The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
A few months ago, there was a writing prompt for a contest in The Christian Century, and it was to write on the topic of scars. And to be quite personal, I have a number of small scars across my abdomen from two laparoscopic surgeries related to my prostate cancer. They’re just little scars that you might not even notice…not the old type of postsurgical scar that shows a long, raised white line where a scalpel opened a patient up.
I thought about writing about those little scars…but I didn’t, at least until now. The scars themselves are small, but the wounds left behind are fairly major, and the impacts of cancer treatment have been life-changing.
Some wounds and ailments are quite visible to the casual observer: a missing limb or a pronounced limp or hacking cough might reveal an injury or illness. Those are tough, because they are right out in the open. People are likely to understand and be sympathetic about wounds they can see. But they also leave the onlooker wondering: What happened, or even what did they do to make that happen. One of the things I noticed when going through cancer treatment was my own awareness of the shame-and-blame game that some people do, especially around lung cancer: “Well, was he a smoker?” they ask. That is utterly beside the point, and makes it possible for the observer to feel judgment and pity, but not compassion. It also makes the observer feel safer about herself because she knows she isn’t a smoker…but it’s a false sense of security, since many lung cancers occur in people who have never smoked.
The English word, compassion, Jane Anne said in last week’s sermon, comes from Latin roots cum and passio — to suffer with. And that’s quite right. But the New Testament was written in Greek, and the word often translated as compassion is splagknidzthomai. (Can you imagine the Scrabble score for that in Greece for that word!? It’s 38…without double or triple squares.) Splagnon means intestines or guts, and splagknidzthomai literally means compassion that is gut-wrenching.
You and I can offer pity from afar…but compassion is a different story. You have to be involved in order for it to be gut-wrenching. And if you are aware, if you are moved, and if you have a conscience, you have to get involved. Maybe you’ll be able to remedy it, and maybe you won’t, but you can’t be like the priest in the Good Samaritan parable and walk on by on the other side of the road. You and I can’t fix racism on our own, but we can use the gut-wrenching image of George Floyd under a police officer’s knee and use the compassion we feel to spur us on in working on our own racism and to help others along the way. We can use compassion to drive action for change in policy. We can use gut-wrenching compassion in the voting booth this fall. Compassion is not wimpy…it implies — and sometimes requires — tough love.
Unless he had an iron spike protruding from his spine, I imagine that the man suffering from paralysis in today’s text had a paralysis caused by something that was not visible to the naked eye, whether it was a nerve impacted by a broken bone or a disease that robbed him of his ability to walk. We aren’t told, but we do get the idea of Jesus’ tough love when he says to the man, “stand up, take your mat, and go to your home.” The invisible wound was healed.
I’m going to hazard a guess that every person hearing this sermon bears scars and has some kind of an unseen wound. Maybe it’s a physical ailment that really affects your health. Nobody sees high blood pressure, but they know when you’ve had a stroke. No one can tell is you have diabetes, but they see signs if your blood sugar drops. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not there.
And spiritual wounds are almost never visible. I can’t tell you how many LGBTQ people have been damaged by the church’s homophobia, but they are legion. Even if churches like ours offer a warm welcome to non-straight folks, we are a tiny minority among the global whole. Women, too, have been terribly marginalized and wounded by misogyny in the church. And we self-inflict spiritual wounds as well. We sometimes create our own tethers of shame and sin that keep us from experiencing the abundant life Jesus came to offer.
Many of us are in need of healing of unseen psychological ailments, whether depression, anxiety, or another disorder. About 7% of Americans experience a major depressive episode each year. That translates to about 50 people in our congregation.
On Friday, I got a call from one of our members whose 50-something son had taken his own life, and yesterday afternoon, I got another message about one of Jane Anne’s former parishioners in Denver, a young man in his 30s, who had died by suicide. As most of you know, Jane Anne’s son, Colin, took his own life two and a half years ago, so this hits hard and close to home for both of us. People left in the wake of a suicide often ask why they didn’t see the warning signs (especially people like me, who are trained to see warning signs). But the truth of it is that those who choose suicide often have deep unseen wounds.
We need to remove the stigma around mental illness…help is available, and keeping it in the shadows only makes it less likely that folks who suffer will get the help they need. Please reach out for help. Carla, Jane Anne, and I have a good referral list for therapists here in Fort Collins.
So, what is the unseen wound that is affecting you right now? That’s a hard question that you probably weren’t anticipating this morning. But, I ask that you take a moment to think about the physical, psychological, or spiritual wounds — especially the unseen wounds — that are affecting you and keeping you from living life in its fullness? I’m going to pause so that we can contemplate that in a moment of silence. [pause]
I know that my first image of healing was a really creepy televangelist, who would do “faith healings” on stage on his TV show. I remember him sticking his fingers into the ears of a person with a profound hearing impairment and yell, “Deaf spirits out!” For me, that taints the idea of healing.
Healing doesn’t necessarily mean curing. It can mean helping, acceptance, openness, forgiveness, seeking transformation. We yearn for the wholeness of body, mind, and spirit, even as we understand that no one is claiming to restore lost limbs or grow new organs in the people who are afflicted.
I have a profound belief in the efficacy of prayer…not that it works like a vending machine: insert a quarter, pull the lever, and out comes whatever you wish. Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, said, “The purpose of prayer is not to change God; it changes those who pray.” So, if you want to start changing, you can start by praying.
My own belief in healing prayer is not that it will result in curing, but that it may help us toward healing through accepting a terminal diagnosis (we all have one…), learning to live with a disability, getting help with mental illness or mood disorder, learning to forgive someone who has injured you deeply, learning to let go of shame, and learning to embrace with gratitude the abundance of blessings God offers you.
So, I invite you to think back a bit to that unseen wound that is affecting you right now. And if you wish, I invite you to focus on it for just a moment, and I’ll offer a prayer of healing.
Jesus the healer, we know that you came so that all of us might have life and have it with abundance. Whether our lives are long or brief, we invite you into the midst of them. We offer to you the wounds we bear in body, mind, or spirit. We hold them out, acknowledging their presence, and we invite you to share our pain. O Christ, we ask to be made whole. We ask for healing. Help loosen that which binds us to old and unhealthy conditions. Help us walk into the verdant garden of your healing love. Give us the courage to seek the professional help we need. Make us partners in seeking and providing wholeness, and help us to spread your healing and compassion throughout your world.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact hal @plymouthucc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
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