Reflection for a Service of Healing and Wholeness preached at First Presbyterian, Henderson.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.
About a year ago I was in the Middle East with a group from my seminary. Two-thirds of the way through the trip we visited the city of Hebron in the West Bank. Shattered by centuries of conflict and violence, Hebron feels heavy with fear and sorrow. There seems to be little prospect of healing there, and wholeness seems entirely out of the question. In fact, the main religious site, the Cave of the Patriarchs, is actually divided in half, with half given to the Jews and half to the Muslims. There is bulletproof glass between the two sides, following the Hebron massacre of 1994. The whole city feels dark and heavy with sorrow, fear, and anger; we could not help but feel it too. Most of us were very quiet, and we moved softly, feeling helpless in the face of such overwhelming brokenness. A friend of mine who is very sensitive to the emotions around her was, I think, particularly struggling. She is a “fixer” by nature—but this situation was too big to be fixed.
One of our travel mates was an incredible woman named Adele, a former nun who has spent most of her life teaching in the inner city of Chicago and the slums of Latin America. Tiny and wise, Adele joined my friend and said, without any preamble:
“You are not alone.”
“What?” my friend said.
“You are not alone.”
My friend must have looked dazed, because Adele said a third time.
“You. Are. Not. Alone.”
Her words did not magically fix Hebron, yet in that moment, my friend said, she felt the first whiff of peace since getting off the bus that morning. In Hebron, with its harsh, bullet-proof dividing lines, the reminder that we do not walk alone was enough to get my friend through the day. Whatever isolates us, whatever breaks us apart, whatever makes us feel that no one quite understands how we feel—and pain, whether physical, mental, or emotional, is very effective at doing all of these things—it cannot overcome the presence of God in our lives, whether we feel that presence or not. Like Adele said that day in Hebron, and as Paul proclaimed 2000 years ago from Corinth, we are not alone.
The spirit is with us.
When we are hurting, from physical ailments or mental anguish or compassion for all that is wrong in the world, the spirit stands beside us and within us as our Holy Comforter. I was struck this week by an etymology I had never realized—the word “comfort” comes from a Latin word that means to strengthen. That “fort” in comfort is the same root as fortify. The Spirit’s comforting presence in our lives is not just to soothe us, to rattle off easy clichés and pat us on the shoulder. The Spirit’s comfort gives us strength to go on, loving God, ourselves, and our neighbor even while we hurt. I know there are days when we would rather be a little less strong if it meant God would just wave a magic wand and fix everything. I can’t tell you why things aren’t arranged that way, but I can tell you God is with us always, working in us to bring us a sense of wholeness, a sense that even with broken bodies or broken hearts we are still part of the beloved family of God, nurtured and cherished.
Paul’s letter to the Romans is full of wonderful wisdom, but there is a line in there I particularly prize: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” I was aware even as I wrote this reflection how very limited words and rationales and explanations are. Some of what I’m saying tonight may ring false, despite my best efforts; I hope not all of it, but I love Paul’s reminder that God’s concern for us goes deeper than words, deeper than platitudes, deeper than what we can understand or explain. So if we struggle to find the right words—if we are afraid to talk about our diagnosis or we don’t even know what’s wrong or everything is just too much—the spirit sighs along with us, sharing in our sorrow and impatience. We wait with groans for the redemption of our bodies, as Paul candidly says, but we do not wait alone; God is with us.
And when it is our turn to give comfort to others who are hurting, to bring healing and wholeness to others, the spirit is with us then, too. As the poet of Isaiah said, the Spirit of the Lord is upon us, “to bring good news to the oppressed, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to comfort all who mourn; to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning.” It’s a tall order, but again, we neither hurt nor help alone. The spirit is always with us, as we call our friends to ask how they are, as we sit in the waiting room as a loved one has surgery, as we send our prayers to Nepal and Nigeria and Baltimore and Syria and Philadelphia, as we do our best to bind up broken hearts and free others from pain and suffering. In our comforting and our being comforted, we are not alone.
When I was very young I thought the laying on of hands was one of the sillier practices of the church. It seemed old-fashioned and a bit like magical thinking, that power or authority or healing could somehow flow from one person to another by mere touch. That is, I thought it was silly until the first time I had hands laid on me—at my confirmation. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by love in the most tangible way possible—twenty or thirty elders who had loved and supported and raised me, coming to stand with me as I started a new leg of my faith journey. I remember the weight of their hands on my shoulders, pressing me down and lifting me up all at once. For me, that is the real gift of the laying on of hands—that it makes real and tangible and literal for us the fact that we are not alone. The family of God hurts together and heals together, as one body of Christ.
Some days we can feel God’s presence clearly in our lives, like a sense of peace we can’t shake, or a beautiful vision we can’t help but notice. Other days we see God’s presence in the people who come to bring us healing, the doctors and nurses who care for us and the friends and family who take time from their day to see how we’re doing. Some days—and I think these are the best days—we can even be the presence of God to someone else, as we seek their healing and comfort.
So if you are feeling cut off from others because you are hurting, you are not alone. If you are feeling cut off from others because they are hurting and you don’t know how to help, you are not alone. If you’re feeling cut off from the person you used to be or the things you used to love, you are not alone. Even if you’re feeling cut off from God, you are not alone. The spirit is with you, sighing with you on dark nights, giving you strength and power as you make your next step.
As you leave this place tonight, may you carry the memory of the weight of hands on your shoulders, pushing down to root you in God’s love and lifting up to raise you into God’s joy. May that memory remind you of the Spirit’s presence in your life; may it remind you that you are part of the beloved family of God; may it bring you wholeness; may it bring you peace. Amen.