You will probably have come across examples of pictographic ambiguity before, where a single drawing has more than one ‘image’ contained within it, depending on how you look at it. This picture, My wife and my mother-in-law is a particularly good example, and was published in 1915 by the cartoonist W.E. Hill. Even experienced psychologists can sometimes find this hard. One clue – the chin of the young woman becomes the nose of the old lady.
So it is with scripture sometimes, in my experience. I need clues – Cliff Notes, if you will, to hear what the Spirit is saying. Though no professional theologian, I’m so often blind or deaf to some messages contained within scripture without the help of a clue. I see the mother-in-law in the illustration only after the tip to look at the chin as the nose.
Today’s first psalm was the tip, the clue, the hint that allowed me to see what the Spirit was saying in all of the readings of today – in the big picture. Once I saw the chin – the psalm – as the nose – I delighted to recognize Jesus in the healing of a loved one and a prayer answered.
Here’s how it went down today with the readings – the long story.
This verse from Psalm 40…
5 Great things are they that you have done, O Lord my God!
how great your wonders and your plans for us! *
there is none who can be compared with you.
…functioned as the chin – switching the lens through which I received God’s word in the other readings of the day.
This verse is frequently found in social media messages and sermons to encourage others to persist in a life trusting the Lord. God has good plans for us – for you, for me, for the world.
But what about those who don’t share the same worldview, who don’t believe God has plans for them – great or otherwise?
I got to thinking about a dear loved one of mine who recently experienced a personal challenge when an unexpected and far from great thing interrupted his plans. He consulted me at the crisis point, quite fearful. Though I believed to be true that whatever was unfolding differently than expected by my loved one was part of God’s plan for him, the encouraging words I find in scripture to tell me so, I couldn’t offer him. This verse, as frequently used and well known as it is, would have absolutely no agency with him. He would have not only not heard, but also would have been more than offended that I might suggest that this really bad thing was part of some plan for good for him.
Praise the Lord that my loved one was touched by someone else with the comforting message. A messenger – an angel in the most literal of terms – reached out to my loved one and reassured him that all would be well – that this crisis was in God’s hands, that the intention for him was good and great. My loved one heard this, his fears abated – albeit temporarily – and he was comforted.
Days later he shared the moment with me opening the door to speak to him of prayer and Jesus’ healing power. I told him I was going to offer his crisis up to prayer – to petition the Lord for healing, to call upon other prayer warriors to do the same. My loved one didn’t object, as he might have before the angel touched him. He allowed that I believed and that it was okay to pray for healing on his behalf and expressed appreciation.
And the Lord did hear and heal. The plan for my loved one that at one point appeared to be totally derailed, was put back on track, according to the Lord’s good favor.
Though my loved one is more than relieved that healing took place, he does not yet understand it to be the Lord’s doing. But the experience did open up in him a space to address his worst fears. He was dug into – made vulnerable – had to face the reality that he had no capacity to cure, make better, heal on his own. And further, if he didn’t heal, he had to think about how he would live with the condition – a condition he had never ever considered and that frightened him. Eventually, he became reconciled to both: that he couldn’t make himself better; and that he would find a way to live on – differently than planned – even if he was not made well.
So this was the bunny trail Psalm 40 put me on this morning, and down the path I went chasing after the thought of how to speak words of encouragement to loved ones who don’t trust in the Lord.
Landing in Mark’s gospel, I was reminded once again of how much of Jesus’ ministry was about healing. His reputation as a healer preceded him everywhere he went, as Mark writes:
54When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, 55and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was. 56And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the market-places, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed.
Seventy per cent of the public ministry of Jesus involved healing (physical, emotional and spiritual) and 100% of the time it produced an evangelical impact (people came to faith in Jesus). Here are some interesting facts about healing found in the four Gospels
- 3779 total verses in the four books and 727 of those verses are on healing (19%)
- Matthew records 25 healings
- Mark records 15 healings
- Luke records 24 healings
- John records 5 healings
Healing is part of my liturgical tradition. In the Book of Common Prayer are several prayers and anointing (pages 455 and 456)available for individual use and worship. We go to Jesus, as the people of Gennesaret, laying before him our prayers for a touch.
What a contrast to the disciples who accompanied Jesus to Gennesaret and who fail to recognize Jesus even as he remarkably walks on water? The disciples with hardened hearts straining at the oars – working hard at controlling the storm – who perceive him as ghost – terrified. Yet there he is. It is I, he says, don’t be afraid.
Don’t be afraid the angel had said to my loved one, you are in God’s hands and you will be okay. It is I, said Jesus through the angel to my loved one.
And just as those who flocked to Jesus when he reached the other side of the lake, I went to him to pray on behalf of my loved one. Before the priest and in communion with my worship community, we prayed that his condition would be healed.
The priest who led us in prayer that day, who anointed me during the prayer for my loved one, experiences touches – whispers – from the Lord, regularly. I have accompanied him on pastoral visits to the dying and during healing prayers at worship. He has a gift for sensing the movement of energy out of the body as one is dying, as well as a sense of wellness in someone that comes to him as a piercing thought – a word, almost, that comes to him often in dreams. The best I can describe his gift is as dog’s have a honed sense of smell which can identify illness in a body, this priest has a honed sense of a body’s healthy or unhealthy energy.
At the time of the initial prayer, he had sensed that my loved one would be well, and he was right. His sense was just as that of the angel (messenger) who at the beginning had comforted my loved one with the same message – all would be good as God had intended.
Since that time my loved one and I have not talked about the crisis and the healing that took place. But on Tuesday, we talked about a related challenge that faces him in the coming weeks. I listened silently as he spoke about advice he had been given by the medical community to take control of the timeline for full resolution. He was being presented an option to nip a potential discomfort related to the previous abnormality in the bud by having surgery before letting things run its due course.
I was disheartened to hear he was considering the option. But I didn’t say so. Just like the first time out, I found myself cautious to advise to let things be and to be wary of the recommended surgery.
I was disappointed that I hadn’t encouraged him to see the Lord’s hand in this more explicitly, so far from the call I have known to be upon me to proclaim the good news to all, most especially my loved ones. I knew I had dropped the ball in the dialogue with him. I went to bed that night wrestling with how – or if – to speak to him, again.
And I prayed that another angel would touch him – to assure him that he and his well being remain in God’s hands and the best outcome is had by letting this run due course and not pre-empt with surgery.
Wednesday morning I arrived back at my church where I assist at the Eucharist and Healing Prayer service. I’ve been away from this community for several weeks and haven’t seen the priest who led joined me in the previous petitions of healing for my loved one.
After initial ‘welcome back’ greetings, he asked, “How is your loved one doing?” And before I had a chance to answer, he went on, “I have continued to pray for him and last night I had a dream that the healing that has taken place must be allowed to continue through its due course. He should not do anything to jeopardize the healing that has taken place – he needs more time – no surgery. That is the word that came to me last night.”
Unreal. What a word. For me? For my loved one?
Though I knew the word to be an answer to prayer, I wasn’t sure what to do with it. It confirmed my hunch that no surgery was the better way. But how receptive would my loved one be to the ‘word’? Hmm. What was I to do with this?
I filed away the thoughts and added them to my prayers. How do I – should I – share with my loved one? And then I forgot all about it.
Until today, Friday, and the whisper – the hint – from the first psalm.
I often need such hints to see the whole picture. Just as in the illustration that I have viewed many times, remembering that the chin is the nose is the only way I can bring the old woman into view. And today, only by wondering how to encourage loved ones who don’t know the Lord and trust he has great plans for them, could I see the big picture – bringing into view the awareness that the Lord had answered my Tuesday night prayers, calling me out to call him out to my loved one. And encouraging me to do as Isaiah says we believers must do,
4 The Lord God has given me
the tongue of a teacher,*
that I may know how to sustain
the weary with a word.
Jesus is made known to us in many ways but perhaps to many, he is made known most often in healing. Once I saw the chin as the nose – saw the good news in the Psalm of how great our God’s wonders and plans are for us, I could see how the Lord has made himself visible and known to my loved one whom he is healing. My pastor received the word he received directly from the Lord – he was my angel delivering the word that Jesus wants more time to heal my loved one – a word that I must and will deliver to him.
A long, deep bunny trail today that took me away from doing about everything I had planned. But just what I needed to go to bed tonight with thanksgiving for a prayer answered. And a bunny trail I believe the Lord had planned for me to dive into since Tuesday.