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Wilderness: A Place of Healing

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Last Sunday during worship, I mentioned that planning for each week’s worship service begins months in advance. I am finding great irony in the fact that I was beginning to reflect on the sermon for today waaaaay back in late December, early January. Back then, the theme for today’s sermon, Wilderness: A Place of Healing, began to develop. Around that same time, thousands of miles away, doctors in China and officials at the World Health Organization were beginning to share with the world that a previously unknown pneumonia was rapidly spreading through communities. First called a “novel coronavirus,” we now refer to it as COVID-19. And it has changed our lives.

Thus, in a very short period of time the words, Wilderness: A Place of Healing, has taken on a whole new level of meaning as more and more people get sick from the coronavirus… closer and closer to home.

I don’t know about you, but the past week has definitely felt like a wilderness to me. I used to always think that I liked wildernesses, but today I am feeling a bit less sure. One of the definitions for “wilderness” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary is “a bewildering situation.”[1] The many challenges intertwined with the pandemic is, in all too many ways, a bewildering situation. While I have kept abreast of the news, I can’t help but feel bewildered.

What about you? A week ago, I was bewilderedly watching as the recommendation from local health officials and the CDC put into place restrictions for groups of more than 250 people gathering. Within days, this was decreased to 50 people. We watched as the National Basketball Association canceled its season. The University of Wisconsin-Madison closed its campus and moved classroom instruction online. In rapid order, schools and businesses have closed. Others, have gone fully online, or are bringing purchases to the curbside. Food. Groceries. Even our vet has drop-off, curbside services. Our front-line responders – EMTs, doctors, nurses, social workers, pharmacists, cashiers, delivery drivers… are deeply immersed in the ever-changing scenario.

We have quickly implemented social distancing, a concept I didn’t have a name for until recently. In just over a week, we have gone from gatherings of no more than 250 people, to 50, and now to the state ordered gatherings of 10 of less.[2] Ten people. To give you an idea of what that means for us as Church, gathered here, this morning, we have 7-8 people present just to run the service. And that is with two people, Sue and Rebecca, at home remotely leading worship.

I don’t know about you, but for me, this is all bewildering. Yes, to the best of my lay person knowledge, I understand the science behind a pandemic. I know, logically, that responding as a wider community to #flattenthecurve is imperative, and what we must do at this time. I believe that we are called as followers of Jesus to communally support social distancing. And I have been working with leaders of the church to quickly become a Church beyond the walls of the building.

But that doesn’t mean I am immune to a sense of bewilderment in the wildness around us.

As we gather here this morning, at church, and there—in your homes—we are only in the early stages of the pandemic. There is going to be a need for lots, and lots of healing in the days ahead. This isa wilderness. A bewildering situation.

On the surface, this does not seem to be a place of healing.

Last Sunday was challenging emotionally as eleven of us worshiped here, in the church building. Another 60 people watched on FaceBook as we live streamed the service for the first time. For me personally, the service felt connected beyond the physicality of the building. Yet I choked up as service ended and I took the light of the Christ candle out of the sanctuary. The joy of gathering collided with the reality we would not be able to be together in this space for an indeterminant period of time.

And then, I read those familiar, comforting words in Psalm 23. These from the King James Bible:

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.

He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me (Psalm 23, KJV).

There, in the wilderness is healing. There is healing in these ancient words: Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Green pastures and still waters. These are places of healing that restore our souls.

Sometimes, in our very logical, scientific, evidence-based culture, I think that the mystical connectivity that exists in being seen by another person which contributes to a sense of healing has been lost. Glancing at one layer of the reading from John, we could ask ourselves: Do we believe in mystical healings? What do you think? My answer is a both/and: Both “no,” I have a background in scientific research and working in the medical field. There are medical answers behind healing. Yet I also believe that the man’s healing could have been physical—but that there was also a healing of his mind and spirit in his encounter with Jesus. So“yes”… I absolutely believe that this man was healed in some deep, not fully understood way. I believe there is Holy Truth at the center of the narrative.

In the midst of a pandemic, I find myself unexpectedly seeking that faith. I feel an immense need for healing at a moment when we are blind to the viral danger impacting our communities. Our world. In the fear and uncertainty, we need healing salve.

Whenever I reread the story of Jesus’ compassion for the man who was blind, I am reminded of my trips to a small room in the back of Chimayo, a little adobe chapel nestled in a valley in north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Since 1816, the church has been a place that is alive with stories of miraculous healings.

In the church, behind the chapel there is a small, dimly lit room. As you walk down the hallway leading to this chamber, lots and lots of faces and stories jump out at you. For haphazardly affixed to any available surface are letters, photographs, and crutches. Hundreds of testimonials to hope, healing, and the power of faith.

You see, in that back room is a small indentation in the floor filled with loose, red soil. They call it El Posito, or the “sacred sand pit”. Legend has it that the dirt has healing powers. This is what the faithful come to touch, to rub on their skin, to mark on their hands, feet and sides. They mark themselves with the red sand in remembrance of the wounds Christ sustained on the cross. They pray for a new life, free from the crippling diseases that rack their bodies and soul. They say that the marvel of this place is that the dirt in El Posito never runs out. Thus, there is enough healing available for all. Anyone. And miracles happen. Amazing miracles.

Whenever I read from John the story of the blind man being healed, I suddenly get images in my mind of Jesus gently reaching into El Posito and clasping a handful of the red soil. I can imagine Jesus being present once again, lovingly creating a healing salve from the earth. Again, mixing his own saliva with the dirt for those in need of healing.

Maybe this is all fanciful. Maybe it is not. Visiting that small room in the back of the chapel at Chimayo time after time, I have slowly begun to understand the ever-present love of God. To grasp the power of faith in the face of tragedy. The power of hope to heal unseen wounds. To get what is it like to be lost in a wilderness, and yet to be healed by the loving touch of Christ.

Today we will have a need to do our own healing. Healing as a faith community suddenly scattered. We are not going to use dirt and spit today, but instead we will be using oil, or hand lotion, or even our own hands in a moment during our prayers. Whatever you have available. God is present in the touch. In our gathering.

Healing. That is what we need today. The world needs today. Let us be in the presence of that miracle. May we be are ever present to the healing that restores our souls.

~Pastor Kris

Reflection on Psalm 23 and John 9:1-17 offered on March 22, 2020

[1] “Wilderness.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Accessed March 21, 2020. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/wilderness#synonyms.

[2] Public Health Madison & Dane County. Accessed March 21, 2020. https://publichealthmdc.com/coronavirus.