‘Tis the season . . . to be sick! Is it a fever or a cold? I’m sure you’ve had those conversations. Over the years I’ve started popping Airborne or Zicam at the first sign of a sore throat, cold, or the onset of feeling sick. Maybe your remedy is a Neti pot, decongestants, vitamin C, zinc, the list goes on. An acupuncturist suggested something called Cold Quell to me, and I’m now all about it in effort to fight off a cold or fever. Of course, think fluids, rest and reducing stress are part of the healing package.
There’s illness in Mark 1:29-39. Simon’s mother-in-law has a fever. But we know the ending already, right? Jesus will come and make everything better. In fact, Jesus takes her by the hand, lifts her up, heals her, and she starts serving. But before we make this too simple, let’s reflect a little on illness today.
Author Firoozeh Dumes lives in Munich after previously residing in California. Weeks before she was to have a hysterectomy she discussed painkillers with three medical personnel in Germany. She was expecting to be in great pain when she got home and hoped for a prescription for Vicodin. She wanted something to knock her out the first few nights and maybe half the day. Instead, she was told that during surgery she would be given strong painkillers but when she got home she wouldn’t need narcotics. “You can take ibuprofen, but be careful,” the anesthesiologist said. “It’s not good for your kidneys. Only take it if you must.”
Now Firoozeh didn’t mention that she popped ibuprofen like candy. Why else do they come in such super-size tablets in American warehouse stores?
But these are the lines from the German doctor that caught her off guard: “Pain is part of life. We cannot eliminate it nor do we want to. The pain will guide you. You will know when to rest more; you will know when you are healing. If I give you Vicodin, you will no longer feel the pain, yes, but you will no longer know what your body is telling you.”
I’m not knocking medications. I’m old enough to be on a couple and thankful for them. But when medicine becomes treating body parts and symptoms without awareness of the whole body, or the whole person—as Chinese medicine reminds us—we may be missing an important part of healing.
Some of you may remember Thomas Moore for his popular book, “Care of the Soul.” His new book is called is called “Ageless Soul” and is about wisdom as we age. Moore says that most of think of illness as a physical breakdown that needs repair. Yet illness affects us emotionally, intellectually, and relationally. And it forces us to “reexamine our lives, face our mortality, and sort out our values.” Spiritually speaking, we might ponder what kind of invitation lies behind each illness. And illness is something we will all face—whether our own or that of a loved one.
Jesus is sometimes called the great physician. His mission and purpose is to bring peace, wholeness and healing where there is brokenness, illness, and social fragmentation of any kind.
Today we will offer you the opportunity to be anointed with oil as a sign of God’s healing presence. Maybe that seems strange to you. Maybe you aren’t sick. Yet you may know someone struggling with physical or mental illness.
But there’s more. Illness can mean many things. Fever is not just high temperature. There is the so-called “fever of life”: the frenetic, workaholic,24/7, stressful pace that can bring us down. And the endless news cycle doesn’t help. Think of the social ills that debilitate our world, our country, our city. Consider the wounds our earth is facing due to human consumption and carelessness. In this feverish life we long to be anointed with the wholeness that only God can bring.
When Jesus raises up Simon’s mother-in-law, it is the first resurrection story in Mark. The woman rises up and begins serving. Perhaps that is our great desire also. Whether a student, whether in our working years or in retirement, we desire to have a purpose, to use our gifts and passions, and to join in God’s mission of mending the world—something Jews call tikkun olam.
Did you notice that Jesus needs time away from the fevers of life to find his own center?
There is a powerful metaphor from the Hebrew scriptures in Isaiah 40:21-31. Did you catch the reference to eagles? OK, my nod to the Super Bowl! Actually, it’s one of the great poetic passages in the Bible. It evokes God bearing the people on eagles’ wings like at the Exodus. In exhaustion, in oppression, in illness, in deepest need and darkest night, when the fever seems without end, God hears our cry and empowers, supports, undergirds, heals.
“Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
How hard it is to wait for anything these days, let alone wait for God. How hard it is to be flat on our back and have to learn dependence. Yet often it is precisely then and there that God enfolds us with healing love and gives us wings to fly.
Firozzeh brings a lot of medicine from the U.S. to Germany—all over the counter and all intended to take away discomfort. Yet she took her doctors’ advice after her surgery. Her husband brought her a pot of tea. She was tired and bored and the hardest part was simply lingering in bed or on the sofa. She took a couple of ibuprofen the first day—but didn’t really need them. What she really needed, she said, was patience pills, learning how to wait. But every day her body felt a little better. She drank mint tea. She drank fennel tea. She drank homemade chai with ginger, cardamom, and pepper.
And when she told her doctor (who was holding her typical cup of chamomile tea in hand) that she had been resting, she resisted saying that had been doing nothing. After all, she was learning to wait.
And she had been healing. And that’s something.
Firoozeh Dumas, “I Wanted Vicodin, Not Tea.” New York Times, January 28, 2018.
Thomas Moore, Ageless Soul: the Lifelong Journey Toward Meaning and Joy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017.