The Takeaway - Illness
What feelings do you have about COVID-19? Most of us have lots of feelings about this microscopic bundle of RNA and protein contained in a fatty sphere with spikes. You now have that image of the virus in your mind from all the news you’ve watched and read. I’m a germaphobe myself—and I’ve lots of evidence these days to back up my complicated feelings for germs in general, and COVID-19 in particular.
Most of us feel afraid of the coronavirus—afraid of an invisible, microscopic, potentially lethal virus that is on the loose. Many of us feel angry about the coronavirus, especially our lack of control of the situation. We may even blame others or ourselves about it. And still others of us feel shame and guilt when we even imagine the possibility of getting sick.
I got flu A this winter at New Year’s—yep, great way to start the new year, and new decade. I first felt angry—I blamed germy airplanes, germy church gatherings, germy people coughing on me. Then I felt afraid—how bad would this be? Could my body handle this? And, finally, I felt unworthy, ashamed. I wasn’t enough. I could have done more. No one else got sick in our house—but the possibility was guilt and shame inducing. I wore a mask and isolated myself.
I am not alone in linking sickness and shame. In the ancient world, sickness was often associated with moral failings, shortcomings, sins of the afflicted. As if the illness was proof of your unworthiness. For example, Job’s friends encouraged him to confess his secret sin so that his situation would improve. People in Jesus’ day felt the same way—that sin was a sign of some unworthiness, a sin or failing. Healthy people usually prefer to think of the sick as unworthy rather than randomly afflicted. Helps you sleep better at night.
Listen in to the disciples as they ask Jesus about his understanding of disease, in the gospel of John, chapter 9, verses 1 through 7:
As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” 3Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
Did you catch Jesus’ answer? Neither the man nor his parents are to blame for his blindness. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Huh? The disciples wonder about the cause of disease, falling into old and false patterns of blaming, judging, making people feel unworthy. Jesus shifts the focus: disease is an opportunity for healing. Jesus removes any shame or guilt from those suffering—and puts the focus squarely on himself as the Great Physician.
This Lent our family read the gospel of Mark (well, most of it). We were struck by all the people Jesus heals. He is a one-man roving clinic. When he does other things (like teach), he’s often interrupted to heal someone else.
Have you ever felt that your own illnesses or conditions are opportunities for healing? Or have you felt that the coronavirus is providing us all lots of chances for healing? Healing is happening in, amongst, and through this virus.
Jesus releases you and I from any shame and guilt about any illness, including COVID-19. And Jesus directs his energy and love towards healing.
Regardless of your virus status in our community:
- if you have been sick with COVID-19
- if your loved one has been sick, maybe even has died
- if you have had the virus and didn’t know it
- if you have not been infected so far
Jesus gives all of us chances to be agents of healing. Jesus frees us from the perpetual circle of blame, shame, guilt, and fear around illness. Illness is part of what it means to be alive—and healing is always what comes next in God’s story. Offering love in the midst of suffering is the work of healing.
Saint Clare of Assisi, from 13th century, describes how Jesus’ love transforms us from the inside out:
“We become what we love and who we love shapes what we become. If we love things, we become a thing. If we love nothing, we become nothing. Imitation is not a literal mimicking of Christ, rather it means becoming the image of the beloved, an image disclosed through transformation. This means we are to become vessels of God's compassionate love for others.”
As we turn now to God in prayer, we’ll use the words of Ambrose, an early church father, bishop of Milan, from 4th century:
Let us pray.
You are medicine for me when I am sick.
You are my strength when I need help.
You are life itself when I fear death.
You are the way when I long for heaven.
You are light when all is dark.
You are my food when I need nourishment! Amen.
Until next time, receive this promise from the Apostle Paul, from the letter to the Romans:
38For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
May you feel the love and healing of Jesus. May you share that same love and healing with the world.
Today, this week, and always. Amen.