This year during the season of Lent, we are reflecting on the Storms of life. All of us experience storms at some point in our life. But, as Pastor Karl asked last week, where do we go when we are in the middle of a storm? Who do we turn to when a storm begins swirling all around us? And this week, as we reflect on the storms of life, we are looking at Luke’s account of Jesus healing a man with leprosy.
But before we do that, here is some information about leprosy. Leprosy is a disease caused by a bacterium, Mycobacterium leprae, which affects the human nervous system, causing pale blotches on the skin and numbness in the extremities. People can go blind from leprosy because they lose the blinking response. Stiffened muscles result in clawed hands. Injury and infection which cannot be felt can result in the deformity or loss of fingers and toes. While leprosy is not as contagious as we used to think and thankfully, there are drugs that can cure the disease, there are still 1,100 new cases of leprosy diagnosed every day.
But the suffering that comes with leprosy is not only caused by the disease. There is also a huge stigma associated with the disease. The word stigma means “a mark of disgrace or shame.” In his book Soul Survivor, Philip Yancey describes how lepers, in historical and present times, are generally cast out by their societies:
Leprosy disproportionately afflicts the poor. Left untreated, its victims can develop the facial disfigurement, blindness, and loss of limbs that so frightens people, who in turn respond with abuse and mistreatment. In a place like India, people with leprosy are the outcasts of society, often doubly so as members of the Untouchable caste.
In biblical times leprosy victims kept a wide berth and shouted “Unclean!” if anyone approached. In medieval times they lived outside town walls and wore warning bells. Even today in modern India, home to four million leprosy victims, a person showing signs of the disease may be kicked—literally with a shoe—out of family and village to lead a beggar’s life. Interviewing …former [leprosy] patients, I heard stories of human cruelty almost beyond belief.
So people with leprosy suffer physically, they suffer socially and, in biblical times, they suffered spiritually. Leviticus 13:46 says the following about people with leprosy and other skin diseases, “As long as they have the disease they remain unclean. They must live alone; they must live outside the camp.” Being unclean meant that you could not worship in the tabernacle or, in later times, in the temple. You were cut off from your community of faith. You were, in a sense, cut off from God.
One day, early in his ministry, Jesus is approached by a man with leprosy. This person must have been an especially advanced and devastating form of the disease for the Greek words that Luke uses tell us that he was “full” of leprosy. Here’s what happened next:
When he saw Jesus he fell down before him in prayer and said, “If you want to, you can cleanse me.”
13Jesus put out his hand, touched him, and said, “I want to. Be clean.” Then and there his skin was smooth, the leprosy gone. (Luke 5:12b-13 The Message)
Note what the leper asks for. He is suffering physically, he is suffering socially and he is suffering spiritually and which issue does he ask Jesus to deal with? The spiritual one. He asks Jesus to cleanse him.
And notice how the leper asks Jesus. He says, “If you want to, you can cleanse me.” He acknowledges right up front that Jesus has the power to cleanse him. The Greek word for “being able” is δύναμαι, from which we get our English word “dynamite,” so Jesus has the “dynamite” to cleanse this man.
And how does Jesus respond to the statement, “If you want to, you can cleanse me”? He says, “I want to. Be clean.” And he not only cleanses the man, he heals him physically, which means that he can be restored socially. Jesus is able to and wants to restore us spiritually, physically and socially.
So how do we apply this biblical narrative to our lives? The disease of leprosy seems like a far way reality in the distant past or in a far off land. Is there a disease we have in Canada that has physical and social implications like leprosy? Well, mental illness is a disease that touches nearly every Canadian’s life. One in five Canadians will experience a mental illness sometime in their lives. And mental illness is like leprosy in that there are both physical and social implications with the disease.
First, mental illness impacts a person physically by affecting the chemistry of the brain. But mental illness also impacts a person socially through the stigma that is attached to mental illness. Stigma is the negative attitudes and behaviour that people with mental illness experience from others because of their mental illness. And for some people, the stigma of mental illness is worse than the disease. People with mental illness can experience inequality in housing, employment, educational and other opportunities which many of us take for granted. People with mental illness can also lose relationships with friends or family members, which results in the loss of much needed support.
Mental illness is also like leprosy in that it can also affect us spiritually because the disease and the stigma that comes with us can keep us from participating in our community of faith.
So I would like to tell you how mental illness has touched my life and my oldest son Brandon has given me permission to share this story with you. In March of 2005, Brandon was feeling depressed and was talking about committing suicide. He had felt like this before and either Susan or I would talk with him for a while and he would get over it. But this time, for reasons that I do not know, I remembered what I had been taught in seminary and I asked Brandon, “Do you have a plan for how you would do it?” And he did have a plan, and he described to me his plan for committing suicide. And I realized that the means were available for him to carry out his plan on our acreage.
Now what I was taught in seminary is when someone has a plan to commit suicide and they have the means available to them to do it, you do not leave them alone and you get help for them right away. So if someone you know is talking about committing suicide don’t be afraid to ask the question, “Do you have a plan for how you would do it?” You could save their life by asking that question.
So Susan and I made sure that one of us was with Brandon while the other phoned our family doctor who got Brandon an appointment with a social worker. So Susan took Brandon to the social worker, who then sent him to our family doctor, who then sent him to a psychiatrist, who then sent him to the psychiatric floor of the Swift Current Hospital.
And there he stayed for a week. He was safe, and we were all very thankful for that. He was getting the help that he needed, and we were all very thankful for that too. But I also had to come face to face with the fact that my son was broken, and I was broken too at a level far deeper than what I previously thought. I realized that I was living out my life, in part, through Brandon. And so when it seemed like all my hopes and dreams for him were being taken away, I was crushed. I also learned that I was a control freak. I realized that I had to be in control for me to feel like things were going to be okay. But here I was, in a situation where I had no control. Four years prior, I had worked as a student chaplain for 12 weeks at a psychiatric hospital in Edmonton so I recognized one of the drugs that was prescribed for Brandon as an anti-psychotic, and I was not very comfortable with Brandon being given that drug. But it didn’t matter what I thought. I had absolutely no control. And the only option that I had available to me was to trust that God would somehow work through the medical care that Brandon was receiving to bring him healing. That was the only thing that I could do. And that is what I did.
Now I have Good News. One of the psychiatric nurses in the Swift Current Hospital went to our church in Swift Current and she made sure that Brandon received excellent care while he was in the hospital. Brandon’s care team decided gave Brandon one of the two spots the region had available with a juvenile psychiatrist in Regina. And this psychiatrist changed Brandon’s medication to one that was more effective with less potential side effects. And the care team suggested that Brandon, who was homeschooled up until that time, start attending the high school in Swift Current that fall so he could access all the resources that were available to him there. And one of the teachers in the Special Ed. program went to our church in Swift Current and she took Brandon under her wing and made sure that Brandon received the educational support that he needed. And three years later, Brandon, at his own initiative and under the supervision of his psychiatrist, weaned himself off of his medication and he hasn’t had a relapse since. Thanks be to God!
But I have more Good News, and this Good News only because Brandon experienced a mental illness, and it would have been Good News even if Brandon had not been healed. And here is that Good News: I came to the end of myself and grabbed a tighter hold on the Saviour who has always been carrying me.
You see Jesus has the power to cleanse, heal and save. And he wants to. But we don’t always know what we need to be cleansed, healed and saved from. And we don’t know when is the best time for that cleansing, healing and saving to come. Sometimes we need to be saved from ourselves. And sometimes experiencing a storm is the only way that that saving, cleansing and healing can happen. Sometimes it takes a storm to bring us to the end of ourselves. Sometimes it takes a storm to move us to grab a tighter hold on the Saviour who is already carrying us.
One way of talking about these things is to think of human beings as having a solid self and a pseudo self. The solid self is those core beliefs which you absolutely will not violate. Those are the things that you truly believe. Then we have a pseudo self. That is the part of our being that is flexible and if our beliefs are located here then they will change depending on the environment we are in. When I was living in Alberta, they used to say that a lot of people in Calgary would suffer from broken knees from jumping off and on the bandwagon as Flames fans. That would never happen here. But I ask you, where was their support located: in their pseudo self or in their solid self. In their pseudo self.
Now when a person does not believe in Jesus, the best thing that could happen to them is for them to trust in Jesus and believe. When a person first believes their faith may be somewhat tentative, it may be that their faith is located in their pseudo self, where it is subject to change based on what is going on around them. Yet they do believe. Faith has moved into their life. But sometimes it takes a storm to make that move happen.
But when your faith is located in your pseudo self, it is always somewhat tentative. This is why we don’t consistently act in accordance with our faith. And a challenge to our faith can result in us tossing it aside.
So when a person already has faith in Jesus, the best thing that could happen to them is that their faith would move from their pseudo self to become part of their solid self. When that happens a person’s faith in Jesus becomes for them one of those core convictions that they absolutely would not violate. But sometimes it takes a storm before that move will happen. Sometimes, we can look back at our own faith journey and see that God allowed a storm to happen so that we can grow in our faith.
It was during the seasons of Lent and Easter that Brandon was diagnosed with depression. And the significance of that timing was not lost on me. For our Risen Saviour Jesus Christ has given us a new future! It is described for us in Revelation 21: 1 Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,”for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:1-4)
This church is a group of people who are moving together towards the promised future. Our hope is not in an improvement in our temporal, individual circumstances, though we give thanks to God when that happens. Our hope is in the day of resurrection when all of creation will be cleansed, healed and saved from its bondage to sin, death and decay. That what Jesus has started with his resurrection from the dead. And one day, he will bring it to fulfillment. He wants to. And he is able. Amen.
(shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church, Langley BC on 11 March 2012.)
 Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church \(New York: Doubleday, 2001), 68