Glynn Cardy 21st August 2022
When I was a child, I spent many happy days staying with my grandparents in Westmere. They had a big property with lots of trees and a large vegetable garden. They didn’t have much money, my grandfather carried wounds in his body and mind from World War I. But they had the wealth of time.
My grandmother often sat, each afternoon, on the divan in the dining room, close to the window for light, with a pile of garments beside her, and a cup of strong tea to sustain her. There she would do the mending. She’d sew, patch, and darn, with a thimble or two on her fingers. And as was her nature, she’d love to chat, even to a young boy, as she was doing this.
Mending didn’t seem to be a chore. Didn’t seem to be a bother really. She was relaxed and happy as she went about this work. As I grew older, I noticed that there was often some of my clothes, or my siblings or cousins’ clothes, in that pile of mending.
My grandmother had known significant suffering in her life. Not that you or any visitor or grandchild would know it. She invariably greeted everything and anybody with a smile.
And you would not have thought her particularly religious either. Like most of her generation she went to the local church, though not every Sunday. She never talked about God and faith, even after she knew my inclinations. She wasn’t one to give wise advice either, or insight into the vexed issues of the day. And yet people were drawn to her.
She had an inner contentment, a well-being of the soul, that manifested itself in tea, chat, and custard creams, and could absorb pain and gently mend it. If the spiritual journey of life is like paddling down a great long river, she was a good way down that river.
The Jewish concept of tikkun olam is often thought of as repairing the rips in the fabric of creation, something that God does and we are called to do too. Sewing, stitching, patching, and darning the hurts, frayed edges, conflicts, and tears of the world.
Luke 13:10-17 is something of a parable, the point of which is missed when we simply medicalize the story and diagnose the woman with scoliosis. It might be better instead to think about that heaviness of spirit that bent her over, that forced her to look down rather than up, maybe a spirit of rejection, exclusion, and/or violence. Such a spirit would be in need of restoring, of being set free, of looking up and drinking in the light and sustenance of wellbeing. This healing parable is about mending body, soul, and spirit.
It is also a parabolic story about holiness. The leader of the synagogue rightly criticized Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. Jesus could have met her the day before or the day after. It was no accident that this therapeutic encounter, like others in the tradition, happened on the Sabbath. And the leader of the synagogue could have criticized Jesus for touching her – touching a woman, touching someone stigmatized as sick, infectious. For holiness is about taking time and making space to be apart.
Nowadays we have lost the best of this Sabbath tradition. There is no day of the week we don’t look at our phones or computers, or get in our cars, or cook and clean, or busy ourselves with some form of busyness. We think such restrictions are bad, oppressive even. We think what we do is too important for us to fully stop. We think the river depends on us. We also mistakenly think Jesus disregarded the Sabbath. And the consequences are that we don’t really ever stop and rest and allow the grace of nothingness (‘the still small voice of calm’) to repair our frayed edges and nurture our souls.
So please read the leader of the synagogue as being biblically faithful, rather that being some fundamentalist oppressor of sick women, and indirectly of Jesus.
Then there is the argument ascribed to Jesus. ‘On the Sabbath you untie your animals from the manger inside your house, untethering them so they can go outside and drink. Surely on the Sabbath you can untie this woman and let her drink in freedom and sustenance.’ ‘Surely’, says the unspoken assumption, this woman should be treated at least as well as your animals’. And the logic, and the compassion behind the logic, put his critics to shame.
To paraphrase Isaiah 58, ‘Is this not’, says God, ‘the holiness I want: to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free?’ Jesus too was being biblically faithful.
Unfortunately, this story of the once-was-bent woman, like other stories of the Jesus groups, has come down to us with the overlay of right-versus-wrong. Jesus is right, the synagogue leader is wrong. The Bible is on Jesus’ side.
And in the centuries that followed this grew into a Christianity-is-right-and-Judaism-is-wrong dogma. The Bible supports us, not you. We are biblically faithful; you are biblically unfaithful. And Christian antisemitism grew, infecting mainstream Europe. Ripping with no mending. And God wept.
Today, in our zeal, we often bring the right-versus-wrong rhetoric, the bible is on our side not yours, to many contemporary issues and struggles. It is the rhetoric of people who in paddling down that spiritual river of life are encountering some rapids or rocks, and have not yet come to really know and to trust the river.
For while on one issue our view might be more right, on another our critics may be. The leader of the synagogue might have been a deeply compassionate man who housed a family of Syro-Phoenician refugees and bore the cost of that. He might have been able to teach Jesus a thing or two!
Likewise, when we strive, say for the acceptance and celebration of the leadership and relationships of gay and lesbian members of our Presbyterian Church, let us be mindful those opposed may have something to teach us in a different context, maybe about poverty or racism or commitment.
Oftentimes in our work to see justice and love prevail we have to do something counter-intuitive. We have to let go, stop paddling, and trust the river will take us somewhere good. We have to let go of the notion that we and our work are indispensable to progress, that there will be no forward motion without us doing something. As with the river metaphor, you don’t discard your paddle (your activity), but you don’t have to always use it either. God isn’t reliant on our industry and resolve.
Frederick Buechner, who died this week at age 96, expressed this as letting go and letting God. He writes: “Let go of the dark, which you wrap yourself in like a straitjacket, and let in the light. Stop trying to protect, to rescue, to judge, to manage the lives around you — your children’s lives, the lives of your husband, your wife, your friends — because that is just what you are powerless to do. Remember that the lives of other people are not your business… Even your own life is not your business…. Leave it to God.”
As you know I don’t ascribe to a notion of God as a being who controls the universe and our lives, but instead a notion of God as an energy, a flow, a movement of compassion and mutuality. So, for me, letting go is about trusting that flow. In a new blessing I’m working on, I express it like this:
who have met their fears and are slowly accepting them,
realising that life, love, and loss are all gifts intertwined,
fellow travellers, inseparable companions on their journey.
They are paddling with the river, rounding the bends.
Blessed be those with the wisdom to let moments unfold,
without planning, making, and guiding things to happen,
who have the courage to let life meet them and teach them,
rather than telling life when and what it can and can’t do.
They are paddling with the river, rounding the bends.
Or in Buechner’s words, “Go where your best prayers take you. Unclench the fists of your spirit and take it easy. Breathe deep of the glad air and live one day at a time. Know that you are precious.”
Inner contentment, that wellbeing of the soul, is nurtured and sustained by these currents of holding on to the knowledge that you, indeed everyone, including those who you think of as ‘enemy’, are precious, and have gifts (even if they are hard to see). The current that life itself is a gift, a grace, and unfolds as we litter our lives with thanksgiving and smiles.
And this inner contentment is nurtured and sustained by the currents of letting go of worry, anxieties, fears, of needing to control our lives and the business of others, and the mistaken belief that what we do is vital for the wellbeing of the world, or even our little patch of it. Letting go is hard to get our head and heart around.
These disciplines of holding on and of letting go are the marks of a mature spirituality, of a long-time river voyager, one who knows they haven’t arrived, but trusts the river will take them someplace good.