Mission as Healing
When Dale and David asked me to make a presentation at this Extended Staff Meeting on “Mission as Healing,” I responded unhesitatingly in the affirmative. As I thought about the topic, I had to check with Dale to make sure I heard him correctly. I wondered if he had said “Mission as healing” or “Mission is healing.”
I think there is a qualitative difference, and I wasn’t quite prepared to tackle the latter–because for me it opens a number of theological boxes that are beyond the realm of this discussion. “Mission as healing” is much less restrictive of mission and of healing and, I think, more accurately represents a work in progress, an ongoing activity that may not have a recognizable end. “Mission is healing” on the other hand, is more definitive. It implies that it is possible for mission to have a terminus. When an injury has healed, one returns to their normal everyday activity, probably with an occasional twinge, reminding them of the injury. They are grateful for the healing, and the pain is just an occasional memory.
In mathematical terms, too, I interpret the two “equations” differently. “Mission is healing” to me is a straightforward example of A=A. Simple and clear. “Mission as healing” however, is something else. In this equation, mission is a component of healing; and conversely, healing is a component of mission. Neither mission nor healing completely and exclusively equals the other. I cannot accept the phrase “Mission is healing” because I think that mission is an ongoing, never-ending activity that has to do with relationships. I would accept “Mission is healing” if the participle “healing” is understood as a continuing process that only ends when the kingdom of God is attainted, but that unique endpoint is not in our hands. However, as I am not William Safire, and we have not come here to define what “is” is, I’ll leave the distinction between “as” and “is” in this context, for the theological linguists among us to contemplate.
“Mission as healing” is our topic this morning, and I would like to begin by posing some questions about the topic at hand. Let me say from the outset that I will not purport to define mission, as that is a much deeper exercise. We will brush up against that exercise, though, as we progress this morning and encounter aspects of mission. My initial questions have to do with the “healing” side of the equation. Some of the questions we will need to address are, What does healing mean? Who participates in the healing process? Who heals and who is healed? I will attempt to provide some possible answers to these questions in the context of mission, and want to begin by reading a familiar story from the Gospel according to John, which I think is a helpful paradigm for our discussions. It is the story of Thomas. From John 20:19-31, we read,
19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” 24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin ), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31 But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.
There is a great deal in this text for us to unpack for our understanding of “mission as healing,” and the Easter experience helps us to approach the theme in a helpful way. At the risk of preaching a little, let me engage in some expository work on the story of Thomas, and start with Thomas’ skepticism about the validity of the news of the risen Christ. Thomas had to see and touch Jesus to overcome his skepticism over Christ’s resurrection. Now to some degree, we are all skeptics, wanting – even needing – some kind of tangible proof positive in order to be convinced of the authenticity or plausibility of a claim. Even more than that, in our everyday lives, we don’t entertain the possibility of a particular reality unless we have a direct connection to it; read about it in a newspaper, a magazine, online; or see it on television. According to the text, “Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” The text implies that Jesus knew the disciples would doubt, as he “showed them his hands and his side.” Jesus understood the human tendency to require evidence. For Thomas, the testimony of his companions was not enough. Thomas needed that personal confirmation of the disciples’ strange and incredible claim, made after their first contact with Jesus following the crucifixion and burial. Surely they were eager to tell him, and surely they told Thomas with energy and enthusiasm, yet that was not sufficient for Thomas. He replied to them, perhaps cautiously, perhaps indignant, perhaps cynically, and perhaps wanting to believe. But his words reveal his incredulity, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Jesus appeared to the disciples a week later and said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Having seen and touched Christ, Thomas answered, “My Lord and my God!” He had the proof positive he needed. Only then was Thomas able to set aside his skepticism and proclaim for all to hear his belief in the risen Christ.
That would have been a clean end to the episode. If it had ended there, however, the disciples’ missionary message in response to the wonderful reality of Christ’s resurrection could have been dramatically derailed before it started. After Thomas proclaimed his belief, the story continues, Jesus responded to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” In Thomas’ case, and perhaps for the other disciples who also saw, the answer may have been “yes.” If so, then their missionary efforts would have been doomed from the start. Thomas was perhaps the first person confronted with the missionary message of the disciples. The disciples were called upon to take the message out into the world. We remember that Jesus greeted them by saying, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” Their first attempt to spread the word of the resurrection was directed at Thomas, who did not believe them without seeing for himself. If the disciples had expected that it would require visual proof to spread the news of Christ’s life, crucifixion, and resurrection, would Peter have taken the message to Syria and then to Rome? Would James have been able to establish the church in Jerusalem? And would Thomas himself have been capable of taking the good news through Iraq and Iran, and into India?
But Jesus followed up his question by saying, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” With that, Jesus both ridiculed Thomas and offered tremendous encouragement to the disciples in their missionary call.
Let us assess for a moment the Thomas story as the first Christian missionary effort. In a sense, it failed dramatically. In another sense, however, it is a powerful lesson of success. The failure was fully human. The disciples were incapable of persuading Thomas on their own. The lesson of success is that mission requires Christ’s presence, however that presence is manifest. How does this missional aspect of the story reflect upon the way in which churches “do mission”? Here, I am talking about churches in many senses: ecumenically (both internationally and nationally), denominationally, regionally, and locally. One conclusion might be that direct connections in mission are required. From the disciples’ point of view, it was first necessary for them that they see in order to believe.
When we as staff of the Division of Overseas Ministries and Wider Church Ministries–some discrete staff and some common staff in Global Ministries–think about mission, what do we think about? I think it is natural for us to think about our partnerships in many places around the world (and yes, the United States is in that world!). I am able to visualize children singing and learning at Rawdat al-Zuhur primary school in East Jerusalem. Many of the pictures they have drawn in their art classes are terribly expert in their presentation of the reality of Palestinian life under occupation, complete with images of tanks and military airplanes assaulting homes and people–drawn with crayons! There are also many wonderful pictures of a peaceful life, one about which Palestinian children dream. I know of the benefit of the Child Sponsorship program and how it has made a difference for these Palestinian children. I conjure up images of garbage collectors in Cairo, whose livelihood depends on the recycling of portions of the garbage they collect, and whose expected life span is in the 40s. They are worried because the Egyptian government has decided to contract with a German company to collect Cairo’s garbage. Two of our partners in Egypt have worked intimately in such communities, teaching people to read, or helping them to start income-generating projects. I remember seeing hospitals in Iraq that only had broken, non-functioning equipment, and babies struggling to live, fighting maladies as easily preventable as malnutrition. I can imagine what Iraq looks like now in the aftermath of the most recent major military campaign. Susan provided a clue to that when she reported to us in Cleveland that the single-most commonly issued prescription for ailing Iraqis is clean water! The Middle East Council of Churches is playing a part–albeit an admittedly small part given the scale of the crisis–in the reconstruction process there, with tangible results. I know that many of us have our own numerous vivid examples of conditions of pain, and of attempts to engage in healing.
For those of us who have had the opportunity to live in and/or visit such difficult realities (and may we remember that we really don’t even need to get on a plane to do that), or work closely with the many issues the world over, we have participated directly in various kinds of ministries. Many of us have seen the needs and seen results of the Church’s involvement in those places. We know of these places by our direct or indirect contact; our seeing and touching if you will, and that of the faithful people who are our colleagues.
Many in our churches adopt the direct perspective–that is necessary to have an immediate and direct connection in order to participate in mission. They have mission committees that engage in various worthy projects in their communities, throughout the country, and indeed, throughout the world. I do not want to diminish those efforts. I know many local churches that are deeply committed to such projects and give so much of their resources to ensure that they continue in them. Often, conferences or regions, and even local congregations, engage in direct relationships with churches or various other configurations of a church. Just a couple of weeks ago in Cleveland, the UCC’s Connecticut Conference Minister, the Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, made note of this by saying that it is a reality of the changing face of mission. It is important to acknowledge it, and also to be in communication with such conferences, for example, to help them connect with our work in Common Global Ministries for several reasons. One of the reasons is that as those of us who participated in the Consultation in Partnership in January saw, often the strategy and direction of an area office and the development of a conference’s partnership with the same international partner can be polemical. Without coordination, instead of healing through missional relationships, pain can be a tangible result. The pain may be felt in one of the separate relationships with the international partner or both, as well as in the relationship between the conference and the national office. There is therefore an imperative for relationships between Global Ministries and the various settings of the church engaged in partnership to include what Xiaoling summarizes in the four Cs: communication, consultation, cooperation, and common mission. Together, these Cs can contribute to a kind of healing of the so-called “gap” between national staff and other settings of the denominations, with mission as a vehicle for that healing. This kind of cooperation is fostered in a way that is respectful and recognizes the reality that direct relationships are more and more possible. Also important, as Vijay points out, is that Common Global Ministries has a particularly crucial role to play, especially in our relationships with conferences or regions that have their own partnerships. Such singular relationships are limiting for the conferences as they don’t allow for a full breadth of vision or perspective of mission. Our other role, therefore, is to help keep the various settings of the church informed about and connected with the work of the Church (capital c) throughout the world, and not to be too narrow in their outlook. The issues apply, I am sure, to many settings of the church, including conferences and regions as well as individual congregations.
This idea of direct participation, that it is important to see in order to believe, however, can be resolved differently for people of faith. As you know, I am a Presbyterian. The Presbyterian Church takes pride in its connectional nature. Without going into a lesson on Presbyterian polity, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is a connectional church. From the connection that members of a particular congregation feel toward each other, to the connections of local churches through a presbytery; churches and presbyteries through synods; and all parts of the PC(USA) at the General Assembly, that denomination is connectional. While connectedness does not imply unity–and the Presbyterian Church is also a very diverse church–Presbyterians are united in their order and, more importantly, in the belief in the redeeming love of God and the hope and wonder of the resurrection. From my experience in the UCC and Disciples, I think that these connections exist here as well, even if the polity of the churches differ, favoring congregational autonomy. Nonetheless, I have observed that in the UCC and the Disciples as denominations, and as church, there is an inherent connectedness that is to be valued.
The UCC and Disciples are also connected to each other through the full communion relationship–a very deep and serious commitment to the healing of the body of Christ. We have ecumenical relationships with other denominations here in the United States, and of course, our international partnerships through Global Ministries. Our two denominations are indeed connectional across denominational lines.
Given our attempted exegetical work on the story of Thomas, specifically the missionary efforts of the disciples and Christ’s statement, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe,” and our brief discussion regarding the connectional nature of the UCC and Disciples, I think we gain a slightly different take on the body of Christ. If we are indeed connected ecumenically and internationally to other parts of the body of Christ, then we in Global Ministries have a very important responsibility. For the entirety of the denominations–for those churches, conferences, and regions that don’t have their own relationships, and certainly for those who do–it is our responsibility (among many other responsibilities) to do our jobs well. For so many, we are the link to the body of Christ manifest in so many places. We represent the direct connections that others do not have. We make the fact of “one humanity” and the “one body” real. Since we have direct connections to the victims of tornados in the Midwest, and connections to Iraqi victims of war in the Mideast, those who don’t have those connections can believe without seeing or touching for themselves. If we do our jobs well, we participate in the healing of the disjointed body of Christ. We bring the missionary message of the parts of the whole body to bear on its other parts, whether those parts are here in the U.S. or abroad. I think it is important to celebrate that: not in a self-congratulatory way but to recognize the vital role we have and to focus on our serious responsibility to assume that role.
This connectional aspect of the Church, the body of Christ, and our role in God’s mission brings us to another aspect of the Thomas story. This second, but no means secondary aspect bears directly in our discussion of the healing facet of mission. In the scriptural story, Thomas needed to “see the mark of nails in Jesus’ hands, and put [his] finger in the mark of the nails in his hands and [his] hand in his side.” Only in that way was Thomas able to experience the pain Jesus felt when crucified. He was able to touch Jesus’ pain. By recognizing that pain–by believing it–Thomas engaged in healing–healing of himself and of others. Thomas and the disciples recognized intimately that the hope and joy of the resurrection cannot come without the pain of the crucifixion. The reality in the world is pain. Pain and incompleteness are human conditions that we can never overcome on our own; healing, the fullness of life, and perfection are divine. Christ embodied both natures – the human and the divine. Indeed Christ was in a unique position to interpret for us the reality of pain and the faith-centered hope for healing that we live.
As I noted at the outset, there are several questions regarding healing that we must examine; but healing implies pain, and so we must start with pain before we begin to understand the wonders of healing in its many facets. First, what is pain? We can define it in medical terms as a series of neurological impulses sent from a point of physical trauma to the brain, where it is interpreted in a way that lets an individual know discomfort in various degrees, from slight discomfort to excruciating agony. The pain a child experiences in her knee and hands as she falls off the bicycle she is learning to ride is an example of this. We can define pain from an emotional standpoint as the sadness or confusion a person feels as a result of an unexpected event in a relationship with another person. The pain that the child’s parents feel as they see her fall–both in terms of feeling the child’s physical pain, and feeling the frustration she experiences as she attempts to get it right–illustrates this. Beyond the level of the individual, we can talk about the pain of an entire group of people–defined in terms of common nationality, ethnicity, or another category of association. The yearning pain of the Palestinian people, for example, in their unending struggle for statehood and the physical and spiritual pain the Palestinians feel when entire towns are closed by curfew, homes are razed by bulldozers, unemployment soars, and families struggle to find their next meal. The intense pain that the Iraqi people have felt for the past twelve years of their national history during a period of sanctions following the second Gulf War (1991) has been particularly debilitating. As the United States made the case for war and stated that it would work hard to minimize the “collateral damage,” it did not bring to the table the matter of these twelve years of sanctions that had already caused uncountable human death–which, as we know, is the translation of that painful euphemism, “collateral damage.” Pain can thus be manifest at the level of the individual and at the level of the community or nation. The kinds of pain I have illustrated are the kinds of pain with which we can readily identify. In more theological terms, we might talk about pain in terms of the incompleteness or lack of wholeness in the experience of the world and humanity. That kind of incompleteness can be physical, emotional, and/or spiritual. Within each understanding, however, pain is a reality that represents a deviation from the perfect wholeness that God is and that faithful people ideally aim to emulate for the self and for the other in the human community.
By whose standards is that incompleteness measured? We may assert that completeness is a relative concept, but the standard-bearer can only be God. Humanity attempts to approach what it defines as completeness–and there are many different ideas concerning this completeness–but I don’t think we can fully understand the degrees of pain in economic, political, or social terms without accepting that as humans–flawed by our very nature–we, alone, are not able to eradicate pain in all of its forms for every person or community. The effort can–and indeed must–be centered in God–consistent with our belief that mission is God-centered and not human-owned.
This idea that pain is relative leads us to the second crucial question in our examination of mission as healing. That question is: who suffers pain? If human incompleteness is relative, but no human being or human community is the standard-bearer of wholeness, then the easy answer is that all human beings and human communities suffer pain, but the pain people suffer is not equal. If we gauge pain on the levels of poverty in the world, by country, we in the United States are suffering less pain than most countries on the face of the earth, including, but not limited to, the rampantly impoverished countries of southern Asia. If we use another standard of measurement that seems to have great popularity these days within the halls of our own government, people feel pain who do not enjoy the freedoms and participation in democratic processes. By this standard, pain would be relieved by the introduction of democratic systems. Are these kinds of measures accurate to reveal who is feeling pain? To a significant degree, the pain people experience can be measured in economic terms. There is a wide divide between the rich and the poor in the world so it would be grossly absurd to assert that the pain, or incompleteness, experienced by people in rich countries, is comparable to that of poorer countries. It would be wrong, though, to forget that there are still many painful problems in the richer countries–racism, poverty, and hopelessness. To ignore the pain of ANYone is simply arrogant. Beyond that, to ignore or, more grievously, to deny the pain of others is a source of pain itself. There is great pain in the world. There is no person, community, or nation, that does not experience pain. Naturally, some feel different kinds of pain than others, and naturally, the pain of some is much deeper than the pain of others, but the reality is that each one of us, each one of our communities, feels some kind of pain–the deprived or the economically strong; those living in a dictatorship, or those in a “democracy.”
As I was flying to Seattle last Thursday for the meeting of the UCC’s Council for Ecumenism and the Disciples’ Council for Christian Unity, I pulled out my computer to work some more on this paper. The flight from Minneapolis to Seattle is one of those rare domestic flights on which there is a meal served. When the flight attendants came around early in the five-hour flight, I put my laptop away and began to get ready to eat. The passenger seated to my right asked me what I did, and I told him. We got into a discussion over the meal that continued until we landed in Seattle. Needless to say, I didn’t get much writing done! Now retired and living in Florida, he said that he had accepted Christ about 10 years ago. As our conversation went on, one of the questions he asked me was what I thought about the place the United States has in God’s plan. He stated that he felt America’s power was surely God-given and that we as a nation are blessed. He went on to say that he felt that 98%, no, 100% as he corrected himself, of all that the U.S. has done is for the good. I tried to retain my composure and respond respectfully to his question, which I felt was asked in all sincerity. I felt tremendous agitation by what he was proposing and felt saddened by his assertions, but he was not so firm in his beliefs that he could not listen to another point of view. So I agreed with him that the people of this country have indeed been blessed, but that God does not favor Americans over others in God’s care and love for people everywhere. He thought that was reasonable, and I continued. Not all the people in this nation have enjoyed the kind of comfortable life he and I have. There is still rampant poverty and racism in this country! He agreed, acknowledging that indeed, his generalization was fallacious. I further agreed with him that the U.S. is the strongest country on the face of the earth and has the most power, but asked him how has America used that power? For the good? If the U.S. has so much power, why do we have to use it to wage wars? Why can’t we ensure that, with the tremendous power we have, that racism here is eradicated? That poverty is eliminated? These were all points that he seemed to think were good. It was a healing conversation for us both. We did not solve the ugly problems we agreed are still manifest, but at least we identified together the pain felt by so many.
In the text we read from John, Thomas had to put his hands in Christ’s hands, and touch Christ’s side in order to recognize the pain Christ felt. It was in that moment that Christ believed. As we recognize pain, and can figuratively put our finger on it, then we can believe. In that process, I assert that we recognize a point of pain in ourselves of which we may not have previously been aware: as part of the body of Christ, we feel pain when we recognize the pain that extends throughout humanity. When the toe recognizes the pain the shoulder feels, we identify our own lack of wholeness.
The story I told about my flight companion brings us to a third important question regarding the experiences of pain in the world. That question is, “Who causes the pain?” What if we are the cause of someone else’s pain? My seat companion asserted that the U.S. has used its power in beneficent ways. Without going into a long dissertation on foreign policy and domestic agendas, I gently suggested to him that the U.S. has tremendous power but has used it in ways that are particularly harmful to others. Let me illustrate this by referring to the situation in Iraq. Preceding the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Saddam Hussain had a conversation with the U.S. ambassador, April Glaspie. When he asked about the U.S. position on Arab borders–and we learned shortly thereafter that he had in mind the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border that, in his mind was inappropriately defined by the British early in the 20th century–Ms. Glaspie replied that Arab borders were an inter-Arab matter in which the U.S. would not interfere. As soon as Saddam militarily challenged the Iraq-Kuwait border, the U.S. took on a different more active role. After evicting Iraq from Kuwait, the U.S. imposed sanctions against Iraq through the U.N. which it has kept in place. The sanctions have killed more than one million Iraqis and led to the illness of countless others over the course of the past decade. The no-fly zones in southern and northern Iraq were tantamount to a constant military war in those areas. The U.S. has continued to punish Iraq through war and sanctions over the past decade, causing immeasurable pain for the Iraqi people–not, incidentally, for the Iraqi regime. Iraq is just one example. How many times has the U.S. vetoed U.S. resolutions condemning Israel for violent acts? How much money has the U.S. granted Israel since its founding in 1948? The answer is over 90 billion dollars, much of it used for military equipment to oppress the Palestinian people, and for the construction of Jewish settlement housing, again to the detriment of a Palestinian population that has claims over land and has watched its own homes be demolished (with US-made bulldozers). There are numerous other examples. On this continent, the stories of Blacks and Native Americans are particularly painful. The question we posed was, Who causes pain, and what if we are guilty in another’s experience of pain? Even as we feel our own pain, we can certainly be the cause of others’ pain. In causing pain, we necessarily are hurt, too. We are part of the body of Christ, the body of humanity. By inflicting pain on that body, our own body, we cannot escape feeling the pain. But it takes a recognition of it, and that recognition of guilt is in itself painful. So far, I have used illustrations mostly from the Middle East. These are the instances with which I am most familiar. If we were to go around the room, each one of us could easily illustrate the pain that is present in the world with examples from our own experiences. As I said before, however, it is not at all necessary to have experienced the pain of others firsthand in order to acknowledge it and recognize it. To affirm the pain of others not seen is a step toward healing. I am not only connected to the pain of SARS in China because I am part of the corpus humanus, but because of my relationship with Xiaoling. I am not only affected by AIDS in Africa because of my membership in the body of Christ but because Dr. Goba’s work in this area makes it that much more real for me. We are connected, and we don’t have to see with our own eyes or feel with our own hands to accept and acknowledge the reality of pain in the world and, for that matter, joy. Again, that is why we must do our various jobs so well–to ensure that the churches of the UCC and Disciples, at least, feel that connection to the world’s pains and joys and can “believe without seeing.” We must be eyes and hands for so many.
This world is not full of pain alone. It is replete with people who have a vision of faith that aims toward the healing of the “nations”–poetically defined. By doing what we, in the church do, we are necessarily a part of that vision, and among those who can be visionaries. I have already talked about the healing process, but let me remind us that healing is not a singular event. Healing is ongoing, just as the kind of pain we are discussing–a lack of wholeness–is not limited to any particular time or place. This is the pain of the crucifixion, the cross that we are committed–called–to bear. Let me elaborate a little on this point because I think it is important. It is important because, in a God-centered perspective of vocation, healing is not something that stands in isolation. First of all, true and complete healing can only come through God. I cannot emphasize enough that we as humans cannot fully engage in the act of healing in a way that is void of God’s presence. Health and wholeness are part of God’s shalom or, if you prefer, God’s salaam wa wi’am.
Second, the act of healing is an ongoing process. This is why it is particularly helpful to think of healing as a component of mission. The two–healing, and, mission–involve relationships. Any relationships experience ups and downs. Any member of a relationship experiences pain that may be caused by another member of the relationship. The critical message is that the relationship is maintained. I often discuss Christian-Muslim relations in the Middle East by saying that one single event has not determined the character of the relationship over the past 1400 years. Christians and Muslims have lived through the Islamic conquests of the 7th century, the crusades of the medieval period, and various other watershed events. They have also lived through many less historic moments. The relationships have not always been positive, but they have not always been negative, either. A single event has not determined the nature of the interaction. The relationship does, and must, endure. it is a long-range relationship – for better and for worse. In our mission relationships, and especially from a North American context, we often think of ourselves as the “healers.” We respond to the pain people throughout the country and world feel. We responded generously to the pain Americans in New York and Washington, DC felt on September 11. When El Salvador and India experienced major earthquakes a couple of years ago, we responded. When Palestinians feel the effects of Israeli emergency law and “security” precautions, we respond. We take pride in what we can do from our privileged position. However, our relationships in El Salvador, India, and Turkey are not contingent upon such moments of crisis when we can react to a kind of immediate pain. We have been in partnership with people in places like these for more than a century. The extra attention we give to such instances can be described alternatively as either the CNN factor in “mission” if a one-time response could be called mission, or–more correctly–an expression in a time of need of our ongoing commitment to the long-standing relationship. But the long-standing partnership is what conditions our interaction–not the crisis-moment response. Even when a long-term relationship does not pave the groundwork for effective emergency relief, however, a faithful response can provide the immediate relief necessary, and can be a basis for a long-term relationship. In other words, a faithful response to crises can be a catalyst for deeper relationships.
A relationship of mission is necessarily one of healing because, in any relationship, the parties take a risk, and often make mistakes. The mistakes cannot be ignored, for they cause pain. But they are likely not the only source of pain either of the parties feels. And committed partners both work things out when necessary, and face other adversities together. Partners also enjoy each other’s happiness together.
To illustrate this, I think of September 11. I recall that day very clearly as John Thomas and I were in Germany. Without relating the whole story, let me just say that we felt in a very tangible way the kind of care and love that a committed partner demonstrates to the other feeling pain. We were now in the position of being comforted. I don’t like to talk about the “tables being turned” because that implies there is a single direction in the act of mission or of a pattern of healing that is normative. While it is typically North American to think of the self as one who fixes or improves, it is often us on this continent who are in need of healing. The next logical question, then, is who is the agent of healing through mission? The financial aspect of mission contributes to our self-perception that we are the primary agents of healing. In this regard, there is no doubt of two things. First, there is a significant imbalance in wealth and generally, we are in the privileged position. Second, the movement of financial resources from the greater concentration to the lesser has implications for healing. I don’t want to go into the economics of mission much more than that here, as perhaps that will come up in our discussion time, but to some extent, mission-based solely on finances can be an escape from deeper understandings and healing that can result from mission. It is my hope, therefore, that the act of sharing financial resources is a recognition of a larger kind of pain that takes more than money to heal. I hope that the act of giving also is a recognition of pain that exists right here, due to our privilege, our abundance, and our isolation. I hope that financial contributions are not simply an escape from the reality of the painful situations in which people live, and often for which we have a responsibility. Perhaps this is an avenue for the topic of advocacy as healing. Our suffering is the realization of economic and political imbalance, and our responsibility for that.
Let us come back to the question posed: Who is the agent in the healing process? We have already answered by demonstrating the default position, that is, us in the so-called North. We have also proposed that the healing agent is our partner, in our relationships.
In these two responses, we have so far limited the healing agency to humanity. As I have already established, such an assumption leads to the conclusion that perfect healing is possible through human means. Let us recall that, in the story of Thomas, the disciples could not convince Thomas of Christ’s resurrection without Thomas seeing and touching Christ. Thus, God was intimately involved–indeed the agent–in Thomas’ convincing and healing. God is the agent in our own healing process just as God is the agent in the mission we attempt to carry out. Without God, mission would be void, and fruitless. Thus, while we as humans participate in the act of healing and thus the act of mission, we rely on God for guidance and inspiration. We are participants; God is the agent.
So, if we participate in the act of healing and in the process of being healed, I will assert that the Church (with a capital “C”) also undergoes healing through mission. The Church’s response, through partnership, to various realities (be they natural disasters or economic depravity), is also participating in the act of healing. I can give you many examples but will lift up the efforts of the churches to respond to the humanitarian disaster in Iraq over the past decade and over the past months. The Middle East Council of Churches has been central in the effort to provide relief to the suffering of the Iraqi people. The MECC has done this through the full participation of Iraqi churches, and Lebanese, Syrian, Iranian, and Jordanian churches–Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox. But they would not have been able to provide the same amount of food and shelter (bombs and tents) to Iraqis and refugees without the commitment of the wider Church to provide the necessary resources through, for example, the One Great Hour of Sharing and Week of Compassion offerings. The Church–both in the Middle East and throughout the world–contributed to the healing of people who were (and remain) in desperate need.
This kind of collaboration is a valuable aspect of healing, that does not manifest itself around the issue of humanitarian aid alone, as in the case of Iraq, but also in the area of advocacy. For example, Churches for Middle East Peace draws together churches of diverse traditions including the Roman Catholics, the Lutherans, the Disciples and UCC, the Unitarian Universalists, and the American Baptists. Together, we work to keep the issue of justice and peace in the Middle East at the forefront of Washington’s agenda.
Beyond collaboration and advocacy, churches come together through presence. When the trip John Thomas, Dick Hamm, Dale Bishop, Lydia Veliko and I were to make to the Middle East was postponed in March due to the war, our ethos of presence was challenged to the core. Planned over a year ago, the original purpose of the trip was exposure for John, Dick, and Lydia, who had not visited the region before. The trip took on a deeper meaning when our trip’s timing and Bush’s timing for war converged. Our visit became a visit of presence and solidarity. The day before we were to leave, the day after Bush ordered the war to commence, one of our partners in Egypt called me at home and suggested that this would not be the best time to come to the region. We were asked to postpone. We couldn’t be present with those in the region who were going through so much. But the ethos of partnership trumped that of physical presence. If we had not postponed, what would we have said about partnership? Our partners knew of our positions, and of our intention to come. But they also suggested that late March would not have been the best time for us, or for them, to visit. We listened and made the difficult decision to postpone. While we did not go, missionaries in Jerusalem and Turkey remained, and we prepared for a Global Mission Intern to be appointed in Lebanon. Longer-term presence is thus manifest in our missionaries.
All of this demonstrates that churches indeed can work cooperatively. There is the classic mantra that “churches who cannot pray together, will not stay together.” On the other hand, it is also said that “doctrine divides, but service unites.” Even if the churches remain divided over the issues of faith and order, such as the sacraments, the reconciliation of ministerial standing, and basic ecclesiology (i.e. what comprises the church), we are able to come together over the issues of life and work. There is a common commitment to overcoming poverty and improving the lot of the human community, even if we cannot agree on issues such as the episkope. For me, this cooperative work of diakonia is a visible sign of healing within the ecclesial body of Christ. It is encouraging and demonstrates the recognition we all have in the pain that the body of Christ suffers, of which we are all a member. When the human community is in pain, God calls the Church (again with a capital “C”) to be a participant in the act of healing, and through the relationships of mission, the divided Church experiences healing.
A longtime missionary in the Middle East (including Lebanon, Egypt, and Israel/Palestine) and renowned contextual theologian, the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Bailey, interpreted the scriptures through plays, poems, and other forms of literature. I would like to move toward concluding with a poem he wrote, set in the Palestinian context, which offers us a vivid picture of pain and healing. It is called, “Resurrection. Ode on a Burning Tank.” He wrote it in the Holy Land, in October 1973, the time of a major, but short, 20-day war between Israel and Egypt and Syria. The poem goes like this:
I am a voice,
the voice of spilt blood
crying from the land
The life is in the blood
and for years my blood flowed in the veins of a young man.
My voice was heard through his voice
and my life was his life.
Then our volcano erupted,
and for a series of numbing days
all human voices were silenced
amid the roar of the heavy guns,
the harsh clank of tank tracks,
the bone jarring shudder of sonic booms,
As gladiators with million-dollar swords
Killed each other high in the sky.
there was the swish of a rocket launcher—
a dirty yellow flash—
and all hell roared.
The clanking of the great tracks stopped.
My young man staggered, screaming from his inferno,
his body twitched and flopped in the sand,
And I was spilt into the earth—into the holy earth
of the Holy Land.
The battle moved on.
The wounded vehicles burned,
The “meat wagons” carried the bodies away as
the chill of the desert night
settled on ridge and dune,
And I stiffened and blackened in the sand.
And then—and then
As the timeless silence
of the now scarred desert returned,
there—there congealed in the land,
the land of the prophet, priest, and king—
I heard a voice—
a voice from an ageless age,
a voice from other blood
once shed violently in the land.
The voice told me this ancient story;
precious blood intoned this ancient tale.
“A certain man had two sons.
One was rich and the other was poor.
The rich son had no children
while the poor son was blessed with many sons and daughters.
In time the father fell ill.
He was sure he would not live through the week
so on Saturday he called his sons to his side
and gave each of them half of the land as their inheritance.
Then he died.
Before sundown the sons buried their father with respect, as custom required.
That night the rich son could not sleep.
He said to himself,
“What my father did was not just.
I am rich, my brother is poor.
I have bread enough to spare,
while my brother’s children eat one day,
and trust God for the next.
I must move the landmark which our father has set
in the middle of the land
so that my brother will have the greater share.
Ah—but he must not see me.
If he sees me, he will be shamed.
I must arise early in the morning before it is dawn
and move the landmark!”
With this he fell asleep
and his sleep was secure and peaceful.
Meanwhile, the poor brother could not sleep.
As he lay restless on his bed he said to himself,
“What my father did was not just.
Here I am surrounded by the joy of my many sons
and many daughters,
while my brother daily faces the shame
of having no sons to carry on his name
and no daughters to comfort him in his old age.
He should have the land of our fathers.
Perhaps this will in part compensate him
for his indescribable poverty.
Ah—but if I give it to him he will be shamed.
I must awake early in the morning before it is dawn
and move the landmark which our father has set!”
With this he went to sleep
and his sleep was secure and peaceful. On the first day of the week—
very early in the morning,
a long time before it was day,
the two brothers met at the ancient land marker.
They fell with tears into each other’s arms.
And on that spot was built the city of Jerusalem.”
This poem is an illustration of mission as healing. When we comprehend the pain of people – our neighbors – in the world and commit to doing something about it, in a dignified and respectable way; and when we accept that others also may recognize pain in us, and commit to doing something about it, we are all engaged in mission. Through this mission, we recognize the crucifixion, the pain of the human community. We can participate in that mission, praying that Christ would work through us to be a part of the hope of the resurrection. In this connectional way, pain can be healed–the pain of others and that of ourselves. Through our church connections, we feel the pain of so many, including our own. And we are called to participate in healing through our connections– locally, nationally, and globally–even if we cannot see or touch so many people’s pain.
Through the connections of the church, we are able to believe and affirm, even if as individuals we cannot see or simply do not know. Even if we cannot touch the pain of others to confirm it, we can participate in the healing that can only take place through connections, like the Church. As members of the body of Christ, we all feel the pain of the crucifixion in different ways. As members of the body of humanity, we know that other members of the body hurt. As members of the body of Christ, we also know the hope of the healing power of the resurrection. As members of the body of Christ, we participate in that healing through mission. When we are asked the question Jesus posed to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me?” as individual members of the Church universal we can boldly respond, “Yes, we see you in those around us and those with whom we are connected. We believe because the Church indeed has seen!”