One of the first weeks I was here in Cincinnati I got a call in the church office from a woman wondering if the church could offer her some help. She had diabetes and was in need of a monitor and test strips. After talking with her for a bit to try and better understand her situation, I got her phone number and told her I would do some looking around to see if this was something we could help her with. Knowing very little about diabetes and even less about where to find a monitor and test strips in this new city I was living in, I sent out a few emails to CMF people who I thought may be able to point me in the right direction. From the responses, I gathered that monitors are pretty easy to get a hold of and are often given out for free at clinics or pharmacies, but test strips are more expensive. Since the church office is located right across from a CVS, I decided to walk over and see if they would give me a free monitor and a discount on test strips. I introduced myself to the woman behind the counter as pastor of the Mennonite church across the street, told her briefly about the need of the woman who had called the office, and mentioned that I was under the impression that pharmacies sometimes offer monitors for free. She was very nice, but said she couldn’t do this unless I would write a letter to CVS headquarters for them to authorize the gift. I told her that didn’t sound like a very good option. She agreed, and then mentioned that the companies that make the monitors themselves might be able to help. She showed me their most popular monitor, pointed out the 1-800 number on the back, and wished me good luck. Needless to say, I was a little skeptical calling a 1-800 number of a company asking them to send me one of their products for free. A gentleman answered on the other line. I told him about the situation, and asked if he could send me a free monitor. He said, yes, he could do that. He would be able to make a one time gift to the address where I wanted it sent. I gave him the church address and asked if he could include some free test strips with the monitor. He said they usually don’t include test strips, but that he could include enough to last a couple weeks. I thanked him and he said the package should arrive in a couple days. The next day a package came to the office with the company name on the label. I called the woman, told her the story, and she came by the office that day to pick up the package.
Behind this story with a nice and tidy happy ending is the not-so-nice and quite untidy reality of the struggle for affordable, quality health care access in our country. I’m happy that this chain of events led to this woman receiving what she needed for the immediate time being. I’m thankful for this corporation’s generosity. It was a gift for me to be able to hand this woman the package, look her in the eye, and say ‘God bless you’ and hear her say “Thank you so much, God bless you.” But the other side to situations like this is the feeling of being a very small, nearly insignificant actor, in this huge complex system. To borrow a phrase from Abbie’s Grandpa Marlin, this small act of charity felt sort of ‘like spittin’ into a forest fire.’
In 2005, at the bi-annual assembly of Mennonite Church USA, our denomination continued discussion and action around addressing the health care crisis in our nation. One of the actions was to adopt a Healthcare Access statement. Here are some excerpts from this statement:
As followers of Jesus Christ we seek to provide love and care to all people. Our concern for the healthcare system is rooted in our desire to be disciples of Jesus. We grieve that our present healthcare system suffers from complexity, greed, racism, fear of death, and lack of concern for the common good. Healthcare, in the biblical tradition of shalom, promotes and improves the physical and mental well-being of persons, families, and communities. While we applaud impressive advances in medical technology and treatment that have done much to cure disease and ease suffering, we contend that healthcare in the United States is unjustly distributed, broken, and unsustainable. We respond to God’s love by service in all areas of life. So we must assist and prod ourselves, our congregations, our institutions, and our government to care for all people as together we work to promote health and relieve suffering in the name of Christ. This last sentence outlines the way that the Mennonite church is working to approach healthy living – with four concentric circles of focus. “So we must assist and prod ourselves, our congregations, our institutions, and our government to care for all people.” Part of the message here is the good news that our denomination is choosing to join together with other voices in calling for structural change to the national health care system. Another part of the message is recognizing that there are ways that each congregation can take it upon themselves to be healing agents of God in their own settings. One of the ways this congregation has chosen to respond to this call is the formation of the Health Care Task Force that Beth described. As this group has met together, we have begun asking some questions about how we can be a healing community. How can we encourage each other to live healthier lives? How can we be channels of God’s healing to one another in this congregation? How can we help neighbors in need access resources already present in the city to address health concerns? In the face of this huge system that we call health care, What part can our congregation play in God’s healing work in the world? In looking through the story of Naaman and Elisha for some different images of what our work is like, I find a couple different characters to identify with, neither of them being Naaman or Elisha. Naaman appears to believe that healing is something like magic. V. 11 is a rather humorous telling of his expectations for how healing happens. “I thought that for me he would surely come out and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, and would wave his hand over the spot, and cure the leprosy.” It sounds to me that Naaman has been watching a little too much of the preacher channel. Not that God can’t act suddenly, but it’s usually not in the abra-cadabra, hokus-pokus way that Naaman was hoping for. And I’m not real sure that Elisha offers us much as a model for a healer. Being the compassionate, thoughtful, pastoral type of prophet that he was, he stays back in his office when Naaman comes to visit and sends someone else out with a message. No doubt he was engrossed in sermon preparation for the upcoming Sunday. One of the characters who shows us how to be healing people is the Israelite servant girl, otherwise known as the maid. She knew that she didn’t have all the resources to help Naaman receive healing, but she was aware of someone who could help him. And she spoke up in a way that helped connect the one in need with the professional healer. Without the servant girl Naaman would never have known to come to Elisha. This is along the lines of what we have had in mind in creating the directory of local resources. We hope that we can connect people in need with people and institutions who are trained as healers. The opening story that I shared would be a small example of connecting a person in need with something that can serve her health. We also want to be able to connect with each other’s different gifts. If there are ways that we can serve each other with the gifts and training that we have, we want to be able for those connections to be made and for that to be a part of how we relate together in Christian community.The other character, if you can call it a character, in the story of Naaman and Elisha that can inform our identity as a healing community is the Jordan River. The little trickle of water closer to a creek than a large river. If God could heal Naaman through seven dunks in the muddy little river Jordan, then God can certainly use our congregation as a place of healing. This means that the very act of being a part of a community of faith can be a channel of God’s healing. What if, if friends or acquaintances come to us with emotional and spiritual brokenness, we would invite, not seven dunks in the Jordan river, although that would be funny, but seven months, or seven years of being a part of a fellowship that loves and supports you for who you are. A group of people who are channels of God’s love that washes over wounds and slowly, slowly enables healing to take place. That’s the kind of community God is calling us to be. There was a recent article written about a young woman by the name of Jamie who is a member of Albuquerque Mennonite Church in New Mexico. In her late teens she began experiencing hallucinations and while she was in college she was diagnosed with schizo-affective disorder. She talks about the difficulty that her friends and classmates had with adjusting to her new condition. But she says this about her congregation: “From my experience, I still very much felt the presence of the church. I could be sick there. The church let that be OK.”The church can be a place where it’s OK to be sick. We don’t expect one dunk in this river to magically change anyone. We are allowed to just be in the middle of the river and let that be OK.
Although I wasn’t here at the time, I’ve heard the story told of when Dean Dinlinger, a former member of this congregation, was diagnosed with leukemia, and requested that people from the church come and sing in his hospital room. And a group went and sang hymns with him. I find this a beautiful picture of letting God’s presence in our singing wash over each other and bring comfort and healing.
To repeat a couple lines from the 2005 Health Care Access statement:
Healthcare, in the biblical tradition of shalom, promotes and improves the physical and mental well-being of persons, families, and communities. We contend that healthcare in the United States is unjustly distributed, broken, and unsustainable. We respond to God’s love by service in all areas of life. So we must assist and prod ourselves, our congregations, our institutions, and our government to care for all people as together we work to promote health and relieve suffering in the name of Christ.
This is ongoing work, and we are not alone. Other denominations and faith traditions, as well as people and organizations not associated with a faith tradition, are calling for a reformation in how our country manages health care.
We have the gift of this faith community as a starting place for seeking to live healthy lives. We place our faith in the God that Jesus said works like a mustard seed, small beginnings that blossom out to be shade and a refuge for those who pass by. Our God is a god of servants connecting those in need with those who have gifts and resources for healing. Our God uses smalls rivers that flow with compassion and comfort and joins them together with other rivers. May we hear God’s call to be a community of healing.
From its very beginning, the church has had the practice of anointing with oil those who are in need of healing. To paraphrase the epistle of James, “are any among you seeking healing? They should come before the faith community, and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the One who heals. The prayer of faith is a channel for God’s healing presence.”
We would like to have a time of anointing for those who would wish to receive it. You are invited to come forward if there is something in your own life for which you seek healing, and you are also invited to come forward on behalf of someone you care for who is in need of healing. You’re welcome to share briefly about your concern or to simply receive the anointing. This is not an act of magic, but a sign of God’s Spirit which is present among us to heal and to restore. And while this is happening the congregation will be praying in the form of singing.