Sunday, April 09, 2006

Touching the Leper, Revisited

[note: Sorry, I still haven't taken the time to give the treatments of the other two stories from Mark which were going to be included on this post. I got distracted by Palm Sunday and a vacation. I'll post those treatments as soon as I take the time to write them up.]

In a couple of weeks I'll be stepping behind a pulpit again. That doesn't happen as often as it did before I quit professional ministry, but it happens often enough for my taste. This afternoon I started thinking about what I might want to preach on. I keep coming back to the story of Jesus touching and healing the leper in Mark. In my previous post on that story, I asked a couple of questions:

1. Who is your leper?
2. How can you touch them?

Since then I've been wrestling with those questions, while also looking for sermon material. In the midst of that, I remembered a piece that I wrote many, many years ago, before I got into the ministry racket, and long before I left it. It is a simple devotional that I wrote during my first failed attempt at college, called He Did Not Have a Home. I wrote this as a freshman English major at the University of Kentucky, just after I got back from spending a week doing mission work at a homeless shelter, and just before I got kicked out of school for never showing up to class. Here it is:

Most of us feel a Christian duty to help the homeless, and this is good. But, I wonder sometimes about the effects, both on our souls and in the lives we are trying to help, of our execution of this Christian duty.

We tend to treat the homeless as moral objects, or a test. We have a duty to feed them, clothe them, and provide them with shelter. And this is very good. They need these things which we provide, mostly with honest motives. But, we tend to treat them the way that we feel about them, as burdens or moral obligations. Then, we feel good about ourselves, for we have done our duty.

They need more than that. They need love, and they need humanity. They need to be alive, feel alive, and feel loved. They need to feel like they belong, and that they have something of worth to offer. In fact, they need the same things that we need, because there is no "us" and "them". We are all children of the same God, and so we are all family.

There are so many things which we take for granted in everyday life, but perhaps (at least for me) the most crucial of these are conversations. Can you imagine what life would be like without the everyday give and take with our family and friends? But, among the homeless there are people who have literally gone years without anyone truly listening to them as if anything they say might have some worth.

Every man [note: I didn't have any idea about gender inclusive language back then!] has a story, and a need to be validated by having others listen to it and learn from it. So, if we really want to help a homeless man, perhaps this is what we ought to do: listen to him. Talk to him, and with him, as you would with any friend. Dirty your hands with his life, learn from his struggles and, in doing so, struggle with him.

We should remember, whenever we look into the face of someone who is homeless, that we are, in fact, looking into the face of Jesus. He too did not have a home.

Shortly after I wrote this devotional/meditation my best friend Travis and I decided to take the main point in it seriously. On UK's campus is an excellent greasy spoon, Tolly Ho. The perfect college hang out. But it is right by an area of town where many homeless people congregate. We'd often go to Tolly Ho late at night (our first real taste of freedom, after all), and have to pass the assortment of homeless people on our way there. They'd often ask us for money. Sometime's we'd given them some, sometimes we wouldn't.

Handing out money on the street was a morally troubling issue for us. On the one hand we felt called to help. On the other hand, many people find themselves homeless because their lives have been ripped apart by addictions of one sort or another. Giving cash to an addict just helps feed the addiction.

Then it hit us: these people didn't need our money, and we didn't have much of that to give them anyway. They needed us to affirm their basic humanity. But how could we do that?

We decided that every time we went to eat at Tolly Ho, we would ask a homeless person to join us. Many of them were suspicious. Two college kids asking them out for dinner. What game were they playing? If our parents had found out, they would have probably killed us. But for as long as we had enough money to spend on milkshakes and onion rings late at night, we had enough money to share those milkshakes and onion rings with people who hadn't had a humanizing experience in a long time.

Each time we took someone out to eat at the Ho, we'd ask them questions about their life, and listen to them tell stories. It could be awkward at first, but as soon as they realized we were trying to get them to join a cult or anything, they'd relax, open up, and keep us on the edge of our seats for at least an hour. Many of them simply loved to tell stories. I wonder how long it had been since they'd sat in a diner relaying the sad but often comical story of their life to such idealistic kids.

Reality inevitably set in. We couldn't keep that up forever. We didn't have much money, and most of the people who knew what we were doing thought we were crazy. I flunked out of college. Travis dropped out, got married, joined the Marines, and had a lifetime's worth of heartbreak in just a couple of years.

We're different people now. But at least for a little bit we weren't afraid to touch lepers. And, in touching our lepers, we found that they weren't really lepers at all. We didn't heal them, of course. That's not in our power. We may not have done them any real or lasting good at all. A cheeseburger and a conversation don't often change the entire course of a person's life. But at least while we were touching them, open to and affirming of their basic humanity, they stopped being social lepers, and starting looking like real people, just like you and me.

Of course, they were people even when we weren't touching them. But, until we touched them we hadn't bothered to notice that.


Brian Cubbage said...

I like your take on the "touching the leper" theme. Your point about treating homeless persons as moral objects reminds me of a memorable passage from St. John of the Cross' _Dark Night of the Soul_, in which he diagnoses spiritual pride as the greatest barrier standing in between spiritually "advanced" persons and God. I think that that's absolutely true, and I think that you raise a similar issue here.

Your story of taking people out to eat at Tolly Ho is great. I've always struggled to find words adequate to express the theological significance of the kind of "humanizing experience" you mention.

My own inchoate attempt at talking about this is to observe that many of us, myself included, have a hard time believing that God is with everyone, everywhere, all the time. God might not approve of everything that happens and everything that people do, but God is still there in the happenings and the actions. It becomes hard to believe that God is there when people fall on hard times, when people are in the throes of addiction, and other similar cases. It's probably hardest of all to believe for those who are directly involved.

By "being there" I mean something far more intimate than simply saying that God exists. A lot of people would be prepared to tell a homeless person or a junky that God is there-- by which they would mean over there, not where you are; go over to where God is and away from where you currently stand. That might be true, in a sense. But there is a sense in which God is also where they are, in the cold night under the interstate overpass or in the junky's needle of superheated smack. Again, I don't think that God wants us to suffer cold, exposed nights or terrible addictions; but when we do, it's not as if God is standing on the other side of the universe, arms crossed and frowning. Not the God I worship, at any rate.

I think Jesus touching the leper is something like that. Of course, Jesus isn't the leper; but God is with the leper, and if we are prepared to confess that Jesus is, after all, God (in a way), then Jesus's reaching out to touch the leper symbolizes a much deeper connection.

As if this weren't mystical enough, I think that since God is there, we are in a sense there, too. So at some level any answer to the question of "Who is your leper?" ultimately has to end with the confession "I am my own leper."

I don't know if any of this makes much sense. As I said, I've found it hard to come up with a vocabulary adequate to the experiences I've had that lie in back of what I'm saying. I know that my last remark in the previous paragraph verges on touchy-feely "Hug your inner child" territory. I take touchy-feeliness as a category, though, to consist largely of things that are ersatz versions of spiritual realities.

Sandalstraps said...


You are not the first person to connect the leper to the self since I wrote that, so maybe your notion makes more intuitive sense than you think it does. I was refering to an external leper, but perhaps it also works for the internal leper, the leper within.

This is particularly true if we see our sinful condition as primarily one of alienation from self. By that I mean that when we are in our sinful condition we are not only alientated from God (as sin is, at least by my definition, a condition of alienation from God which leads to the sorts of behaviors which we identify as sinful or sins) but we are also alienated from who God made us to be, that is our very own self.

Here, though, my ability to use the metaphor breaks down.

As for your notion of God being with everyone (despite our inability to believe that), Madeleine L'Engle once wrote something very powerful on that subject. I wish I could remember which book it was in. Anyway, as I remember the story, she was working with the "Jesus prayer," a contemplative prayer which uses breathing and a mantra. It was the same prayer used in the anonymous mystical work from the Russian Orthodox tradition, The Way of the Pilgrim.

She would use this prayer while she took walks through the city. As she did this, she realized that if God were truly with everyone, and if Jesus were truly the incarnation of God, then for her she would have to be able to see in some way the face of Jesus in the face of whomever she looked at while taking her walk and praying her prayer.

Just as she had that realization, she looked up to see a wino beating a dog with his empty bottle. Then she realized that she would have to be able to see Jesus in the face of that man, for God must be no less present with him than with anyone else. It challenged her to seek out his innate humanity, and as such his connection to divinity.

I had forgotten that story until I read your comment. Now I'll have to find it again!

crystal said...

We may not have done them any real or lasting good at all. A cheeseburger and a conversation don't often change the entire course of a person's life.

But being accepted, even for a while, can affect a person's self image, their ability to hope, their ideas about others, I think.

I read a homily once that discussed the difference between being loved and being liked, and how important the latter was to others. I think you and your friend may have "liked" those homless people into a bit of healing.

Sandalstraps said...

Not to sound too falsely humble and/or pious, but any healing which may have happened had little to do with our efforts, and much to do with the grace of God.

I've been hesitant to share that story in the past because it reads too much like a self-haggiography. We were just too stupid to know we weren't supposed to do stuff like that. I can't pretend to know how the people we took out to dinner were impacted by that single meal, but I hope that it made at least a little bit of difference in their lives. I know it made a difference in mine.

In the post I forgot to say what happened before I wrote the devotional/meditation on the humanity of homelessness, which probably led to both it and the dinners. While I was on the mission trip to the homeless shelter mentioned in the post (which was also a faith-based treatment program for various kinds of addiction) I was challenged by a resident in a game of chess. An arrogant kid, I thought I'd wipe the board with this "bum." He, of course, beat me soundly. He'd once been a great chess player.

It did me good to realize that we're all human.