Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up.

Our gospel comes as it always does in English translation, and today that means it comes Screen Shot 2018-02-04 at 2.15.19 PMwith a certain emphasis. Or de-emphasis. For instance, our reading should begin with the word immediately (the best one-word translation of the original Greek εὐθὺς) and from there should continue to tell us how once Jesus entered the house of Simon and Andrew, the disciples  immediately told him that Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and how when “Jesus came and took her by the hand and lifted her up, the fever immediately left her.”

By avoiding the inelegant use of immediately three times in a three-sentence story, our translation seems to be trying to slow the story down. An understandable effort. Mark, after all, has the quickest first step of all four evangelists. He’s always moving at break-neck pace to tell you about the immediacy of Jesus. It’s how he lands you full speed ahead on the road to Jerusalem following Jesus.

The word immediately shows up five times in the Gospel according to Matthew, three times in the Gospel of John, only once in the Gospel of Luke, and a whole whopping forty-one times in the Gospel according to Mark. Immediacy is what Mark’s after. And yet in this reading today there lives another kind of immediacy: the face-to-face immediacy of Jesus coming into the room of Simon’s mother-in-law, taking her by the hand, and lifting her up.

Though the miracle he performs is largely beyond us, he begins with something well within our reach: like him, we can hold the fevered hand of an ailing woman. Notably, Mark doesn’t give us a clue about what Jesus may or may not have said to her. It’s as if what he needed most were his hands and his presence. I’m guessing many of you have been there in that same immediacy. In fact, I know you have: bedside before someone in need of your hand, in need of you lifting them up.

A friend recently sent me an essay from the New York Times about how to talk to people in pain, most especially how to talk to people when losses begin to rob them of a world they’d come to love. The essay was written by an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School named Kate Bowler: a young wife and mother who lives with cancer.

She writes, “Every 90 days I lie in a whirling CT machine, dye coursing through my veins, and the doctors look to see whether the tumors in my liver are growing. . . . The rhythm has been the same since my doctors told me I had stage IV colon cancer two and a half years ago. I live for three months, take a deep breath, and hope to start over again. I will probably do this for the rest of my life.” [1]

Bowler is a professor of Christian history. “The future,” she says, “is like a language I [don’t] speak anymore.” She remembers a favorite nurse who came alongside her with real tenderness when she was undergoing chemotherapy. This particular nurse had lost a baby, and “knew,” in Bowler’s words, “what it was like to keep marching long after the world had ended.” [2]

In her experience, most of us don’t know how to be with somebody whose world has fallen apart or with somebody who doesn’t know how to talk about their future anymore. By her reckoning there are three usual strategies we default to: Minimizing, Exhausting, Fixing, all them failing to comfort anyone. Minimizers, she defines, as people “who think I shouldn’t be so upset because the significance of my illness is relative.” You may know the type: well-meaning friends who remind you there are bigger things to cry about than losing a job or a child or a husband or a life; who tell you there are, after all, starving populations and drought stricken nations and anyway you’re not dead yet.[3]

In answer to that, Bowler writes, “A lot of [‘good Chrisitian’] people like to remind me that heaven is my true home, which makes me want to ask them if they would like to go home before me.” Atheists, she says, are just as bad, advising she get over the hope of heaven, and learn to “accept the world as it is.” Which brings her to the Exhausters, who focus on the many lessons suffering has to teach you, as if illness were a learning opportunity, a way for the sick to drill down and go to work; a way to receive from your sickbed a genuine sure-enough “education in body, mind, and spirit.”[4]

According to her, Exhausters say things like, “I hope you’ll get closer to God in all this.” This fails, of course, to meet her where she is. It fails to hold her fevered hand and bestows on her the additional burden of lessons to learn. Of this, Bowler asks a fair-enough question, “Do I [really] need to lose something more to learn God’s character?’ [5]

The hardest lessons, she writes, come from “the solutions people” – the Fixers – “who are already a little disappointed that I am not saving myself.” They commend things like herbal supplements and the power of positive thinking. They tell you, “Keep smiling! Your attitude determines your destiny!” [6]  The underlying message is that she’s not trying hard enough.

Fortunately, Bowler names a more loving alternative to minimizing pain, exhausting the suffering, or burdening the helpless. She commends instead the ministry of acknowledgement, of dwelling in and with the actual reality of the one who suffers. Bowler tells us never ever “to skip that first horrible step of saying, ‘I’m sorry. I’m sorry this is happening to you.’” [7]

That’s what immediacy sounds like: “I’m sorry this is happening to you.

“Acknowledgment,” she writes, is “a mercy. . . . It does not ask anything from me but makes a little space for me to stand there in that moment. Without it I often feel like I am starring in a reality program about a woman who gets cancer and is very cheerful about it.” [8]

“After acknowledgment,” she writes, “must come love” and also “encouragement.” These are the holy practices that hold her in the immediacy of her present suffering, and soothe her by way of affection and touch and small gifts, like the things you know to bring to friends in need: cookies, prayer shawls, soup, presence. Love and encouragement make a difference. Again, in Bowler’s words, “[Love and encouragement] say to me, . . . ‘Yes, the world is changed, dear heart, but do not be afraid. You are loved, you are loved. [And] I am here.’”[9]

In the house of Simon’s mother-in-law, I imagine Jesus making “a little space for her to stand there in that moment,” to stand there just as she is. I imagine him saying, “I love you. And I am here with you.” In the name of Jesus, we’re called to make a little space in our own lives and in the hurried rush of our world: a little space for the weak, the sick, and the dying to be just as they are, and not as we want them to be.

___________________________

[1] “What to Say When You Meet the Angel of Death at a Party,” Kate Bowler, The New York Times, 28 January 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/26/opinion/sunday/cancer-what-to-say.html.

[2-9] Ibid!

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