13 Mar Helping God in a Time of Distress
In the past few days, the distress which comes with this pandemic has come to our country. Major social events have been cancelled or postponed. The stock market is in dramatic downfall. Our routines are being impacted. There is the fear which comes with uncertainty and change. For many, there will be loss of health, income, and for others even loss of life. You might feel the constriction of fear in yourself and see its signs in others. We wonder if we will have what we need to get through the next weeks and months. We wonder if the shutdown and failure of systems which we see in Italy will happen here. There is understandable concern, and with it, fear.
I felt some of this distress this week, during our weekly Wednesday contemplative gathering. We discussed the possibility of meeting virtually for spiritual practice and for worship. How do we care for one another and for our own spiritual wellbeing as our spiritual routines are under threat? During this uncertain time, we will need our connection to God and to one another more than ever. Yet, coming together physically could be damaging to ourselves or to others. As I listen to people’s concerns, I find my own hidden needs coming to my attention as well. The need to help and to assure. Feelings of inadequacy and powerlessness arise. Fear also is in me, if I am honest with myself. How do I fulfill God’s call to respond and to lead in the role I have been given?
Each morning, I wake early and engage in spiritual practices with the intention of listening to God. I am reading through Matthew’s Gospel as part of my Lenten practice–slowly and prayerfully. This morning I read, meditated and prayed with Matthew 8:5-13. In the passage, Jesus is approached by a Roman centurion who is concerned about his servant who is paralyzed and “in terrible distress.”
We know that when we are in a state of fear, that our neural biology automatically acts to put us into a reaction of fight, flight or freeze. Was the centurion’s servant’s paralysis a reaction of some deep fear? How many among us are coming under a similar grip of fear and its accompanying paralysis as this crisis unfolds?
Our image of centurions is one of stoicism and toughness. Accustomed as they are to seeing people injured or killed in battle, they are not known for being exemplars of empathy and compassion. Yet, this centurion is both. He is concerned for his servant, enough to approach a healer from the people his army works to keep subjected under his own. Why is this Roman centurion so concerned about this servant? Why does he take such extraordinary steps to find healing for him–a mere servant? Why does he, a man of authority and power, humble himself enough to approach a Jewish healer? How against the script of his culture and position he goes! He risks his reputation with his show of compassion. He steps out of the usual energetic field of self-concern into a field of vulnerability and compassion, initiating a remarkable series of events.
Jesus is taken aback by what he sees in this centurion. Matthew says that he was amazed. Amazed, not as Jesus usually is in the Gospels by human hard-heartedness and lack of faith, but at this centurion’s open-heartedness and humble trust. It is such a departure from the usual that the unthinkable now becomes thinkable. A new way of being human, by being demonstrated in this centurion, also becomes possible for others. Of course, this new way of being human is the whole point of Jesus’ ministry, but most of the time, he is swimming alone against the tide of human expectation as he proclaims and incarnates this new way. The centurion’s alignment with this same vision unleashes Jesus’ own deepest passion for God’s will for us.
Inspired by the centurion’s actions, he proclaims, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus is not talking about a time when a new religion which will be called Christian will supersede his own Jewish religion. He is envisioning something much more profound. He is seeing the possibility of a new humanity. It is one marked by the priority of compassion over self-concern. It will not be accessed through accidents of birth and background, but through a fundamental change of heart. The incredible news is that this access is given to everyone!
This access is still available today, in this moment of distress. As markets crash and uncertainty spreads, our bodies will constrict with fear, moving into the variants of fight, flight or freeze, or a combination thereof. The possibility before us is to access another field of energy, one demonstrated by the centurion, the field of compassion.
No doubt, God is with us in this uncertain moment, working to help us in our distress. But what is our role in this moment? God was working in and through Jesus for the birth of a new humanity before the centurion showed up in Jesus’ presence. But clearly, the centurion’s heart and faith made a dramatic impact upon Jesus. The centurion’s inner life created a new field of possibility in which Jesus rejoiced. Which leads to the question of whether our own inner work against the energies of constriction might be of help, inspiration even, to the divine field which is always at work among us.
Of course, it is good for us to take precautions and to listen to information about how we might prevent the spread of this virus and take care of ourselves and those we love. Yet, there is a larger possibility for us, to align ourselves with God’s own heart of compassion which we access through trust. That is my commitment in the days ahead. Perhaps God’s healing work is deepened when present-day centurions show up with surprising faith and love.