The beach is not the place to work, to read, write or think. I should have remembered that from other years…
At first the tired body takes over completely… One is forced against one’s mind, against all tidy resolutions, back into the primeval rhythms of the seashore… And then, some morning in the second week, the mind wakes. Comes to life again. Not in a city sense. No, but beach-wise. It begins to drift, to play, to turn over in gentle careless rolls like those lazy waves on the beach. One never knows what chance treasures these easy unconscious rollers may toss up, on the smooth white sand of the conscious mind; what perfectly rounded stone, what rare shell from the ocean floor…
But it must not be sought for… No, no dredging of the sea bottom here… The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, or too important. To dig for treasures, shows not only impatience and greed, but lack of faith. Patience, patience, patience is what the sea teaches. Patience and faith. One should lie empty, open, choiceless as a beach—waiting for a gift from the sea.
(Ann Morrow Lindbergh, A Gift From the Sea. New York: Pantheon Books, 1955, pp. 15-17)
I recently celebrated twenty-five years of ordained ministry. I am drawn to the sea for rejuvenation, and the words of Anne Morrow Lindbergh generate attractive images that parallel my life in ministry. Looking back I see the role that story telling and story hearing has had in shaping my ministry. Stories were always there, and they continue to wash up in life and ministry like treasures on the beach.
For me as a young boy, stories were magical and profound. Today, children’s sermons, story time in our parish, Community Opening, pre-school classes and Vacation Bible School are opportunities to play in the world of stories—stories that are rich in meaning at multiple levels.
The healing stories of the Gospels are personal and timeless, yet too often we have approached them analytically. Jenson, Thinking in Story, (C.S.S. Publishing Co., 1993, pp. 40-43) indicates that preaching is often the presentation of ideas rather than the telling of the story. As pastors we often sidestep the voices of the real people in the Bible stories. The words of Martha as she knelt in grief before Jesus is the cry of any one of us at such a moment. Stories of healing lead us to personalize and deepen our faith. Upon hearing such stories we seek to tell our own stories and are often better able to affirm our faith in God.
In recent years I have helped to train nurses for ministry as parish nurses. As a chaplain represents the spiritual dimension in care of people in hospitals, so the nurse can be the voice for the physical care of our bodies, a missing piece in holistic care of people in the parish. However, it can be frustrating when the Sunday readings hit so accurately at the needs of the people, but the worship forms, prayers and preaching are directed elsewhere. Parish nurses may not claim liturgical skills, but their work and faith give them a wealth of healing stories that give witness to the healing hand of God in our daily lives. These stories should find their way into the life of our communities and be used in the heart of worship.
Our stories should be treated as treasures washed up on the beaches of our lives and ministries. Medicine has been reclaiming the role of stories in the art and reality of healing. For many years medicine regarded stories as “anecdotal” and therefore, the “epitome of unscientific information.” In writing about training of physicians, Eric Cassell (Nature of Suffering, Oxford University Press, 1991, p. 167), claims “to know the illness one must know something of the person. To know the person, one must know something of the narrative.” And, “the narrative is not only an assemblage of empirical facts, it is an aesthetic whole—a tapestry woven from individual threads to form a coherent pattern that is complete in itself, but also tells of the weaver.”
Health and Healing in Worship
Health care professionals may be frustrated in trying to find ways to bring their gifts into the church because worship naturally takes priority as the center of life in the parish. The vital signs of the body of Christ pulsate in liturgical forms. The health of the parish can be measured in the sanctuary, where life and breath are evident in music and voice, and where vitality, flexibility, and inclusion are tested against a standard of balance, wholeness, and meaning.
The community life that goes on in and around the walls of the church throughout the week should be given expression in the worship hour. It is the testimony of our faith as story that is our corporate worship. A healthy worship experience gives witness to a sense of confidence and hope that we are on the right track as a people of God and as shepherds caring for those we serve.
One of the natural bridges between the various ministries of the church is story sharing. Our stories lift up our diversity within our unity as a people of God. Bishop Kenneth Olsen and Francis Cardinal George each told their personal side of the story of growing up as Roman Catholic and Lutheran Christians at the Tenth Anniversary of the Covenant Signing between the two church bodies. Worshipping participants could identify with these stories because we have experienced the immovable wall between Lutherans and Catholics in our own lives. But in that moment we were not talking about the distant past or even the achievements of the past ten years. New healing was occurring as we worshiped in that very moment; a new generation of leaders was reaching out for unity of Christian identity.
Health care professionals express concern that clergy do not bring health and healing proclamations to the pulpit. Worship experiences rarely embrace health and healing themes, even though many gospel lessons are rich in this sort of content. Consider this text from Luke 13:6-9
A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came seeking fruit on it but found none. He said to the vinedresser, “Lo these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?” And he answered him, “Let it alone sir, this year also, till I dig about it and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not you can cut it down.”
Jesus told this story about Israel, a chosen people, at risk of being lost. It is a powerful story for us today who are searching for ways to address problems of children and teens at risk. This text has extraordinary meaning to me after ministering for a number of years with adolescents and their parents in treatment for substance abuse. The therapeutic community daily addressed “compliments, complaints and concerns.” As caregivers we discovered that honest, consistent, well-placed compliments by parents and peers were often experienced by at-risk youth like the hand of Christ touching the daughter of the Jewish leader (“He went in and took her by the hand, and the girl arose.” Matthew 8:25). One mother, a teacher in the local school whose son went through this process, wrote to the staff, “Thank you for giving me my son back.”
The Service of the Word for Healing
Parishes of the Metropolitan Chicago area have increasingly lifted up the daily work of the church in visible signs of health and healing ministries. The Park Ridge Center has announced a new project involving a number of congregations where the health and healing ministries can be made local. In 1998, the Inter Lutheran Coordinating Committee on Ministerial Health and Wellness sponsored A Letter on Peace and Good Health, written by James P. Wind and published by Lutheran Brotherhood. [Ed. note: see review in this issue.] The December 1996 issue (Vol. 35) of Chicago Studies, a Liturgy Training Publications, was dedicated to the topic of Healthcare in the Catholic Community with articles specific to the Lutheran Parish (Crum) and the Catholic Parish (Kinast).
The editors of the ELCA Worship Planning Guide Sundays and Seasons, (Augsburg Fortress Press 1997-98) note that the “Service of the Word for Healing” is frequently not used and even not known to be a resource in Lutheran congregations. The editors encourage pastors and congregations to consider ways to offer this service, especially in the Cycle C Year of Luke.
The worship committee of the congregation I serve initiated a monthly schedule in which the Service of the Word for Healing (Occasional Services, pp. 89-98) is offered during the regular worship hour. Anointing and laying on of hands is done after the hymn of the day. After two years on this schedule we have found it meaningful to integrate the various parts of the liturgy of this service into the Order for Confession and Forgiveness as well as other service prayers.
The need for the service is tremendous. Our committee expected that only a few persons would come forward on a given Sunday, but we have found that the majority of the congregation comes forward. Persons with more severe disabilities remain in their pews and the pastor comes to them. Young and old come forward, each kneeling at the altar railing. The pastor approaches and speaks aloud their first names. Naturally, I know nearly everyone who comes forward and I am aware of their life circumstances. The needs for healing and celebration of healing are wide-ranging. A mother brings her six-year old son with her to the railing. No reason is given, yet I know that the Mom and Dad are in a bitter divorce process. As I lay my hands on the child I pray silently that god lift from this child the burden of his parents’ conflict so that he is free to focus on learning and play.
Jenny, who is fourteen, is also kneeling at the altar. I remember when she and her parents first moved to Chicago and how Jenny glared at me with that contemptuous look only teenagers can give. Her parents wanted to talk, but Jenny was angry and wanted to leave, and I was holding them up, she felt. Nearly a y ear has passed. Jenny has joined the confirmation class and softened greatly in her attitude toward me and the church. As she kneels at the altar railing, she has her arm around six-year old Katie, child of long-time members. The have adopted each other as sisters. Katie often sits on Jenny’s lap during story time in Community Opening. Jenny’s eyes look up as I approach her at the railing. “Jenny,” she says, speaking her name. I reach out and place my hands on her shoulders, giving thanks to God that our church has been an instrument of healing in what was potentially a stormy transitional move to a new community. “Jenny,” I say, “I lay my hands on you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, beseeching him to uphold you and fill you with grace that you might know the healing power of this love.”