The Work of Healing
Eleven years ago, I was in Hawaii visiting a friend who teaches
there. During my time in paradise I made a short visit to purgatory,
when I went to Kalupapa, the leper colony on Molokai, which I remember
This leper colony officially closed a number of years ago, but its
residents have the right to remain in their homes there until they die.
They are on the north, windy, cool side of a small island, on a low,
flat isthmus, fenced off from the remainder of the island by the
highest sea cliffs in the world. At one time within memory, persons
with leprosy were gathered up and thrown off boats to swim ashore there
and build their own community because they were feared elsewhere. Once
there were several leper colonies in the United States; Kalupapa is
known for one of its priests, Father Damien.
Leprosy has had a cure for decades, but when I was on Molokai in
1991 there were still roughly thirty residents from the old days living
out their days in community. Some of them led tours for the dozen
people a day that visit, mostly by small plane or boat. I chose to hike
the sea cliffs, something like 2,000 feet almost straight down.
Now, I don't claim that this reflects well on me, but during my
exhausting hour and a half descent, I wondered what to do when I met a
leper? That is, should I touch them? I didn't know the right protocol,
and I didn't know the healthy thing to do, either. My thinking was very
primitive and unclear. My friend had told me that folks were missing
ears and parts of their faces and sometimes limbs or digits, and I
didn't want to do the wrong thing. And I didn't want to catch
So I hiked by myself down the cliffs, across a great flat and toward
the small village by the water, where a wood fence marked the entrance
to town. When I arrived, a man was leaning on the fence's gate, next to
a tractor, resting in the sun. The right side of his nose was gone, his
right ear and cheek, and he was missing several fingers. He looked
about seventy or seventy-five, and he waited for me to get close and he
smiled and I walked toward him and I came up and I held out my hand,
and he met it with his, and said, "Hello, my name is Bill."
It was good to touch him. It was perfectly natural. And it is amazing
how many things can be solved by reaching out, along with the
commitment to follow that outreach with a new way of being. It's
amazing what happens when we open ourselves and choose new commitments.
Since ancient times we've been discouraged from touching lepers.
Culture has said that they are dangerous and even ceremonially unclean,
which is a bad thing. There is an aura of sinfulness around
untouchables - sinfulness that you might catch. Yet Elisha and Jesus
and others weren't ruled by culture or self-preservation. They believed
that God had powers of healing that are within outreach and that we
find these as we follow divine calls. They believed that God calls us
across the gulfs that separate us, as portions of one creation. The
story of Naaman the leper is amazing. As Prof. Leonora Tisdale says, it
plays on the theme of weakness and strength, as well as that of God
acting in mundane ways to effect divine healing. I would add that this
story is an inspiring source of solution when there is a problem.
Consider this: Naaman is a powerful commander who is brought low by
disease. He is a great man, it says, but unclean. So he goes to talk to
a king, but the king sends him to a prophet, and the prophet sends out
a servant to speak. Which annoys him. Yet he is healed, it says, as he
becomes like a young boy. Which is a fascinating progression from power
to humility and then true strength in open faith. Now add this layer:
everything here is accomplished by the weak and mundane. A servant
inspires Naaman's journey, a second servant gives it direction, and a
third calls for the great man to follow those directions. Servants are
the agents of divine work. And God's healing task for Naaman is to
enter a muddy river, an unglamorous act that provides restoration and
renewal. Prof. Tisdale says the message here is that God's healing
doesn't come in the grandiose, immediate, and spectacular but through
acts that are simple, humbling, and repetitive. Or when we open
ourselves to God's mighty works, they are.
Anyone who has ever recovered from surgery knows this truth: that
healing from a knee replacement takes months of mundane work. That
healing from heart surgery takes exercise and discipline and sometimes
boring practices. The surgery itself doesn't solve everything, nor does
the removal of a cast. It's the constant work thereafter.
Anyone who has ever recovered from an emotional injury knows the
same thing. Abuse, assault, addiction, and all their kin leave wounds
that take months and years to address. We talk, we write, we counsel,
we cry, exercise, and meditate one day at a time, time after time.
Healing is mundane, repetitive, and humbling.
And, all of us who have ever learned anything new add this truth: we
have to open ourselves to the unknown in order to grow.
What difference does all this make today? Well, I am thinking of all
of the people that I might need to reach out and touch. I am thinking
of all the mundane, repetitive work that is on my plate. From the
obvious lists to those more subtle.
This weekend in particular I sense a great need to reach across the
gulfs of suspicion that lead us ever closer to war. I need to reach out
to people who share my hope for peace, and they may be close at hand. I
need to reach out to those who share my fear of war, and they may be
strangers in places like Iraq and Turkey. I also need to reach out to
those who disagree with me who may even be in government, and this is
the hardest touch, fraught with fear, suspicion, and even that aura of
sinfulness in the other, but if I don't touch them what have I done? I
have to open myself to much work ahead.
This month in particular I sense a great need for our local
communities to be healed. We are in Terrorism Code Orange, our economy
has been in freefall, and my god is it cold out there. We are a
threatened, devalued, frozen group across New England, and when we get
that way we tend to withdraw when what we need is to reach out. Are
there touches we could offer here? Is there something mundane we could
do to address our anxiety, our injury, our caution or exhaustion in
this moment? Maybe just checking in with your friends, your family,
your communities is important as we weather this confusion and
discomfort. Maybe it is time for a chili- fest or an installation or
something to remind us of what we have, not what we've lost. Maybe we
just need to be in touch, to listen to each other, and to listen for
This season in particular we in this parish need to open ourselves
to new life, too. Just us? No, everyone everywhere. But us, too. We
need to work on our vision for the future beyond the needs of our
building and for the needs of our community and our world. We need to
listen for our own healing, for God's calls to the divine and the
repetitive. And in order to do this we need to open ourselves to each
other even in ways that are humbling and bring not only the gifts of
our strengths but our weaknesses too. And then trust God to touch us,
to unite us, perhaps with simple tasks that follow a path of healing.
How might your open yourself? To whom can you reach out? What new
commitment can you follow? Naaman's story asks us all the same
I am so moved by this passage, and I hope that I haven't gotten all
bound up in my attempt to explore it. It comes down to this. There are
dimensions of our world that are injured or even diseased. God longs
for them to be healed. We need to try some new things to get that
healing. We need to open ourselves, even to the simple. We need to open
ourselves, even to each other. And then God's power rushes in. And we
don't lose anything in our humility or openness. We renew something and
receive something that we could hardly imagine. The first step is often
the hardest. But there you go. We only take it if we want something
And we do want something better. We want a world where war does not
injure us. We want a spirit unfettered from terrorism codes, financial
vagaries or temperature. We want a community vigorous in outreach,
united in healing and open both to the strengths and weaknesses of
others and to the simple tasks that follow God's way.
I don't want to lean on this comparison too hard, but years ago I
was really cautious about reaching out to touch the unknown because of
deep fears that I admit I had. I'm still that way sometimes. But when I
met Bill in Kalupapa he was so approachable. He told me about his
childhood, his parents and sister, and parts of his story were so sad
they would make you cry. And when I turned to walk back up the sea
cliffs, facing a several hour hike back to the other population, I
realized the only thing that I had caught from him was fortitude and
hopefulness and compassion. Healing, I suppose. And the sense that I
could reach out to anyone. My faith is that that is what we might catch
today. And that it will help to bring us peace, save us from fear, and
make us whole. Amen.
Copyright © 2003 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by