? Before anyone will be able to hunt down their dead rabbits, they need a safe place to find forgiveness. And the only way hurting people can find a safe place in this church, or any church, is when we too have dealt with our own dead rabbits that might get dug up. Only in as much as the “dead rabbits” have no more power over us, can we say that we have become are both a people of integrity and a place of healing. Amen.

© 2009 All rights reserved Dr. Charles J. Tomlin

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Healing Virtues of the Soul: Courage

A little country schoolhouse was heated by an old-fashioned, pot-bellied coal stove. Two brothers had the job of coming to school early each day to start the fire and warm the room before the teacher and their classmates arrived. One morning gasoline had been mistakenly delivered instead of kerosene for starting stove. There was a horrible explosion and the schoolhouse was engulfed in flames. One brother died and the other had major burns over the lower half of his body.

From his bed the dreadfully burned, semi-conscious little boy faintly heard the doctor talking to his mother. The doctor told his mother that her son would surely die - which was for the best, really - for the terrible fire had devastated the lower half of his body. But the courageous boy didn't want to die. He made up his mind that he would survive and somehow, to the amazement of the physician, he did. He accepted the pain it took to live. (Told in a sermon by Nancy Pfaltzgraf, “Fill My Cup, Lord, with Courage”, Preached on March 21, 2009 and posted at (

Life involves accepting pain into our lives. While pain is a part of hurt, it is also a part of healing. In order to heal through life’s hurts we have to develop the courage accept, face and live with different kinds of pain. Without courage, it’s too painful to be honest about your weaknesses. Without courage, you’ll have difficulty having hope against all the hopelessness in the world. Without courage, you’ll take very few steps of faith into new opportunities and challenges. Without courage, your life will go the way of least resistance, like a meandering river slowly going down-hill one turn at a time so that you stagnate or get stuck in the familiar and the comfortable---the very comfort seeking that could be making you sick.

Do you remember that antiseptic called mercurochrome mothers once widely used to heal a scrape or cut? When it was applied, it burned like fire, but your mother assured you it would help the wound to begin to heal. It was very for hard my mother to convince me to stay calm and to accept the fact that a more pain would start to make things better. Interestingly that stuff did have mercury in it maybe I was right, it was killing me. But the truth is still valid, isn’t it? Sometimes the very medicine we need most increases the hurt before healing begins.

Another one of those valuable childhood lessons came in the doctor’s office, when I learned how to take shots. Some people still have trouble with needles, but thanks to my mother, I overcame all my fear. One day when my distant cousin Rosa, who was also a nurse, was administering the shot to me, I rebelled and kicked her real good. My mother came over and faced me. She let me know right then and there that if I ever did that again I would have a lot worse pain to worry about. It was a very different fear which gave me the courage to get over my fear of shots.

Strangely enough, that is how most courage is developed in the human spirit. We don’t usually get over our fears by getting rid of them, but we overcome the destructive fears by replacing them with more constructive ones. We promote health and healing in our lives by taking more controlled forms of pain upon ourselves now in hope of preventing future, uncontrollable pain later. Part of growing up and gaining the courage for living means we too have to learn to “take our medicine”---choosing to accept the positive kinds of pain which promote growth, self-discipline, healing and character. In our Bible passage today, we have two biblical examples of people who were facing various kinds of hurts and pains in their lives. In order to receive the help and healing they needed from Jesus, they had to go through even more pain, at least at first they did.

Consider first, this man Jarius, who had a sick daughter. In a kind of risky, daring way, this leader of the synagogue, came to Jesus, asking him to come and heal his daughter. Jarius risked everything; his pride, his job, his reputation, and maybe even his life by coming to this unapproved intenerate “healer”. To come to Jesus and beg was inappropriate and unacceptable. Jarius was only inviting more problems and more pain by dong this. But if you or I had a child who was sick, wouldn’t we also have done most anything to help our child? You fear of your child dying enables you to overcome all your other fears. You too would invite the pain of rejection out of the fear of an even greater pain—watching your child die. In fact, to become a parent in and of itself is to invite more “pain” into our lives than we currently have, isn’t it? Why do parents invite the pain of child rearing into their lives? We don’t just risk the pain to have the blessing---that’s part of it, but we also risk the pain of parenthood, like we risk the pain of marriage and all kinds of other pains and struggles, because of our even greater fear of the pain of loneliness, emptiness, or having to live or lives without purpose or meaning. Without inviting some pain into our lives, or at least the risk of it, there is no real hope of the deeper blessing, or the healing or the hope.

But if Jarius displayed audacious courage to help his daughter, his daring pales in comparison to this unnamed woman. Do you see who she was? She was a woman whose disease of bleeding had made her ritually unclean, contaminating anything and anyone she touched. This made her an outcast from society and temple. If she had been married when the bleeding began, she was no doubt divorced by now -what husband would continue in a marriage where he could not see or talk to his wife for twelve years?

But when she heard that Jesus -the healer- was passing through her town, she dared to step beyond her fear, beyond the possibility of condemnation by the religious authorities, and even beyond the ridiculous sounding notion that simply touching his garment would heal her. This woman mustered the courage to risk and to take more pain upon herself and to approach Jesus---and with one simple touch her hemorrhaging stopped.

She thought she was home free until Jesus and everybody around him suddenly stopped, and he asked: "Who touched my robe?" What happened next required even more courage. If she admitted what she had done, would he condemn her? curse her? reverse the healing? What does she do? In spite of her very real fears she stepped forward. With great courage, we read in verse 33, that she comes to him in “fear and trembling, fell down before him and told him the whole truth.” (Mark 5: 33). And notice this most of all. It is only when she had the courage to telling Jesus the whole story—the whole truth, that she is cured of her physical ailment.


You can’t fully heal life’s hurts by running away from them, nor only by waiting to see what happens next, or by placing blame. To release the powers of healing, sometimes you have to have to walk straight into the challenge and the hurt. While it is very important to realize that all pain does not promote healing---as some pain is destructive---it is vital for that no full healing ever comes without facing and dealing with pain. In the movie, Shawshank Redemption, a work of fiction, but a movie with all kinds of spiritual truth, there is a great line which says, “courage is not the absence of fear, but the presence of fear and the will to go on.” In other words, “courage” is the ability to confront fear, pain, danger, uncertainty or intimidation and not to run from it. Wholeness and healing comes by walking straight into and through the pain that is before us, not around it.

There is a famous prayer, most of us know, which speaks specifically of our need for courage as a healing virtue. It was written in 1934 by the American Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr which goes something like this: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” How do we gain the courage to “change the things we can change?”

Courage comes by inviting the pain of “truth” into our lives. This simple, obvious action of seeing and accepting truth can be astoundingly difficult for any of us at certain times. Just think about all the destructive habits on Wall Street and what they have done to our country. You would hope that Wall Street would now wake up and change their ways----but we keep reading how the large bonuses are still being paid out---no matter what has happened. Tragically, this week we’ve all learned about this most gifted, talented Plastic Surgeon in Chapel Hill, who, while intoxicated, recklessly drove his car 85 miles and hour and killed a young, beautiful promising ballerina. Even with all the resources of the world at his disposal----this “healer” could not heal himself, and lacked courage to face his own demons, to confront his addictions, and to realize his destructive behavior. He was unable to face his pain, until, of course, he had to, and for this lady and maybe for his own sanity, it is too late.

We humans are known to be creatures of habit and seekers of comfort, rather than risk takers who are willing and ready to confront the pain and hurts of our lives so healing can take place. A bit of wisdom, which most all counselors use as a guiding point and reality check says, “A person will remain the same until the pain of remaining the same is greater than the pain of change.” The courage to change and to heal means accepting the pain of change. And when I think of the healing virtue of courage, I don’t think as much about facing our fears of dying, facing a cancer, or facing some terrible event or problem, but my mind comes back to the kind of “courage” this prayer expresses, which is the same kind of courage this woman had in our Bible text. Namely, I think of how much courage it took for her to “fall down” before Jesus and to tell him “the whole truth” (5:33) when he turned and confronted her. This is where the healing power began.

Here is where all true courage begins---not by mastering all the many fears out there in the world, but by having the courage to master ourselves, our own feelings, our own hurts, and our own behavior. Remember Cain’s problem in Genesis 4. It was easy for him to see what was wrong with Abel his brother or what was wrong with God’s choice of Abel’s sacrifice, but Cain ended up killing his brother, not because of what his brother did or didn’t do, but because Cain did not have the courage to face the truth about himself---to face the “sin” or “evil” that was “lurking” in his own heart. He had blame for Abel and he had blame for with God, but he didn’t have the courage to look into his own heart. What was he afraid of? What can turn even the best, brightest and strongest among us into mere wimps and fools?

There is a great story of how Arkansas State troopers were once asked to submit the greatest excuse they’d ever heard for someone trying to get out of a speeding ticket. The winning entry was submitted by a trooper who clocked a semi-tractor truck speeding down the interstate. The trooper pulled up behind the truck and turned his lights on, but the truck kept going. The trooper got right up on his bumper, but the truck kept going. The trooper turned on his siren, but the truck went even faster. Finally, the truck ran out of gas and rolled to the side of the highway.

The trooper got out and walked up to the trucker’s window. The driver rolled down his window, and the trooper asked, “Did you see my lights?”
“Yes sir, I did,” the trucker responded.
“Did you see me following you right on your bumper?”
The trucker responded, “Yes sir, I did.”
“Did you hear my siren all those miles?”
“Yes sir, I did,” the trucker answered.
Finally, the trooper said, “Then why didn’t you pull over?”
“Well, to be honest, about two years ago my wife ran off with an Arkansas state trooper. I was afraid you were trying to bring her back.” (From John Baker’s “Life Healing Choices”, Howard Books, 2007, p. 101-102).

When we run from things which are painful and when we don’t courageously stop to face and deal with them, healing often escapes and eludes us. How many of us have not been shocked by hearing of a person who once committed a crime, maybe even many years ago, finally coming to turn themselves in to authorities. Why did they do this, when they did get away with it? Because the pain of remaining the same (not turning themselves in) became greater than the pain of change (turning themselves in and facing jail time). Avoiding the truth, especially avoiding the truth within us and about ourselves, can make us even sicker than accepting the truth about ourselves---even the truth is bad and hard to face.

In college I heard about young Sigmund Freud, the sometimes controversial Father of Psychoanalysis, who once interviewed a woman who was physically sick, even paralyzed and unable to walk, but he could find nothing really physically wrong with her. After many sessions of talking to the woman, Freud finally uncovered in their conversations, that when this woman was a child, she became angry at her mother and wished her dead. Coincidently, it wasn’t long after this outburst of unrestrained anger that her mother died unexpectedly.

Since this trauma of her childhood, the woman felt very responsible for what happened. but instead of facing the pain of her feelings and talking about them with others, she repressed them, hid them, attempted to forget about them, and she constantly covered them up, pretending they were not there. But as Freud came to discover, the feelings were not pushed out of her mind, but the pain was hiding there, deep in her unconscious mind---tucked away as a deadly, destructive force, not just in her mind, but to her whole person. As Freud continued to talk with the woman, he helped her confront all the painful, inner feelings she had and the very the words she spoke in anger. As she confronted all the hurt and pain, along with the unresolved pain of losing her mother, he watched as the woman’s paralysis started to disappear. This is when Freud is said to have discovered the reality of the unconscious mind and he reaffirmed the importance of healing from the inside out.

Sigmund Freud’s discovery of both the scientific and psychological need of a soul to come clean reminds me of Jesus words when he said: Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops. "I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority1 to cast into hell.2 Yes, I tell you, fear him! Luke 12:2-5. Jesus encourages us not to keep “secrets” or dark words in our hearts because one day they will become known but most of all because they are already known to God. And besides this, did you see what else Jesus is saying? The way to face the fear of telling the truth is to accept, know and even come to have a healthy fear and reverence of the one who knows all the secrets of our hearts.

In his widely read book, “There’s a lot more to health than not being sick,” Pastor Bruce Larson told an interesting story about a halfway house in Western Ontario, Canada. This halfway house was marvelous “healing” place to send emotionally disturbed individuals who did not need institutional care, but who simply had lost the power to cope in their own familiar situation. The people who went to this ‘halfway’ house, simply needed to step outside of their own surroundings, gain new perspective, and then find new spiritual and emotional resources to gain help and healing.

What caught Dr. Larson attention most about the facility was when he visited the living room of the old farmhouse. It was here, in this room where people often talked in small groups before a roaring fireplace on cold Canadian winter nights. Right up over the fire placed was a framed quote, which he remembered best, and it said, “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be well?” This summed up the philosophy of the whole place. If a person wanted to get well in this place, there was a choice to make. To become well, they had to give up the privilege of being right. They had to be willing to accept their pain of failures, of their flaws and even their mistakes and sins. If they kept on having to justify themselves before others, soon they could develop a mental illness ( “There is More to Health than not being Sick, by Bruce Larson, Word Press, 1981, pp 29-37).

Do you realize the most healing thing we can ever do for ourselves is to say to someone and to ourselves, “I was wrong.” These are such simple words, but how hard they can be to say? And how much we can resist or avoid saying them, because we become defensive or afraid to admit our problem? I know about this first hand. Ask my wife. I’ve still have to deal with my own defensiveness when I make a mistake. More and more I’ve tried to get a handle on what goes on when I do this and I’ve come to realize that the “hook” for me is not so much what I did wrong, but I’m even more afraid of not doing something right. Healing and understanding never comes when you are defending or rationalizing. It only comes when you have the courage to face the truth---even when it’s hard.

The classic case in the Bible for defensive, self-justification was Moses’ brother Aaron. Do you remember him? When he and Moses were in the wilderness, Moses left for a time to climb the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments from God, leaving Aaron in charge. When Moses finally came down from this incredible encounter with God, he found the people of Israel, his people, worshipping around a golden calf and an idol to Baal. In a rage, Moses confronted Aaron, “What have you done!” “How dare you lead God’s people to worship Baal when God has brought them out of bondage for a new land? Now listen to Aaron’s reply from Exodus 32: 22-24. I paraphrasing a bit: Aaron said to Moses, “Moses, you know these people … they are prone to do stuff like this…. They put all kinds of pressure on me…. And you were gone such a long, long time…. Where were you anyway?.... We were just having a party…. everybody started taking off their jewelry and throwing it around….some of it fell into the fire and out popped this calf! Folks. I’m know I’m paraphazing but I’m not exaggerating. This is exactly the stupid explanation Aaron gave. But it is no more stupid that some of the explanations some of us give when we are afraid to face the truth. Sometimes any of us can be called Aaron.

One of the greatest moves toward healing is to face ourselves, even the dark side the self, and to have the courage to face the “pain of truth” in some very healthy, constructive ways. Inner healing, flows most freely in us when we stop blaming our problems on others and start assuming both responsibility and seizing new opportunities to grow within. But how can we do this, when facing our true self can be the sharpest pain of all---even more painful than letting things stay the same? Where does the “courage to change the things we can” come from?

Several years ago, a Hospital in Oakland, California was working with patients suffering from different kinds of fear and anxiety. Once, when the hospital was over-flooded with patients, a large number of people had to be put on waiting lists, while only a small number were able to get treatment quickly. Taking advantage of the situation, psychologist and psychiatrists decided to compare what happened to people who were able to get into counseling and medication quickly, with those who had to wait. Interestingly, waiting proved to be as healing as quickly getting into care. What they discovered is that when people had to wait, they had no other choice but to face their fears head-on. Having to wait, to face and even to accept their problems, realizing they could not run or get a quick fix-solutions, was as great a force for healing any other kind of medicine or treatment (See “To Thine Own Self Be True” by Lewis M. Andrews, Anchor Books, 1987, p 133ff.). Doesn’t this echo what the Bible means, when it says, “Those that wait upon the Lord, will renew their strength?”

I wouldn’t advise simply waiting when you need to go to the doctor, but I do believe that there is a unique healing power in having to face even hardest truths, while we are working toward the cure. Facing and accepting the truth about ourselves could be one of the best medicines in everybody’s medicine cabinet. As psychiatrist Karl Jung once said to a group of ministers in 1932, “Acceptance of one’s inner self is the essence of the moral problem….and the acid test of one’s whole outlook on life.” (Ibid, p. 136). As a side note, if you wonder why there is so much incivility growing around us, with sports people, musicians, politicians---the only rational reason is too much time is spent doing the easy work of considering what’s wrong with others, and too little time is spent doing the hard work of looking into ourselves. This inability or unwillingness to face inward, to accept and confront our own demons, breeds the need to demonize others.

But again, if facing the truth has healing power, how do we face it when it is still so very painful? How do we muster the courage to take inventory of ourselves and be willing to admit our wrongs, and also to grow through them---how do we get such courage? Going back to this image of this unknown woman risking herself and having to tell him everything, what gave her the courage to approach him? Was it just her utter desperation, or was there something else about Jesus that made him so approachable?

One of my favorite healing stories of all time came to me from the late Randy Kilby, a classmate of mine at Gardner-Webb and once president of Fruitland Bible Institute, before he died too early. While preaching a revival service at Gardner-Webb, Randy told the story about a brother and sister who were spending the summer at grandma’s farm.

On one seemingly carefree day, Tommy was enjoying skipping rocks on the farm pond. Like many mischievous little boys, he let his rocks get closer and closer to some of grandma’s prize winning ducks. Without directly intending to, but knowing he was too close, he hit one of grandma’s ducks in the head and it tipped over dead as a ….well a dead duck. You get the picture. Tommy did not mean to do it, but he knew grandma would be upset, so he did not want to face the pain of having to tell her. He thought he would get by with it all, until his sister called him over to the sink and asked him to wash dishes all by himself.
“I will not…” Tommy said. “We are supposed to share the chores around here.”
But sister Susie was adamant and she told him. “Tommy, I saw what happened to Grandma’s duck, and if you don’t do these dishes, I’ll tell her, for sure.”
That night it was the dishes. Next it was the laundry and other chores that he had to do alone. For most of the summer, Susie had Tommy in her power to do get out of whatever she didn’t want to do.
As the summer came to the last week, Tommy was tried of working under the slavery of his sister, and he decided that before the week was up, and the summer was finished, he’d tell grandma. He went to his grandma, confessing and explaining everything.
To his surprise, Grandma did not get mad. Instead, she said, “Tommy, I’ve glad you’ve finally come to tell me. I was out hanging laundry and I saw you kill my duck. I’ve also watched you live under the slavery to your sister all summer long. All you would have needed to do was to come to me and tell me, and you could have enjoyed your whole summer. Instead, you’ve lived under your sister’s power all because you did not come to me with what you did.

This story is very simple, but it illustrates so well our great human need and our propensity to avoid the truth up until the last moment---even at outrageous personal costs----until we realize what the costs really are and get tired of paying them. What Tommy did not have until the very last, was the courage he needed from the beginning. But he was not able to get the courage to face his grandma until the pain of missing his whole summer became greater than the pain of having to tell his grandma.

The only thing that gives us the courage to bear the pain, especially the pain of truth is, grace---healing grace. Don’t you think this is what both the woman with the issue of blood and the synagogue leader Jarius saw was different about Jesus? They risked coming to Jesus because, somehow, either in the back of their mind or foremost, they knew Jesus was a person, who was “full of grace and truth.” As John’s gospel says: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth….. From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses, (but) grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” John 1:14-17.

Here it is! Here is the reason we can gain the courage to face ourselves---even our sinful selves. Here is the reason we can admit weaknesses, even come to boast in them and can take risks of faith. If we fail to face our fears, we will miss receiving what John calls, “grace upon grace.” When the pain of missing God’s grace becomes greater than the pain of staying like we are, then we will not only have the courage to change, we will be changed.

Yes, it takes courage for one who’s struggling and hurting to stop and think about why the pain continues. It takes courage for one who is addicted to alcohol, to food, to sex, or gambling or any other addictions to accept what they can’t change and change what they can. It takes all kinds of courage to change health destroying habits into life-giving actions; to face the wounds of our past and trust in the healing power of God’s love in the here and now. Think about all the tons of courage it takes be fully who you are created to be in the face of all the voices that say you must look or act or be something other than who you are. Think about the courage it takes to move beyond failure, defeat or grief. Think about the courage it takes to face the future with confidence that God is with you no matter what. It takes great courage to face the many pains and hurts of life and to receive God’s healing promise. But the journey always begins with one important step----drawing near the God who has come near to us by grace. Only when you know grace, this “grace upon grace,” will you or I gain any courage and confidence to face ourselves---warts, weaknesses and all---open to the change that heals.

Speaking of grace, let me close with the conclusion of the story about the badly burned boy. When the mortal danger was past, the little boy heard the doctor tell his mother that since the fire had destroyed so much flesh in the lower part of his body, it would almost be better if he had died, since he was doomed to be a lifetime with no use at all of his lower limbs. Once more the courageous boy made up his mind. He would walk. But unfortunately from the waist down, he had no motor ability. His thin legs just dangled there, all but lifeless.

Ultimately he was released from the hospital. Every day his mother would massage his little legs, but there was no feeling, no control, nothing. Yet his determination that he would walk was as strong as ever. When he wasn't in bed, he was confined to a wheelchair. One sunny day his mother wheeled him out into the yard to get some fresh air. This day, instead of sitting there, he courageously threw himself from the chair. He pulled himself across the grass, dragging his legs behind him. He worked his way to the white picket fence bordering their lot. With great effort, he raised himself up on the fence. Then, stake by stake, he began dragging himself along the fence, resolved that he would walk. He started to do this every day until he wore a smooth path all around the yard beside the fence. There was nothing he wanted more than to develop life in those legs.

Ultimately through his daily massages, his courage and his resolute determination, he did develop the ability to stand up, then to walk haltingly, then to walk by himself - and then - to run. Later in college he made the track team. Still later in Madison Square Garden this courageous young man who was not expected to survive, who would surely never walk, who could never hope to run - this courageous, determined young man, Glenn V. Cunningham, ran the world's fastest mile!

It is perhaps not surprising to hear that his favorite passage in the Bible, the one that carried him through was Isaiah 40:31: "But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint." Courage that leads to miracles, to healing, and to life rests upon the healing grace that God gives. Because God gives healing grace, you not only can find the serenity to “accept the things you can’t change and the courage to change the things you can”, you will also have wisdom to know the difference and best of all---you will gain the grace to be different. This is what grace does. It does not always change the way the world is, but grace will always change us. Amen.

© 2009 All rights reserved Charles J. Tomlin, B.A., M.Div. D.Min.