A Healing Grace

Almost 78 million people in the United States have had COVID since it first appeared in early 2020. More than 918,000 people have died from it in this country alone. Statistically, there’s an average of five people who grieve the loss of each person, which means that on top of that staggering number of deaths, there are an additional 4.6 million people who are grieving right now in the United States. If you’ve ever lost someone you love, you know what a force of nature the heartbreak that comes with grief can be. It disrupts everything; it makes everything painful. For a while, it even robs your best memories from you and steals your hope that life will ever be good again. It’s safe to say that everywhere we go in the world right now, we are meeting people who are living through some of the worst pain of their entire lives. That is more than enough reason for us to respond with compassion, no matter what they say or do or how they act.

And that’s just the pandemic we’re talking about. But we know people are dealing with so much more than COVID—all the previous health risks—for heart attack, various cancers, accidents, and more—are still in play. We are exhausted from the worry, from the risk, from the grief. We are all—in one way or another–people in need of healing.

And yet, we’re mostly not very good at letting ourselves rest and recover and heal. It’s part of our cultural ethos to stay busy, to be productive, to deny our aches and exhaustion and just soldier on. I noticed this tendency in myself when I broke my wrist a few years ago. I’d never been limited in that way before—when suddenly I just couldn’t use my hand for much of anything—for the better part of three months. I’m sorry to say I didn’t respond well, by being accepting and tolerant of my new limitation. I was irritable and annoyed, determined to do everything I’d always done, no matter what. I became the Quaker equivalent of MacGyver, figuring out new workarounds—how to one-handedly peel an orange, tie my shoes, open the cat food can. I only missed one day of work—it was sheer stubborn determination–even though I had a concussion and then surgery to fix both bones in my wrist. I was determined; this wasn’t going to slow me down. I didn’t rest, I didn’t take the easy way; I fought. And I think I made myself pretty miserable in the process. There wasn’t much grace, much gentleness in my recovery. I just fought my way back as fast as I could.

In his book, Recovery: The Lost Art of Convalescence, Dr. Gavin Francis says I’m not alone in that. He is a General Practitioner in the UK and his book is a reflection on the need for the true spirit of recuperation. He talks about how in the early Florence Nightingale days of medicine, we understood that healing wasn’t just a physical process—the faster, the better—but also required some time away from time, a release from everyday stresses, and the emotional and psychological support that lifted our spirits while our bodies healed. At a certain point, he said, as demands for efficiency and reimbursements in medical care grew, the emphasis was no longer on the space and time and support patients needed in order to heal but rather on how fast they could be released and how profitable their procedures were. The soul gets shortchanged in that kind of conveyor-belt medicine.

Dr. Francis wrote about breaking his leg in a bicycle accident when he was 12; he needed surgery to put the bone right, and when the cast was removed, he said, “It took months for my leg to feel like my own again.” He continues,

“When I think of that period of convalescence now I remember afternoons at home reading in the sunshine, doing my exercises at first tentatively and then with more confidence. The days were busy with sounds: of birds in the garden, cars in the distance, winds moving through the barley field behind the house. For twelve years my body had rarely stopped, and it seemed unnatural to have it rendered so motionless, as if with my injury the nature of time itself had warped and transformed. The flow of my life had been stilled, but it was that very stillness that gave me the opportunity to heal.”

Remember that—the very stillness gave the opportunity to heal. That’s grace.

Today, Dr. Francis gives his patients who are recovering from COVID a pamphlet on what to expect—from themselves and from their bodies—as they recover. On the list are a number of things that we might think would be common sense:

  • Plan rests throughout the day
  • Don’t rush
  • Keep meals small
  • Don’t plan anything within an hour of eating
  • Get fresh air
  • Sit down often
  • Push, don’t pull; slide, don’t lift
  • Don’t do more than one thing at a time
  • Set achievable goals, little and often, every day

That all sounds so simple doesn’t it? And also, full of kindness and ease. Caring for ourselves. Not pushing too hard. Being realistic in what we plan to do, and being happy when we reach small goals. How differently might we feel about ourselves and our recovery—and our world–if we could treat ourselves with this kind of care? What changes could occur if we admitted that we, too, are in need of healing, that we yearn to slow down, to breathe more deeply, to connect with others in a truly meaningful way; and to let go, for a time, of the relentless push of expectation?

Dr. Francis writes that in order “To flourish we have to build in moments of rest and reflection. The Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore summarized this sentiment when he wrote: ‘in the rhythm of life, pauses there must be for the renewal of life. Life in its activity is ever spending itself, burning all its fuel.”

You may remember that almost two years after I fought my way back from my broken wrist, I tripped in my office at the hospital and broke the collarbone of that same arm on a bookshelf that caught my fall, more or less. It’s possible—I think now—that I was being given another chance to learn a more graceful way of healing. A chance to cooperate with the process instead of fighting against it. This time, my fight was gone. I knew acceptance was the only way. I trusted whatever it was God had in store for me.

By the time I had the surgery to repair my shoulder, I’d been making do for four months, managing with the pain, learning which movements to avoid, unable to do common things like sweep the front walk or stir the brownie batter. I had been anxious about the surgery because I thought the recovery time would be terrible: weeks at home, unable to drive, with my right arm strapped to my torso to immobilize my shoulder while it healed. Anything requiring both hands was simply off the table for a long while. How would I spend all that time? Would I be miserable and sad and bored? I just didn’t know.

But looking back at that time now, I, like Dr. Francis in his memory, have images of long beautiful afternoons sitting in the sunshine, watching the birds at the feeders, and noticing the ever-changing beauty of the sky and the life in the forest. For the first time in my adult life, maybe, at least since I began working, I had time, all the time I needed. And what happened? I lived each day in peace from start to finish. There were no have-tos, no schedules, no projects, no expectations. I enjoyed the open, sweet time. I prayed, I read, I rested. I felt God was very close. I thoroughly enjoyed my recuperation and I felt so deeply grateful for it. I learned—this time—how to let my soul rest in God’s grace while my body healed. I think that’s what wholeness really means.

In our Old Testament reading today we hear from Jeremiah. As you probably remember, Jeremiah was a major prophet and a most unusual man. From the time he was a child, God was the central figure in Jeremiah’s life as he took God’s message to the people, preaching against idolatry and false prophets and the greed of priests and rulers. Those in power persecuted Jeremiah as he shared prophecies about God’s coming judgment and they plotted to kill him, but God revealed their plans and protected him. The verse we heard today comes as Jeremiah had proclaimed the coming devastation of God’s anger against those who had turned away from God. We hear Jeremiah making the opposite choice; he turns toward God to restore his strength, his peace, his feeling of safety in the midst of peoples’ angry reactions and threats. He says,

“Heal me, Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise.”

Jeremiah knows—and has known since he was a child—that he lives and moves and has his being in God. When he himself needs healing, he goes to the only One who can truly heal and truly save. It’s interesting here that Jeremiah ends this verse with “for you are the one I praise.” This could be another way of saying—I know you are the Source of my life—but there is definitely a connection between finding the truth of our soul’s rest and feeling the gratitude that wells up automatically in response. I felt that during the weeks of my recovery. Dr. Francis mentioned the stillness that framed the blessing of his days. That is all God’s grace, the flow of peace and beauty and love, healing us from the inside out.

In our reading from the New Testament today we heard a fascinating bit of conversation Jesus is having with the disciples. They want to know why he always talks to the crowds in parables, and he quotes Isaiah to tell them that the meaning is purposely hidden so that only those who turn their souls toward God will understand. He quotes,

“For this people’s heart has become calloused;  they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them."

God wants something more for us that the surface, everyday plans and pressures of a normal life. In God’s infinitely creative love he designed bodies that are intricate systems of healing that to a large degree know instinctively how to heal themselves. Our cuts heal; our bruises mend. And for the larger and more serious needs, we trust the talents and training of the medical professionals in our world. But in order for real healing to occur, for us to be whole again, more is needed. Life is not a purely physical thing. Nor is it mental. Nor is it emotional. For us to live our lives fully, with light and hope, vitality and joy, our souls need time and space, protection and permission, to turn toward God. To relish and enjoy that. What a welcome we’ll receive!

Think of all the reports we have of Jesus healing people. He heals Peter’s mother-in-law of a fever, restores a man’s withered hand, brings numerous paralyzed people back to full health, heals the blind, drives out evil spirits, raises people from the dead, restores a man’s hearing, heals 10 lepers, and even heals the severed ear of the servant of the high priest who approached him as he was being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. In each of these situations, the people who need healing—or ones appealing to Jesus on their behalf—turn toward him with hopeful hearts, believing he has the power to bring God’s grace into their lives and restore them to wholeness. These people were not just “seeing with their eyes and hearing with their ears”—if they were, they would likely see Jesus, as a young man with a compelling message, but not necessarily the Son of God. To recognize the divinity in him, their own souls needed to be awake, and in their wakefulness, to turn toward him. And then, soul to soul, God’s grace of healing flowed.

During the first 50 years of the Religious Society of Friends, back in the 1600s, some Quakers were able to perform similar types of healings. George Fox was known among Friends as a miracle worker during those times. In the lost book, entitled, The Book of Miracles, some 150 miracles were recorded from the years Fox was actively traveling, teaching, and speaking. John Banks, a Quaker in England, wrote in his own journal about a healing he received because of the prayers of Fox. He writes,

About this time [1677], a pain struck into my shoulder, which gradually fell down into my arm and hand, so that the use thereof I was wholly deprived of; and not only so, but the pain greatly increased both day and night and for three months I could neither put my clothes on or off myself, and my arm and hand began to wither, so that I did seek to some physicians for cure, but no cure could I get by any of them; until at last as I was asleep upon my bed in the night time, I saw in a vision I was with dear George Fox; and I thought I said unto him, "George, my faith is such, that if thou seest it thy way to lay thy hand upon my shoulder, my arm and hand shall be whole throughout." Which remained with me after I awaked, two days and nights (that the thing was a true vision) and that I must go to George Fox until at last through much exercise of mind, as a near and great trial of my faith, I was made willing to go to him; he being then at Swarthmore, in Lancashire, where there was a meeting of Friends, being on the first day of the week. And some time after the meeting, I called him aside into the hall, and gave him a relation of my concern as aforesaid, showing him my arm and my hand; and in a little time, we walked together silent, he turned about and looked upon me, lifting up his hand, and laid it upon my shoulder, and said, "The Lord strengthen thee both within and without." And so we parted, and I went to Thomas Lower's of Marsh Grange that night; and when I was sat down to supper in his house, immediately, before I was aware, my hand was lifted up to do its office, which it could not for so long as aforesaid; which struck me into great admiration, and my heart was broke into true tenderness before the Lord, and the next day I went home, with my hand and arm restored to former use and strength, without any pain. And the next time that George Fox and I met he readily said, "John, thou mended, thou mended;" I answered, "Yes, very well in a little time." "Well," said he, "give God the glory."

So do you hear a common denominator here? What can help us move toward wholeness—and even revitalized lives–as we all heal from this long exhausting time of grief and illness, heartache and loss? Dr. Francis reminds us we need the time and space—and permission—to respect and honor our deep need for healing. Jeremiah suggests that we focus on and stay close to the One who is the Source of our lives—and remember to express our gratitude along the way. And Jesus—who is Grace embodied—reminds us to listen with more than our ears, to see with more than our eyes, to turn our souls hopefully toward God for the answers we seek. When we do, we will know beyond all doubt that our mending is underway, the perfect work of God’s never-ending, wholly loving, all-inclusive grace.

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